Drum Up
a Circus:

NoFitState

November 2019
NoFitState, Cardiff, UK

VISUAL JOURNALISM, ILLUSTRATION
STORYTELLING PERFORMANCE
CIRCUS, INTERNATIONAL COLLABORATION


INTERNATIONAL ARTS

The Project

Juggling, Drumming, and Song

We were approached by Cardiff-based NoFitState Circus with the proposition of travelling to Rwanda to be official reportage illustrators for a week of research and development as part of a new international collaboration project. This project involved two performance companies from different regions of Africa: Circus Zambia, a youthful and vibrant social circus company that equips young people from vulnerable backgrounds in and around the township of Lusaka, with circus and life skills; and Ingoma Nshya, the first ever female drumming group in Rwanda, whose work pairs the development of the Rwandan woman they work with to the development of traditional drumming culture, while striving to correct persisting gender imbalances.

And, of course, we said yes to such an opportunity.
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 involved were making, it all helped record in a vivid, multi-layered way the elements that would have otherwise been missed with only one pair of eyes on the ground. To NoFitState, photography could only do so much.

As we often have to capture poses, actions and ideas that happen within seconds, reportage illustration allows a reporter to focus on what really matters by getting rid of unnecessary details. For example, during the exploration, 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. A different group doing the same thing would have led to a different collection of drawings.
Cultural Witnessing

If we allow ourselves a moment to be more introspective about this type of work, then we can talk about another aspect that comes with the difficult territory of reportage illustration. Of course, when we’re 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 of exactly what they needed a record of. However, this doesn’t completely delete 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 keep it all in order. Sometimes a great scene is witnessed, but something equally amazing happens soon after.

We must keep the first moment fresh in our mind, as we draw the more immediate thing happening in front of us, and then go back to the previous. Scribble a note in the corner. Add text to bring some more abstract dimensionality to an otherwise loose collection of lines in the vague shape of a human. Thought of 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 result we are all happy with. 

This collection of 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. For Cooked Illustrations and Ian Cooke-Tapia specifically, they are a seed for a new tree to grow. What shape that’ll take, we’re still imagining.

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