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Pick Me Up Contemporary Graphic Art Fair 2011: Mokita Symposium

A panel of seven men sat down to answer the questions: Is commerce the only real context for illustration? Illustrator as Author, new paradigm or death of the discipline? and Do we need a theory of illustration? But what I wanted to know was: where were all the women in this discussion?

Written by Amelia Gregory

Mokita by Catherine Askew.

Mokita was billed as a chance to discuss the role of illustration today and specifically what it means to be an illustrator, and how that definition is changing. Compared with fine art the applied art discipline of illustration is indeed under-critiqued, so I was keen to take part in the discussion and hear what others have to say. Convened by illustration lecturers Geoff Grandfield, Roderick Mills and Darryl Clifton, from departments at Kingston University, Brighton University and Camberwell College of the Arts, this was destined to have a highly theoretical flavour. We were presented with a lovingly put together booklet on arrival in the bowels of Somerset House, but then, really, would you expect anything less?! Inside it politely asked that shy audience members should text questions to the panel – a nice touch.

Adrian Shaughnessy by Harriet Fox
Adrian Shaughnessy by Harriet Fox.

Proceedings kicked off with an introduction from Adrian Shaughnessy, who describes himself as a self-taught graphic designer. He co-founded Varoom, writes for numerous publications and is now a visiting professor at the RCA. Mokita is a Papua New Guinean word that means “the truth we do not talk about” and as Adrian said, “the subject never gets discussed, it’s as if illustration has a permanent Mokita moment.” How often do illustrators discuss what they actually do? As Darryl would later state, there are no textbooks on the subject: instead you’re more likely to discover books on how to airbrush, or more recently, how to photoshop. Adrian described how graphic designers can hide behind typefaces, layout and rules, whilst illustrators must reveal themselves, appearing naked from the get-go. Interestingly, all of his recent students at the RCA have chosen to work on projects for social good, an area which he believes is becoming increasingly important. We were assured that this would not be a whinging session, though “most commissioners are mean as hell, blind and defective” – I do hope I don’t fall into this category.

Mokita 2011-booklet

Next up Darryl Clifton raised the idea that commerce is not the only context for illustration – a hypothesis that I would have thought was pretty obvious. But I think that what he was really getting at is that where once illustrators relied on relatively expensive technology nowadays it is now possible to disseminate images cheaply without the aid of large corporations – through zines and online for example. Both he and Geoff were keen to emphasise that the discipline of illustration gives a good visual education for life: an illustrator must learn to construct a rich inner world, interpret ideas, experiment and problem solve: all transferable skills even if there is no obvious job market for a graduating illustrator.

James Jarvis gave an intriguing talk about how he sees himself as an illustrator in the context of the commercial world, which included the intriguing fact that he prefers to call himself a graphic artist because it encompasses a wider range of possibility (witness the subtitle of Pick Me Up) You can read a summary of this talk on this blog.

Roderick Mills by Harriet Fox
Roderick Mills by Harriet Fox.

We then moved onto a debate on ‘self-authorship’ between Roderick Mills and Peepshow illustrator and former Amelia’s Magazine contributor Luke Best. I found Illustrator as Author, new paradigm or death of a discipline? a confusing and circuitous conversation. As Luke rightly pointed out, the illustrator as author is not a new concept. Some people seemed particularly riled by the success of the Four Corners Books, which famously works with fine artists rather than illustrators to re-imagine famous texts, including Vanity Fair (my boyfriend has a copy, it is very beautiful) and Dracula.

Mokita by Catherine Askew.

I think the main issue is that illustrators would ideally like to be accorded the same amount of responsibility for interpretation of a story or idea – something which is clearly the case in the Four Corners projects. As a member of the audience pointed out, the best thing would be if a dual voice spoke to the reader: an eloquent marriage of equal weight – as is afforded the soundtrack for the movie Taxi Driver.

Vanity Fair published by Four Corners. Illustrations by Donald Urquhart
Vanity Fair published by Four Corners. Illustrations by Donald Urquhart.

Adrian told us that American illustrator Brad Holland was famously asked to illustrate for Playboy, which not only offers an amazing shop window but pays well too – yet he refused to do so unless he had the same brief to work from as the author. Periodically we returned to the theme of illustrator as mediator for ideas about social engagement: and it was pointed out that this has a long long history.

Norman Rockwell - Christmas Homecoming, 1948
Norman Rockwell – Christmas Homecoming, 1948.

Geoff Grandfield then led us on a whistlestop tour of the Theory of Illustration, which was a potted history of its use across the years, from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, via illuminated manuscripts, William Blake’s Line of Beauty and on to the propaganda images of Norman Rockwell. Throughout time the role of illustration has been to act as a visual memory, inform us of abstract ideas and critique personal, social and political relationships across language boundaries. Illustration has an especially important role in the development of children, for whom characters are invented to communicate all sorts of ideas.

Children by Quentin Blake.

