Ravy Puth


5 years experience

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Ravy Puth is an illustrator and a scholar based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She uses illustration as both a lens and a practice in research-creation to seize the agency of representation and visual narrative. She works for books and awareness campaigns, and studies ways that visual culture and critical race theory intertwine. Born of Cambodian-Teochew parents, her work focuses on memory recollection through the process of re-narrating the archives. Her research project lies at the intersection of race, critical archival studies and media studies, with a specific interest in social movements.. Drawn by the challenge of illuminating hope, she aims to turn strategies of assimilation into tactics to subvert power. Her Master's thesis, which she is undertaking at Concordia University, is about Illustration as tactics for Cambodian-Canadian trauma healing. She dislikes performative inclusion, white tears and the instrumentalization of immigrant bodies for complicit Indigenous colonialism. She likes eating prahok ktis and giving her brain a break with long naps and k-drama.

At what point in your life did you learn about design, and what drew you to it?

Something I realized only recently is that the environment I grew up in tied me to design. Seeing my parents’ hands transforming things from scratch is a big part of my upbringing.

Like many first-generation Cambodians in Quebec, my parents work in sewing (clothing production). I saw them working every day on their machines, surrounded by piles of textiles and thread spools. From a child's perspective, it meant seeing tons of colours everywhere. They would improvise carpets and the dog’s bed with the leftover materials.

In elementary school, my mother made our clothes, and we got to pick our fabrics. She made me jeans in my teenage years, and during the pandemic, she sewed me a matching jogging outfit (so I can winter-work from home with comfystyle)!

There were bits of paper everywhere from the textiles we received. My dad used them as note papers, and often I would find scribbles that I remember being artistic, I was always mesmerized. He often drew faces and Khmer lettering with whatever pen was around.

It was similar in the kitchen. In the 1990s, there were not many Southeast Asian grocery stores in Quebec. It was complicated (or expensive) to get coconut cream cans. So my mom hand-shredded the coconut from the fruit and made a cream with it for the curry. Same for soy milk: We drank the one she made at home, like tofu, soy sprouts, curry paste, fermented bok choy, kapi កាពី and prahok ប្រហុក. I remember my parents cleaning all the possible containers, even when we were wealthier, to store all this food. In reality, before the zero-waste lifestyle became a whitened upper-class trend, many working-class immigrants already lived this way.

I also grew up seeing my mother planting and taking care of indoor and vegetable plants. Wax gourd ត្រឡាច, bitter melon ម្រះ, morning glory spinach ត្រកួន, lemongrass ស្លឹកគ្រៃ, rice paddy herb ម្អម/ម្អមក្ដាម, chilis, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, raspberry, strawberries (the list is long)! When it comes to harvest season, she packs them in several bags and spends a whole day dropping them off to our siblings and friends. My (numerous) aunts, uncles and their friends do the same: they plant things, cook things, give things, come back and make more things.

So the act of making is tied to community care in our family house. One specific souvenir of my childhood that highlights the way that handmaking and community are tied together is my mom knocking on the door of our Lebanese neighbour asking how to make tabbouleh. Neither of them spoke French nor English comfortably and were 30 years apart, but they somehow managed to cook together.

Combined, I think these little things probably (unintentionally) built on the early days of my relationship with creation. It is not related to a specific design practice, nor restricted to professional domains or my own individual experience. It is much more of a lens through which I see and imagine how to give life and to nurture in ways that connect stories to people, people to stories and people to people.

Creation is an immaterial state of mind where I find joy and excitement when thinking about how and for whom I make it. I notice this feeling when planting seeds, drying herbs, cooking, putting a shelf in my art studio, or finding an accessory to combine my outfit.

