The Power of Drawing: PechaKucha PJ vol. 10

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, 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, 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.

Thank you.

In Search of Stories: LGAL Iceland Residency 2019, Team Minke

Originally posted on Patreon.

I’ve been thinking a lot about story.

It was Iceland—the conversations and being around people who care deeply about story, whose work revolves around telling stories—that sparked this. As we clambered up precarious paths to secret waterfalls and sped along seaside roads, I wondered: what am I searching for in stories? Why do they hold so much power and meaning?

We spoke about stories in the evening workshops. Some of us tell stories to mend the holes we find in the fabric of the world, to do something—anything—to keep the encroaching darkness at bay. Some of us tell stories so that we may share ourselves with the world—and thus discover a little of what makes us tick. Some of us see story as a way to find and build community, through shared experiences and laughter. We acknowledge the power of the specific story, of many stories over one, and long to see more diverse tales blossoming in the industries and genres we work in.

We grew up with stories: folktales, space operas, Ghibli, Tolkien, Lewis, Avatar: The Last Airbender, alternate realities, video games, dystopia, utopia, fantasy. These stories shaped how we saw the world and guided our growth, sowed the seeds of artistic careers, offered a mirror, opened a door to new cultures, became a safe space to retreat to.

(I think of friends elsewhere in the world: S and her love of Pratchett’s work, of J speaking about Eowyn, of L and Murderbot, M showing pages of Witch Hat Atelier to a spellbound audience. I think of myself sobbing at the news of Le Guin’s passing.)

A story is a great tree under which one may find refuge and nourishment.

A story winds like a stream from the highlands, sometimes a roaring waterfall, sometimes a bubbling brook, meandering through our lives.

A story is an ice fragment floating out to sea.

A story is the picking of bilberries in the cold and their jam filling your belly with warmth.

A story is a vast lumbering cloud perched atop a mountain, formless yet present, enfolding us in its mist.

But is a story ever a story if it is not told or shared?

We talked about the need for face-to-face interactions as a way for people to set aside boundaries, unlearn walls, deconstruct biases, and sit together for a time. We told stories to one another.

A story can be a bridge but only if there is a builder and a walker.

A boat, with a captain and crew.

A home, with folk to dwell within.

(Is that what I’m looking for in stories, then—a home? Is that why I lose myself in the pages of books, the calming tones of podcasts, the frames of a film or the virtual environments of a game?)

Not all stories are easy to tell or share. Some are riddled in pain, dizzying in complexity, clothed in nuance. These are often stories of importance that speak to the underlying conflicts and structures of the world itself. If we could figure out how to tell such stories and move people to action, perhaps we could shift the plates of the world ever so slightly towards the better—or at least, that is the hope. A fool’s hope, as one literary character might say, though he would also work tirelessly to bring it to fruition.

Home and hope. Perhaps that is what I seek in stories, and why I make them.

Notes and links:

  • In the second edition forward to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The danger of a single story

  • Shaun Tan’s interview without words

Mobility support for this trip was provided by the Prince Claus Fund and the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), for which I am grateful.

For information on open calls and grants for cultural exhange, see culture360.