Art is an act of love and defiance

Phalguni Desai experiences a fangirl moment when she meets the enigmatic Molly Crabapple.

February 14, 2016 05:10 pm | Updated 05:11 pm IST

Molly Crabapple. With her art and words, she has covered Occupy Wallstreet, the atrocities at Guantanamo Bay and Syria. Photo: Special Arrangement

Molly Crabapple. With her art and words, she has covered Occupy Wallstreet, the atrocities at Guantanamo Bay and Syria. Photo: Special Arrangement

The recent lit-fest season has been fantastic for Indian feminism and its interaction with the various facets of feminist theories from across the world: Egyptian Mona Eltahawy returned twice: recently, for the Jaipur Lit Fest. She was here previously, for Tata Lit Live in Mumbai, December, 2015 where a spirited argument broke out between Eltahawy and Australian Germaine Greer, of the second-wave movement. This conversation spilled over to Twitter, as did the fangirls (even the boys) of Margaret Atwood, who graced the Jaipur Fest and numerous articles and status updates about what-Margaret-Atwood-said or OMG-Margaret-Atwood-Shook-My-Hand.

The latest in the line of awesome feminists meeting India is Molly Crabapple, who this writer harassed into meeting over some terrible cold coffee overlooking the terrifying crowds at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. For those just in, Crabapple works as an artist, journalist, writer and champion of those who need to be heard. She’s also as much a Margaret Atwood fangirl as the rest of us. When I meet her, she’s excited about her time in India, a lot of which has already been spent between Delhi, Jaipur and Goa. She’s inspired by the “amazing, intellectually lacerating writers, journalists and activists” she’s met here so far. She’s enthused by the number of people attending literary festivals in India, especially young people, young women, and the on-point questions they ask.

Crabapple has been drawing for as long as she can remember. Her list of affiliations are terribly cool. She’s worked with Shakespeare and Co. in Paris when she was 17. She’s also been a sex worker: a nude model and burlesque dancer, and model for alt-female pin-up art and photography website SuicideGirls. She’s done some fantastic writing and reportage for Rolling Stone , The New York Times , Vanity Fair and VICE . With her art and words, Crabapple has covered Occupy Wallstreet, the atrocities at Guantanamo Bay and Syria. Her work, which is often made available to the public (as it is for the public), has been on the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, capturing faces of the dead, demanding they not be ignored. She’s also outspoken on issues of sex work, the right to arms (she believes we all have a right to protect ourselves) and abortion. The latter was something she couldn’t help but do. Not only was her mother pro-choice, but her own abortion was something Crabapple felt she needed to speak about. She speaks about negotiating feminism as a pregnant woman and of not being able to speak about her own abortion “because smart women don’t get pregnant”. There’s this thought you internalise: “If you’re having an abortion, it’s because you got raped or because you’ve been stupid.” It was in waiting rooms that she found the strength to speak up about it, by acknowledging other women going through similar circumstances. Another taboo she is outspoken about: sex work. She considers everything that actually involves viewing the body sexually as sex work: be it nude modelling, burlesque dancing, stripping, hooking, or being a porn actor. Her time as a nude model and later working at New York’s notorious club, The Box, brought her into the US sex worker community, where she found some of her closest friends. Here, she says something that pleasantly surprises: She speaks of VAMP, a Sangli-based sex-worker collective that has achieved amazing things vis-à-vis health care, AIDS awareness, safety and protection by coming together and demanding their rights. She tells us how VAMP and similar collectives from India are inspiring people in parallel circumstances in the US.

Of course, being pro-choice or pro-sex work or anti-capitalist isn’t always popular in the USA, but then, a lot of Molly’s views aren’t. What is interesting is how she deals with the backlash: very rarely. Most of us engage the Twitter eggs that don’t like our views, Molly simply believes that they’re part of living on the Internet today. Rape threats, death threats, aggression, in the end, it’s mostly some guy living in his parents’ basement. It’s rare that she actually responds, but for that one time last month. She doxxed Emma Quangel (screen handle) in a series of events which included allegations of personal harassment and misrepresentation of the humanitarian crisis in Madaya.

Internet communities remain divided on the dox, but Crabapple has moved on. She’d rather talk about Madaya, than her battle with Quangel. She’d rather talk about the work. She’d rather talk about the atrocities that according to her KGAF talk with author Raghu Karnad, could begin the next world war. Here, she lists a number of causes: Marched into the rising seas by capitalists, or bombed by predator drones or captured by ISIS. She might not be wrong. She’s already been everywhere these crises are taking place, and drawn as much as she could. She’s drawn 9/11 accused Khalid Mohammed Sheikh during his trial at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, as well as Nabil Hadrajab, an unknown man detained and tortured by the USA, despite being cleared for release years ago. Crabapple has used her art to capture the heart of Guantanamo as no photographer could. A lot of the base has restricted access and photography is controlled even further. However, in capturing the heart of the prison, she’s also captured the hypocrisy of the US government. Then you switch on the telly to find Donald Trump saying waterboarding will make America great again.

There is much to say about Crabapple, but it’s best seen through her work online, and in her memoir, Drawing Blood , where we confront the life of someone driven to draw like most of us are driven to breathe. More curiously, we confront a life determined to speak to the world through her art, and to understand how it can help create better worlds. As she concludes Drawing Blood , she says the one thing many artists need to remember: “Art alone cannot change the world… (but) art is hope against cynicism, creation against entropy. To make art is an act of both love and defiance.”

The author is a freelance writer

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