Indeed, the way I create on a daily basis is exactly the same as the way my parents (and many Cambodians of that generation) make things in their job or for everyday functionality. They are so used to improvise the making while just looking at an object, that they rarely bother themselves buying an “artisanal” or handmade product. When my mom eats something new, by the look and the taste, she can intuitively cook it. It is not always a reproduction, as the main point is to create something new out of it. Same for my dad. He is much more meticulous, but not knowing how to make something is not an obstacle. When it comes to clothing, I tell him what I need to change on a pair of pants, he looks at it 2 min and manage to make it with a professional finish. Me and art is the same. I learn in the process of making and I don’t mind not being trained beforehand. I trust the process.

Indeed, art is at the core of Cambodian civilization. It was built by illiterate people, so art became the main language to leave traces of everything (dance, painting, music, etc.). For example, Bokator’s martial arts is not written in any books, but you can see each movement sculpted on Angkor wat walls. Generational oral history is what bridges the material art to its people and also a way to preserve the culture under assimilation forces throughout invasions (historically from Thaï, Vietnamese, Japanese, French and Americans of the United States).

When I say design is not about me or oneself, it is a reminder that we can do what we do in the present day because of a lineage of people that built a legacy marked in immaterial ways. I hope that any Cambodians reading this understand that their creativity is inherited from a long lineage of artists, makers and thinkers, and that they too can continue the legacy.

Sadly, at the time of writing, Ravy is being harassed by white supremacists in private messages. As a result, Women in Design Canada and the artist have decided not to show some of the personal photographs that Ravy had originally submitted, for reasons of privacy and personal safety.

Who do you consider to be an inspiring woman?

It might be a cliché, but my mother is someone I look up to a lot to enjoy life in simple ways. It always amazes me how she (probably like other war-related immigrant women) finds fulfillment in small daily gestures. She is very calm but gets quickly excited by small non-extraordinary projects, like dehydrating the chilis she planted or learning to make mooncakes through Youtube.

In Western social imagery, when we say feminism, there is a dominant idea of a strong and fearless woman that does not need anybody else than herself. Although I was born in Canada, I grew up in a more collectivist culture, and this has probably tainted my perspective of the feminism I need.

Many of my mother’s traits are the closest to it: She verbalises what she fears, shows her fragility, and puts community care over self-care, as she never separates both. She has no pride in showing she cares about something or someone, and to me, it is more courageous to show everything than to hide everything in the face of risks.

She is also the person I look up to when facing entrepreneurial doubts or dilemmas. Like my dad, she has more than 35 years of experience in independent work.

I am inspired by many other women (like Alanis Obomsawin, Angela Davis, Naomi Klein and Sochua Mu) but they are not people I know personally. They all engage their lives in civil rights and feminist movements (not for, but with the working class).

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Describe your design process.

My process is different depending on the project.

For commissions, the first step is the cognitive brainstorm. During the brief meeting, I relate keywords to vague representations in my mind. To sort them out, I look for images online to spot repetitive symbolism not to draw. I primarily work on gender and race representations projects, so to avoid stereotypes traps, I also read a lot to work on the ideas underneath visuals (it’s long). I let all these sit in my head for a week, so my brain piles up visual concepts that come and go. The ones that stay become a form of mosaic in my mind. The second step is to translate them on paper through sketching. It is always a bit hectic, between stressful and exciting. The main point is to sort multiple ideas into one with a sense of visual harmony. Also, each representation we include necessarily excludes another one, so I have to think through why this one and why not the other, how to make it and how does it give back to the community it represents? It can last from one to seven days. I come up with two to three black-and-white sketches, and the commissioner picks one, with which I open myself to criticism and new ideas. In the last phase, I let things sit for a few days during which I don’t create anything, so the final coloured version builds up in my mind. After I proceed to the final and I can’t do side tasks (like email), I am as fully emerged as a scientist in a laboratory.

Compared to many illustrators I know, I have observed that I research theory more than I create, as I intersect academic research with illustration. Therefore, I draw way less in a year than other illustrators not doing research-creation (which explains why each of my drawings is somewhat a little more different than the last one). I explore something new, both scary and exciting at each final that I have to do.

