Drawing puts the power to frame the narrative back in your hands. Drawing helps you see the world differently, more intently, more perceptively…
Last month I was invited by Mei Yi, who's the driving force behind the Petaling Jaya chapter of PechaKucha, to speak about drawing to document. PechaKucha is based on a 20 slides, 20 seconds format - so I decided to prepare a carefully-timed script to reference when speaking. The video recording and written script are below.
Thanks to everyone who came and who later expressed how they felt about drawing and art as a tool for making a change in the world. This talk was featured as presentation of the day on PechaKucha.com, which was quite a pleasant surprise. I'm glad to have been in the company of great speakers and friends that night like Ezrena Marwan of Malaysia Design Archive and Zedeck Siew, writer/storyteller extraordinaire.
Good evening everyone - thank you for having me here. My name is Charis. I'm an artist, and my work falls into three categories: I illustrate fiction and fantasy; I illustrate for causes and nonprofits; I use art as a creative tool in education.
Tonight I'd like to talk about drawing. More specifically, drawing to document, to record, and why I think it's important. We begin on a blank page.
The date is 29th August, 2015. I'm standing somewhere in Petaling Street, not too far from here, actually. It's the afternoon, it's hot, and I am drawing as fast as I can in the crowd. This is the first time I've documented an event through drawing.
As I draw, I realise that this is the most I've ever drawn in a day - and that I literally cannot stop. My fingers are buzzing. There is magic in being present, in recording what I'm seeing.
When I get home and upload these to Poskod.my, the reception is beyond what I expected. By focusing on individual moments, I've created something very different from the photographs and videos in the media.
Because when you're drawing, every mark you make is a decision. It's intentional. You get to choose what to focus on - people? Gestures? Buildings? Objects - and what to put down on the page. In short, you have the power to control the narrative.
Fast forward to 2018. It's a year none of us can forget. After my experience documenting Bersih in 2015, I know I need to document the 14th General Elections as well.
So I go to rallies in Penang and Seremban, drawing flags and more flags, technicians behind the scenes, celebrities giving away raffle prizes. This time I work with New Naratif, publishing the sketches and accompanying notes on their online platform.
It's important that the documentation is publicly accessible because it is a contribution to our shared history.
And on a personal level, these elections are the first time I'm able to vote. By documenting my experience this way, I have a permanent, unique record of 9 May 2018 which nobody else can produce. Because a drawing is just that: it's a record of how an artist saw the world. And that perspective is valuable.
Ever since then I've been fortunate to work with various groups and draw to document. Preparing bamboo rice at Kampung Kaloi, near Gua Musang; listening to activists in Chiang Kong, on the Mekong River at the border of Thailand and Laos.
Sometimes you may not realise just how important that documentation is. These are sellers along Jalan Kuala Kangsar at Chowrasta Market in Penang. A year after I drew them, the town council banned stalls from being set up along that road. The market was changed forever.
To the very same market, I bring public school students, teenagers, for illustration workshops. In one of them, we document ergonomics: how people work safely, comfortably, efficiently. (Mr. Abu Bakar here has since passed away)
The students document everything from Auntie Tor's hook to her cart and how she unloads catfish from her lorry on the bay that is just the right height. In the process, they learn to talk to her, to ask questions, to wonder...
See, they are learning to observe closely. To really look. Remember that drawing is first and foremost observation, then making marks. Sometimes the marks don't even matter.
But we don't have to go to protests or distant riverside towns or markets to draw. This is a documentation of the waste I produced in a week. I actually stopped eating snacks because I was tired of drawing their packaging.
Do you know how tedious it is to draw the same packet of Pocky sticks six times? Drawing doesn't just change the way you see the world; it may change how you think and act as well, from the smallest personal acts.
So that's where I'd like to invite you to begin - the personal, the mundane, the intimate. Like writing or reading, learning to draw takes time. I won't say that it's easy. But I will say that it's worth it, that it's necessary, even...
Because drawing builds patience. It's an antidote to our fast-paced capitalist culture that wants you to consume, not create.
Drawing puts the power to frame the narrative back in your hands.
Drawing helps you see the world differently, more intently, more perceptively.
Patience, power, perception. Three great things to have! So I hope you'll join me in drawing to document, as a way to bear witness to the world, to be in the world.