In a perfect world there is a symbiotic relationship between author and image maker – just think of Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake – its often hard to separate their visions. The most recent incarnation of illustration rose in popularity alongside the rise of print media from the 1950s onwards. There followed a discussion with Sam Arthur, one of the founding members of Nobrow Press, who was drafted in to replace Simone Lia at the last moment. You can read about this conversation in my separate blog.

Mokita by Catherine Askew
Mokita by Catherine Askew.

We finished off the day with a panel discussion: Do we need a theory of illustration? Again, a bit of a confusing title given that we’d just had a potted guide. For this all six men sat in a row at the front of the room, with Adrian adjudicating from the side. It was postulated that illustration needs a structure to become a transformational experience that will allow illustrators to engage with ideas outside themselves. I think that’s over-complicating the matter – most illustrators work intuitively and that’s the very beauty of their drawings – as Darryl said, the very diffuseness of the topic may be a benefit, allowing the idea of what illustration is to remain malleable.

Mokita 2011-James Jarvis
One of the more minimal pieces by James Jarvis.

After an audience member introduced himself as happy to say he was an illustrator James Jarvis conceded that he might actually be happy to call himself an illustrator again too. “The trouble is that you feel like you are at the bottom of the pile as an illustrator… but it’s not important what I call myself anyway, I change my ideas all the time.” It was mentioned that often an illustration degree is the last place to teach really good drawing skills, but Geoff and Darryl feel that the subject still needs greater structural depth. I think maybe there’s a book that needs to be written, and who better to work on it than these two? Sam counteracted that it shouldn’t really be necessary to know where it comes from… “shouldn’t the work do the talking?” which I have to say is my opinion too. No amount of theoretical framework is going to ensure a good illustration alone, though it may well be helpful in an illustrator understanding their place and method of working within a historical context.

Mokita 2011-sketching

In the past five years the popularity of illustration has grown exponentially, mainly because of the huge amount of self-initiated work now available online – something which worries Roderick Mills. He feels that illustrators should be careful how they represent themselves, self-editing way more before posting work online. Because illustrators are always evolving, even when they graduate, they should ensure there is enough time for self-reflection or we run the risk of being “paralysed by vacuous images with which we have no attachment.” Yes, by all means be careful what you represent in a proper online portfolio and in mailouts but this isn’t an opinion I agree with – I think it’s brilliant that illustrators put their work online, especially on blogs, where it’s possible to see the development of their work over time, a very exciting thing to watch.

Mokita by Catherine Askew
Mokita by Catherine Askew.

As the symposium drew to a close Geofrey Zeel asked why there were no women on the panel. Then, to my absolute delight, two other women commented, saying “maybe because we’re not at the pub with you?” and “it feels like a boys’ club” – both phrases that I had been thinking myself (Geoff admitted that Mokita came about via conversations in the pub) and intended to write in this piece. To disbelieving gasps from the audience Roderick stated that “maybe it’s the male ego, more outward going”. Geoff assured everyone that he had tried his hardest to get more females on the board. This isn’t strictly true – I volunteered to take part but when Simone Lia dropped out they asked Nobrow to join the panel. I love Nobrow’s work but given the lack of women and the fact that most of my work is based on the power of illustration to inspire social change I think that was a pretty weird decision. I do think it’s shocking that more was not done to address what was a totally male representation of a subject that is made up of more than 50% female practitioners.

Mokita by Paper Peggy
Mokita by Paper Peggy.

The first Mokita symposium was an interesting starting place but I feel it could be so much more: the audience was predominantly students (all busily sketching away) and lecturers, and it would have been nice to feel that practitioners too were present and welcome as well as other interested parties, and that more discussions could have been had in smaller groups, especially when it came to some of the more nebulous topics that went around in circles – to which surely the audience (whom were mostly silent apart from a vocal few) would have been able to contribute just as much as those up front.

I also felt that hardly anything was done to address the rise of illustration on the internet – perhaps because some of those running the conference have very narrow profiles online and don’t engage with it much themselves. Here’s hoping that the next Mokita will be bigger, more interactive, more ambitious and open in its scope…. and led in tandem with some inspiring women from the field.

Mokita 2011-Valerie Perezon
Valerie Perezon.

You can read another blog about this event here: by former Amelia’s Magazine art editor Valerie Perezon, who like me was perturbed by the lack of females present.

You can read my review of Pick Me Up here, it’s open until Sunday 27th March.


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2 Responses to “Pick Me Up Contemporary Graphic Art Fair 2011: Mokita Symposium”

  1. Alice says:

    I like your suggestion of breaking into smaller groups during academic-ish talks! So many times I feel like I’m itching to say things but am too scared of embarrassing myself… and discussion tends to end up as very few, generally arrogant/boring/long-winded people, where we could be having exciting mini-discussions. Incidentally I also find that a female (even one!) on the panel generally encourages me to to speak up as well… your article is very constructive :)

  2. Amelia says:

    Thanks Alice! I try to be constructive where possible!

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