Drum Up A Circus: illustrating creative development in Rwanda

How to draw complexity

Scene on the first day in Huye.

How do you capture the intimate moments of creative energy, and those details that are so easy to miss during an intense week of creative development and performance exploration? Why, you get an on-site illustrator to capture the moments!

Cardiff based NoFitState Circus invited us to travel to Rwanda to be official reportage illustrators for a week of research and development as part of a new international collaboration project involving Circus Zambia, Ingoma Nshya and the titular Welsh performance company.

Our role was not to create any finished illustrations, but to be an external observer of the events on the ground. From the way performers would interact with the drumming material, to angles on a human pyramid that could be translated into a finished project, or even the particular sounds some of the people were making, we helped to record in a vivid, multi-layered way the elements that would have been missed if only one pair of eyes had been used. For NoFitState, photography could only do so much.

This type of on site drawing involves capturing moments that happen within seconds. By taking a reportage illustration methodology that seeks to draw feeling, intent and emotion rather than unnecessary details, we’re able to create simple drawings full of information. For example, during the event, the creative director of the show encouraged the performers to treat their drums as “something other than drums”. This was done in part to break down existing notions and to free up creativity to explore new avenues of creation. 

For us, drawing each individual’s features would have been pointless. What we needed to remember was the surprising ways in which the performers started treating the drums, bringing their own lived experience, creativity, and personality to the floor. 

Of course, when we are tasked with recording, drawing and focusing on what is going on in a room of about 30 people, hard editorial decisions have to be made. We are grateful for ongoing collaboration on the floor with NoFitState’s creative director who constantly reminded us exactly what they needed to be recorded. 

However, this doesn’t negate the fact that it is the illustrator on the floor who has to make hundreds of decisions about what, how and when to draw, and who must keep it all in order. Sometimes a great scene is witnessed, but something equally amazing happens soon after. It becomes an interesting play on memory, where we must keep the first moment fresh in our minds as we capture a second action, and find moments in between a third and a fourth moment to go back and try to draw more information to the first moment. Shorthand is useful here: scribble a note in the corner, add text to bring some more abstract dimensionality to what is otherwise a loose collection of lines in the vague shape of a human.

Thought of in this way, reportage illustration is not that different to juggling.

To surmise, the illustrator on the ground is both editor and witness. And this awareness is what allows Cooked Illustrations to establish closer relationships with a client like NoFitState, ensuring that this is a process of co-creation that leads to a result we are all happy with. 

What happens next?

These drawings are powerful on their own. They tell a story that can be understood without much explanation, and they have become the basis for a funding report and presentation to the funding bodies that support NoFitState Circus.

We’ve collected some of the best drawings in our Portfolio page here.

As of writing, the Drum up a Circus project has come to a close with the production of a short film. You can watch it below.