Creating out of work is completely different. When I do illustrations for myself, I only draw with my hands on paper. To me, devices are related to work and the disconnection with art materials (grains of paper, type of crayons, etc.) is a bit sterile for me, even though it is extremely efficient (which is what I need for deadlines with clients). Instead of looking for a “perfect” result like for commissions, I am interested in making mistakes. That’s how I explore and have fun, I let my spontaneous ideas flow and do whatever feels like at the moment. The process is pure pleasure and the result is not important to me. If I end up not thinking the art piece is beautiful, I look for parts of it that are worth exploring next time. Like the texture, once the clay is dry, the transparency when using eggs with acrylic, etc. In the end, I always think the art piece is satisfying because the experience of exploring, transforming and making is.

Still, I have to admit that the more I can live from illustration, less I can create for myself. I would say it is even rare. Which is the conundrum of doing a profession-passion: there is a risk of flattening your passion. But I got back to miniature clay sculpture last week after 3 years and it makes me really happy.

#COMMETOI anti-racist and feminist campaign by 200portes HM in Montreal's subway (2020). Photo by Helena Valles

What inspires your work (professional or personal)?

Mostly people in my personal life. I primarily work for books and awareness campaigns, and the audience is extensive, with differences all over the spectrum. It is easy to get caught in a never-ending cycle by feeling overwhelmed or anxious to please every taste, or to do the opposite (to shadow groups of people because of unacknowledged bias).

So I imagine who I intend to do it for, like a physical letter written for someone close and dear to me. It makes the process more intimate, human and fun. For that person, I insert tiny details in my illustration that can make them laugh or smile, even though no one else would notice.

I would say that memories also fuel my art. Even today, I think about drawing scenes of my childhood that I can’t find in our family photo albums. I grew up surrounded by my 20 cousins and their parents, with loud Khmer karaoke, food and cooking perfumes everywhere. Us playing, fighting and laughing together, with our parents scolding or loving us are endless stories like infinite ideas and inspiration that keep me smiling.

In popular culture, representations and narratives of Asian bodies often fall into the trap of binaries (either no representation or bad representation). Another layer of complexity is added for Cambodians like me, as erasure is part the colonial history with the French protectorate, with the United States’ occupation during the Cold War, and with the Khmer Rouge regime. Part of the generational trauma is due to suppressed memories through archives destruction. I think the pure desire to re-narrate my generational story out of the white gaze explains why my memories keep coming back in artistic forms in my mind.

What project are you most proud of?

There are two. First is a series named “From Buried to Living Archives.”

I have been thinking of ways to tell the erased history of Cambodians without participating in stereotyping it. For now, the word Cambodia is mostly (not exclusively) related to the Khmer Rouge regime, and I wanted to find a way not to forget it nor reduce the rich culture by only the tragedy.

I imagined what could look like “Best Of” vinyls of psychedelic rock musicians that were targeted during the genocide. The Khmer Rouge killed them because art could gather people, leading to a potential revolution. Illustrating their faces is a way to refuse their erasure. In today's context, it is also a political claim with the rise of extreme white supremacy, the far-right-wing, and the instrumentalization of Asian bodies to increase anti-Blackness:

Re-creating vinyl covers of Cambodian rockers killed by the Khmer Rouge serves as a means of reclaiming history. It resurrects artifacts proving counter-stories from the West’s hegemonic narrative of the oriental failed race. Bringing hidden history to the surface transforms a tragic frozen past to a present’s acknowledgement of a Cambodian act of refusal to assimilation.

Illustrating music can make dead documents a living archive, as visual and sound have the power to mediate and awaken pieces of memory loss. Re-representation leads to the possible re-narration of stories, the re-appropriation of a scar pushes dialogue to happen, resurrecting oral history that brings a collective closer to healing.

