30 Dec 2013

Molly Crabapple – causing mayhem with words and pictures

When I first met Molly Crabapple she was being described as “Occupy’s greatest artist”.

She lives and works a stone’s throw from Wall Street, and when the Zucotti Park protest started, in 2011, she went down there and began drawing the people involved.

Those drawings became instant posters, plastered across the streets of New York. And soon her apartment – whose key texture is oil paint – was full of earnest young people, simultaneously plotting the overthrow of the banksters and the creation of business startups.

On the first anniversary of Occupy she created another piece of protest iconography by getting arrested, in typically photogenic style.


But what does an Occupy artist do once the protest dies back?

For Ms Crabapple – born Jennifer Caban in Queens, New York – the answer was: head for Guantanamo Bay.

Travelling twice under the steady eye of the US military that runs the base, she began drawing the inmates on hunger strike, the trial of Khaled Sheikh Mohamed – the 9/11 mastermind who attacked her native city – and the mundane weirdness of a place whose gift shop (there is a gift shop) sells T-shirts with the slogan “It Don’t GITMO Better Than This!”

The result was two long features for Vice: she documented not only the absurdities and cruelties of Guantanamo, but the censorship regime which saw officers sticking labels over faces she’d drawn.

Even the prisoners’ memories of rendition, she was told, are “contraband”: a danger to the state and not allowed. The words and pictures together have created a new kind of journalism, which goes beyond the two main timbres in the USA right now: shouty conservatism and unreflective lefty critique.

In April 2013, Ms Crabapple launched a sell-out solo exhibition in New York of nine massive altarpiece paintings – think Breugel crossed with a feminist Robert Crumb – depicting the social unrest that gripped Europe, America and the Arab world.

Eschewing the “white-walled gallery” scene, which she despises, she hired the space herself, sold the paintings direct, raised $64,000 on Kickstarter, and managed to populate the launch party with such global luminaries as Salman Rushdie and the porn actress Stoya (do not Google Stoya).

Her latest project was to draw Syrian refugees in Bekaa and Beirut, telling the story of the gay men who’d fled Damascus as the war turned society against them.

Even in the short space between Occupy and today, her work has undergone a transformation, taking her from obscure left websites to the pages of the New York Times.

It’s an even bigger transformation when you realise her first claim to fame was as in-house artist for the elite and decadent Box club, and as a nude photographic model.

In the 1960s, at the height of gonzo journalism, Ralph Steadman and Hunter S Thompson teamed up to see how much mayhem words and pictures could cause together.

Today Ms Crabapple is capable of causing mayhem with words and pictures on her own.

For her work in Guantanamo she was shortlisted for the prestigious Frontline print journalism award – traditionally the preserve of  grizzled male, conflict-zone reporters.

For me, her work has that rare quality for a young journalist: not just commitment but the unflinching gaze, including at herself.

Of the five essays she’s posted on her website to mark the highlights of 2013, one is entitled Talking About My Abortion, which starts out painful and gets more so.

Another, about Frida Kahlo, ends with the counter-intuitive demand for more men to start painting like Frida, and more women to start painting like Diego Rivera.

I’ve nominated Molly for the Channel 4 News movers and shakers of 2013 not just because she is a kick-ass writer and in-your-face artistic rebel, but because she does something rare in journalism.

She gets up, goes to a place where a story is happening, sees it and tells it in a new way. And annoys the heck out of the PR guys – whether they work for Hizbollah or Guantanamo Bay.

For more on Molly Crabapple and the other winners, losers and influencers of 2013, visit the Channel 4 News big fat graphic of the year

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