Interview with Innosanto Nagara, Featured Artist for the APAture 2017 Book Arts Showcase.
The September 30 opening for APAture 2017: Unravel is on its way to amplify the voices of local and emerging APA artists in the Bay Area. This year’s theme, Unravel, examines our stories, hxstories, narratives, and beliefs, leading us to these questions: What are the interconnected threads we wish to investigate and untangle? What is there to discover when we unravel?
We couldn't help but ask our six Featured Artists to unravel a bit about their experiences and inspirations before the festival. First up is Innosanto Nagara, Featured Artist for the Book Arts Showcase! Read about Innosanto's experience as an activist, graphic artist and children's book storyteller:
What kind of art influences and inspires you to make the work that you make?
Good question. I don’t feel I seek out any art in particular. But I suppose I mostly look at various forms of political graphics—posters, street art, subvertising… that sort of thing. But also whatever is out there in the world right now. A lot of what I see us doing at Design Action Collective is finding and adapting the most appropriate format for the message at the moment. I don’t approach this work as an “artist” who is committed to personal expression or creating new design trends. Our work is to adopt the visual language that people already speak, and use it to communicate ideas that move people to action on behalf of the Movement.
That being said, the children’s books I illustrate are on a slightly different path from that. I chose a particular style when I did A is for Activist, and most of my books since then have been in that style. In part because it’s something of a “signature” that has proven itself as appealing for both small children and the grownups who read them their books. But also because I find not thinking too much about “style” allows me to focus storytelling.
How do you navigate or understand your own experiences in Indonesia and make it accessible for youth?
I’m not sure what there is to navigate. It’s what I know, and I write what I know. The stories I write start as just what I tell my child about my life experiences. But as books for other children, I then weave in histories, lessons, and philosophies that are actually interesting and (hopefully) important for them too.
Since I’m writing for an audience that most likely knows nothing about Indonesia, I do have to provide context. But these are children’s books, not textbooks, so the story comes first. Where I share “information”, I make sure to find a way to do it that is not just about listing factoids about Indonesia for kids to memorize—but that there is a more universal way kids can relate to it.
What were you like as a child and when did you start thinking about being an activist?
I guess I was pretty gregarious as a kid. My father was a dissident poet playwright, and my mother was a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements in the United States. Indonesia in the 70s was a heady time for Indonesian artists and activists alike. So I grew up surrounded by people who were politically engaged, and I just sort of always assumed that that was what one did when they grew up. My parents actually discouraged me from getting involved in political confrontations in Indonesia as a teenager. In part because my father was a public figure and was already on thin ice, so what I did could jeopardize his work. But also because into the 80s the regime was at the height of its repressiveness, and most progressive activists were in hunker-down mode. I was involved in outdoor adventure type activities that tended to track with environmental/conservationist movements. But I didn’t get directly involved in activism until I moved to the U.S. for college.
There too, I kept with environmental activism until the First Gulf war. I had been back in Indonesia visiting my family and friends in late 1990, during the buildup (Operation Desert Shield). It was very clear from the Indonesian vantage point that the world was against the U.S. invasion. So as soon as I returned to America I started going to the demonstrations, and got involved in student organizing in opposition to the war at UC Davis.
Organizing against the war led to organizing around campus military ties, nuclear testing, university fee hikes, ethnic and gender studies, and… the rest, as they say, is history.
How do you see the role of visual and graphic arts in resistance?
Humans are visual animals. I must first recognize that not everyone is sighted. But those of us who are, respond to, process, and are influenced by visual information is in ways that other modalities cannot compete with. I do think there is always a need for deep studies of history and philosophy, and well thought through policy proposals. Nor does graphics work substitute for boots on the ground people-to-people organizing. But like it or not, people do judge books by their covers, and so in the “battle for hearts and minds” those of us who work in visuals have a part to play.
Corporations spend tens of billions of dollars a year on advertising—much of that is using visual communications to convince people to spend money on things they don’t need, and propping up Capitalist class interests and ideology on its behalf. Corporations spend that money because it works. Otherwise they wouldn’t.
The good news is, they have to spend all that money because they are pushing a boulder uphill. It takes more effort to get people to go against their own interests, en masse. So our job is to get that boulder rolling the other way, which we believe we can do for a fraction of their costs and efforts.
So that’s what I see our role as: Helping release that boulder.
What are three words that can be used to describe what you are unraveling in the work you’ll present at APAture?
Children’s Books on Agency (okay, that’s technically four)
Meet Innosanto in person, read his books and learn more about his work at the Book Arts Showcase on Sunday, October 15, 1-4PM at Arc Gallery!