Series 'From Buried to Living Archives' (2021) was a pilot project for the master's research project involving oral history and memory re-collectional. Fictional Best Of vinyl of Pan Ron, Sin Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea. Most Archives, such as pictures, print media and music records of these passed Cambodian singers, were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime. Illustrating them in purpose is an act of refusing erasure through archives reenactment.

Original exhibition:

The second is an experimental illustration I did in an art course named Archives and Difficult Knowledges given by Deanna Bowen (an amazing artist and human that everyone should discover!) My goal was to create something from a place of intimacy (family memories and stories) but that can also speak to other Cambodians. What’s personal is political, and it’s true that for marginalized racialized bodies, owning the lived experiences as everything but certainly not shameful, is an act of reclaiming history. The emotional challenge was definitely present, but the feeling of healing and especially gratitude is immense. I don’t consider this illustration finished, but I feel excited to explore furthermore the method I used for it. To be continued!

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What is your personal or professional motto/philosophy?

Toni Morrison wrote “the task of the artist is determined always by the status and process and agenda of the community that it already serves (...) For any artist your job is determined by the community you’re identifying with (...) As a cultural worker who belongs to an oppressed people my job is to make revolution irresistible.”

I have diplomas, speak three languages, and work with mostly people from white upper classes. It is easy to forget and betray the environment I grew up in. One thing I force myself to do is to remind myself of the working class I am from. My friend confronted me 2 years ago with my unacknowledged shame of coming from Rivière-des-Prairies (RDP), a neighbourhood that is seen as uninteresting compared to downtown Montreal. The truth is the fact that it is mostly racialized (and a part is ghettoized) plays a big part in people’s aversion to it. My thoughts have since evolved and I feel deep gratitude that I grew up in that district. Even though it is a big part of my upbringing, there is so much more than the “working class struggles to meet ends”. When I create, either by writing critical thinking or illustrating images, I think of ways to relate to immigrant working class of colour. For example, English or French are not their everyday language, so even though I know my illustration will appear next to a text, I focus on visual communication that wouldn’t need words to be understood.

Toni Morrison added “if you’re an artist who identifies with, who springs from, who is serviced by or drafted by a bourgeois capitalist class, then that’s the kind of writing you do. Then your job is to maintain the status quo, to celebrate exploitation, or to guise it in some lovely, romantic way. That’s your job….”

Therefore, what is important to me is how my work engages in pop culture: both how I am influenced by it and how I want to influence it. “The popular” is a belittled generalized group, like teenage girls of 15 years old. To me, they are the most important. I can’t and don’t want to detach myself from pop culture, as it is what keeps me connected to my family, community and my class.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced as a woman illustrator?

The biggest challenge I have faced is to name my need for others’ accountability when working or collaborating on a project. My work is illustration, but it is indeed an excuse to accompany people of the media and pop culture industry in re-thinking their racial bias.

My work is tied to the act of pointing problematic representations and bringing to surface alternatives, but the latter is doable only if the client/collaborator/colleague is accountable for their words and actions, no matter the intention.

