[column] Trailblazers: 20th century illustrators and activism

Trailblazers: 20th century illustrators and activism [ENG]

July 3, 2022 by Emilie Sitzia

Baanbrekers/Trailblazers – Illustratie Ambassade – Renzo Gerritsen

Maastricht University students, UvA students, Gioia Smid, Marlies Visser and I are preparing an exhibition at the Illustration Embassy in Amsterdam that will run from the 5th of October to the 10th of December 2023 in Amsterdam: Trailblazers: 20th century illustrators and activism.

This exhibition celebrates engaged illustration: the kind of illustration that has been frustrated and screaming at the world (very efficiently) for a while.

Just like other art forms, illustration can act as an early warning system for society. Because of its very public nature and instant impact on the viewer, illustration opens up the debate in a different way and engages society at large. It is therefore unsurprising that illustration and activism have a close history. By its very nature, illustration constitutes an alternative discourse, a parallel voice. Images witness, comment, interpret, and open narrative possibilities beyond the standard daily reality. As Johanna Drucker explains, illustrations have the power to unveil existing and sometimes controversial knowledge as well as create new knowledge.1 As such, illustration can be understood as a form of opposition and as a political tool. 

The illustrators we will present had unusual and challenging lives for their time. They were engaged and vocal, clarifying, responding to, and anticipating a range of societal challenges. The exhibition will focus on this exceptional generation of illustrators that were frustrated by the state of the world and engaged themselves around specific issues of their time (all of which are still relevant today). From racial discrimination, political memory, human and animal rights, economic rights, to gender, sexual, social and thinking norms, these illustrators cared and made images to make others care. The exhibition identifies through a number of trailblazers, modes of illustration that facilitate what Message (2017) calls borderwork2, that is transgressive works that overstep political and cultural boundaries and traditional spheres of operation.

This is not a ‘women artists’ exhibition, yet all the artists presented are women (or non-gender conforming). This was born out of frustration. When we first consulted with illustration experts, almost all the names suggested were men, and mostly white men…3 Is the standard for rebellion in illustration solely western and masculine? We think not. But if we are calling it a ‘women artists’ exhibition, we will be, yet again, relegated to the margins. So we are not. We want to recenter the gaze on women artists but not focus on gender. It just so happens that all our trailblazers, screaming at the world are not men.

Come and get inspired by these outstanding individuals and their unique perspectives on past and current issues. To facilitate this back and forth between history and present we have asked contemporary illustrators to respond to these trailblazers. 

Join us this autumn, come and see what illustrated engagement looks like!

1While she uses the term to talk about museums I believe the concept can be equally and fruitfully applied to other cultural practices. Kylie Message (2017) the disobedient museum: writing at the edge; Routledge

2Johanna Drucker, Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production. London: Harvard University Press, 2014.

3We are extremely thankful for the help of a few colleagues that responded and thought with us outside that standard. We are especially thankful to Jaleen Grove for sharing with us her amazing list, we hope it keeps growing.

© Hinook-Mahiwi-Kalinaka – Angel De Cora Dietz