Mark Henson BA Illustration and Visual Media
It can be odd to think that, throughout most of human history, hand-drawn artwork was the most effective means of providing a visual account of the world around us…
Even decades after the advent of photography, some events where still presented to the public through the work of skilled illustrators, namely war artists who consolidated the genre of ‘Reportge Illustration’.
Flash forward to today’s restless visual culture, shaped by a device in our pockets capable fo broadcasting anything to anyone at any moment, and it’s not hard to see how illustration, as a means of reportage, may have fallen a bit out of favour…
However illustration can still offer us a unique perspective in this regard, particularly in contrast to the immediate and ubiquitous means of media generation and consumption we’ve grown accustomed to.
This is what five eager artists and I explored during the Topolski residency in the fall and winter of 2018.
This opportunity was put in place by the living relatives of the great polish reportage artist Feliks Topolski, who made a name for himself in UK after the second world war with his prolific compulsion to sketch current events as they unfolded and publish them as a series of ‘Chronicles’.
In the spirit of reviving his legacy and passing on the torch to new generations, six young artists have been invited to his studio in Waterloo every year since 2013 to produce a new chronicle; this year the flame rested in our hands.
And by flame, I mean pencil. One that wore down quicker than any pencil I’d worn before, as I did my best to keep up with the frantic sketching schedule during the reportage days in various locations around London.
The theme for our Chronicle was centred around London’s ‘Institutions’, exploring them from outside and within.
This included some obvious ‘Big Institutions’, such as Buckingham Palace, where we drew the changing of the guard. I also had the bizarre experience of being swarmed by a group of east-european schoolgirls for whom, it seemed, the sight of a person drawing on location was akin to witnessing the second coming of christ.
Another memorable experience was drawing newborn babies in the maternity ward at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, which actually felt like witnessing a miracle.
Politics where inescapable during the height of uncertainty over Brexit, so we drew at events like the People’s march for the EU in October. In overwhelming public gatherings like this one, or the processions of remembrance day, I resorted to interviewing people on the side, drawing them as we talked, in an attempt to capture smaller stories that could echo the sentiments of the masses.
I had, for instance, a very insightful conversation with a war veteran who proudly whore his uniform and medals, while also condemning the actions of the British empire and current arms trade sponsored by the UK, and insisting that the red poppy should stand for peace.
We where also invited to look beyond conventional notions of what ‘Institutions’ could be.
This was encouraged by interesting juxtapositions, like the day we drew in churches, the prayer room in London’s central mosque, and the unique sanctuary of British culture that is Wetherspoons… somehow, it all came together and made sense.
Not to mention, a few days later, we found ourselves at a queer cabaret night in Vauxhall drawing outrageous drag queens, lewd slapstick and kinky musical acts; which I have no shame in admitting I enjoyed thoroughly.
It wouldn’t require a stretch of the imagination then, to conceive what the conservative christian Nigerian communities in east London would have made of that latter event… A street preacher vigorously yelling from his megaphone “If you are a man who thinks he is a woman, the Holy Spirit will straighten you out!” might serve as a hint…
However, this strong belief system, so easily dismissed in an increasingly progressive society, had me intrigued. In fact, it became the focus of my individual reportage project. Before I knew it, I was being integrated into what most people would call a cult.
To keep things short, I’ll just say it was a fascinating experience during which I did my best to push preconceptions aside and make way for nuances to emerge on the following question: are the beliefs these people hold bringing them closer together or pushing them apart?
I relied on field recordings, testimonies and interviews alongside location drawings to capture my interactions and produce a body of work that could shed a bit of light on this still very open issue.
The project was showcased alongside five other unique contributions by the residents in our group show, also featuring reportage work we produced together throughout the residency and compiled into the chronicle.
It was quite a feeling stepping back and seeing what three months of stepping outside our respective comfort zones had amounted to.
Overall, it was an honour to take part in this collective endeavour pushing forward what I believe to be a valuable artistic cause. It’s important to note that many of the experiences we had where either initiated by the appeal of drawing, or facilitated by it’s discreetness in sensitive environments.
Though reportage illustration has become niche, and is often overlooked, we can now lay claim to many things we got away with, capturing situations and moments that where only possible because of the fact that we held a pencil, not a smartphone or camera, in our hands.
A special thank you to Shana, Natasha, Georgie, Luke, Marta, Laura, Gary, and Theresa for the amazing experience.
I learned a lot from every single one of you.