Something that I personally experience since the beginning of using art to convey ideas of racial justice, until now, is that many of white and white-adjacent people that reach out to me for working together, end up, consciously or not, approaching me as a sort of therapist for white guilt. Either it is illustrator colleagues, clients, collaborators, etc. Precisely, what I have noticed is that they want me to confirm that they are "a good person". So they open up debates or throw on table their opinions and visions about race without my consent, even though these subjects are extremely sensitive to me as they intersect my lived experiences. I find it dehumanizing and tiring. From what I have experienced, I have seen how much they are full of energy to show how much they know, but extremely reluctant when it comes to dealing with criticism. Instead of sitting with their discomfort to start the work of unpacking things (by getting organized and building courage), they rather look for reassurance. Sometimes it was a call for help, but more often it was a way to get validation that they are not that mediocre. I am lucky that over years I have built a vocabulary to name my boundaries, otherwise, I think dealing with such form of white tears and fragility can become toxic in a workplace. I don't think it is always intentionally mean, but it illustrates the lack of inner work concerning their emotional maturity to not put their sentiments over mine. And I think it is necessary that their work starts from a place of care for others, and not for being scared to be judged or cancelled. Otherwise, it is not a gesture of accountability, but much more a selfish defensiveness. Accountability is most important to evolve as an individual and as a society. Therefore, even though intentions are important, they become irrelevant when used as excuses to justify words and actions that have direct consequences in real people's lives. Now before accepting any mandate, I verify beforehand if my needs of accessibility are met and accountability is at the top. Of course, in our world, the reality is that positions of decision making are in majority held by non racialized people. It doesn't make them bad people, but it puts me more at risk of holding a heavier workload for tasks unrelated to my mandate, such as being considered a therapist for white guilt. This situation still occurs in my work, but the difference is that I have more agency as I am clear with the work environment that I need to do my work well. Of course it has happened with racialized bodies also and it will happen again in the future. So what I look at is much more the person's politics than their race. This being said, my personal experience made me observe patterns that when I notice beforehand, I politely decline the contract. Saying no is also political, as much as saying yes with conditions is.

As a person of colour and specifically an Asian woman who does not embody the model minority myth nor the submissive stereotype, I have encountered a spectrum of racist attacks from white men, racialized- white- adjacent men and women, and white women commissioners, publishers or illustrators. With time I learned that even though I do what I do out of passion and love, the emotional charge that comes with transforming society has to be divided. It is a fact, not an opinion.

What was your educational experience like?

I taught myself to draw. My first institutional experience with art was a college degree in Fine Arts (three years); I did argentic photography as a school activity at the same time. My studies mainly were about traditional practices, like abstract painting and sculpting. I don’t remember doing any illustrations. I was a finalist for a provincial contest and won a small bursary from a collective exhibition.

After college, I stopped making art and instead, exercised creativity in small daily gestures. I also remember stopping because of not having the space and the financial capacity to buy art supplies, but much more because I did not feel free in the fine arts environment I experienced, where most colleagues claimed art isn’t and cannot be, political. The art elitism and snobbery of that environment were hard to handle. Besides my studies, I was involved in many social and climate justice activism and I received an award for student community involvement. After college, I wanted to explore that more, so I pursued research in Geography.

I got back to the arts ten years later to help a friend in need of a cover for a cyclo-feminist zine (Londonderry by Les dérailleuses, which won best zine 2016 by EXPOZINE MTL), which was the turning point that brought me to illustration as a living today.

After seven years out of university, I started a Master's degree in Media Studies in 2020 with a research-creation project, which involves illustration as an experimental tool for tackling Cambodian-Canadian trauma healing.

Even though I feel grateful that my drawing skills have never completely disappeared, I have to admit that I struggle more than other illustrators that I know. To come up with concepts, to develop characters from scratch, to make proportional bodies, etc. I think for now, all the illustrations that appear on my Instagram have nothing special. In my personal point of view, what makes people attracted to it is not the imagery itself, but the ideas underneath that makes them connect to the possible narrative(s) out of the white gaze. In one hand I feel shy and sad that I am still not capable to fully express my heart in my art, but in another hand, I feel happy that I am at ease when expressing my politics and core values. An artwork can be destroyed, but never an idea.

How would you design the ideal creative workspace?

One loaded with direct sunlight. It makes me forget that I am working.

I adore creating (illustration, sculpture, cooking, gardening), but doing it for work means doing it within a box of criteria that transforms the art into a product. This is fine, but I separate that kind of creation from one done with the pure pleasure of exploration.

Which of your traits are you most proud of?

My friends say that I am lovely but fierce, and I think it is true. The fierce is the part of my personality that never looks for conflict but is always ready to deal openly with it when the situation requires me to respond. As best as I can, I manage to make myself ready for criticism.

Plus, I do my best to speak truth to power. even in the face of fear. In general, remaining silent is something that drains me more. Voicing discomfort brings some difficulties when I work with people who are not used to holding themselves accountable. But when I end up working with people that are looking for that, it makes wonderful results! That being sad, there were situations where I felt safer and more empowered in not giving my time nor energy to people that are too mediocre to engage in a mature and sincere way. So sometimes I also remain silent, because my well being is more important than educating others. I know that a lot of people believe in the myth of submissive Asian people. It is funny how it illustrates well the individual way of thinking social interactions. My parents have always told me that as French/English are not their first languages, western people in Canada have and will always look down on them, so often it is more clever to put their energy in loving and feeding their childrens, because resistance is a community and generational concept. Even today, they tell me to use my privilege of fluent French and English to speak out for me and others.

Whenever I cook for friends I often make jokes that I want them to say I was a lovely person on my funeral. Due to my job tied to mediatic activism about political topics, people often bring up words like strong or fearless when describing me. It comes from a thoughtful place full of kindness, but I would prefer to live in a system where no women nor gender non-conforming people need to be strong, because 24 hours of strength to maintain in the face of violence means emotional and physical drainage. And it does have an impact on me. There is no super human, it’s a myth. There is only humans that hold social accountability by commiting to lifelong inner work. To lower the emotional toll on me, out of my work I try to cultivate small lovely habits (still a work in progress), like a happy cute granny in her own world (my grandmas were like that). For example, since I got a air fryer, I send tons of pictures to my friends and family saying “come to my place so I can cook you this”. I think it is “really granny” (and lovely) to do that and it makes me happy. Laughing loudly and long hours with my cousin is definitely a huge part of cultivating that happy bubbly loveliness (Ming Ceicaaaa).

Is it possible to be unique or original in the Internet age?

I think uniqueness is a myth (like the American Dream) that builds on the tale of one person’s success.

I much more believe and trust the idea of the continuum. Everything and everyone are the way they are today because of others who have paved the road before. It is the same for what we create. I believe we make from our ideas and they are in conjunction with personal life experiences, legacies of ones’ ancestors, images our mind registers from the outer environment, etc. No one is original, as one person is the continuity of their origins that have a long history—even though it is unknown or unacknowledged, this history exists).  

Therefore, I see making things on the internet much more as an act of showing things. We spread different voices into the internet world through various ways (writing, moving images, drawings, sound, body movements, etc.), which creates a digital archival spectrum in which we can read our history. I see one person’s creation as a vehicle for a group of voices, even though the person is not aware of being part of it.

As I always position myself within a group, a class or a wave of thought, I prefer to ask myself how I can participate in making our voices seen or heard. I tend to look at the way these voices move through the digital media patchwork and see my work as a participatory voice. So yes, everyone is unique, but no one is original. Same for the artwork, in my opinion.

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What is Provocateur Pencils?

Provocateur Pencils is the name given to the collective act of refusal by artists who use illustration to reverse representations in the media imaginary, which the first initiative (and only one at this date) was the campaign #AsiansAreNotTheVirus launched on Instagram and Facebook in April 2020. Over 50 artists from Canada and France have joined forces with their pencils in response to the global increase in racism stemming from the new coronavirus pandemic. They show their solidarity with Asian communities through an online visual communication campaign.

I coordinated the campaign, but the movement grew by itself and wouldn't exist without the artists' contributions. Illustrators posted their artwork on their own Instagram and Facebook with the same short text and hashtag, so their audience was able to follow #AsiansAreNotTheVirus and discover more than one person using illustration’s agency to show how Asian bodies are not a monolith (reversing the model minority myth). All artworks were also launched on a separate Instagram account @provocateur.pencils and a section on my illustrator website.

The most crucial part of Provocateur Pencils is that anti-Asian racism is inseparable to Indigenous, Black, and other racialized bodies’ erasure, which is why this part in the manifesto is highlighted: We believe that acting collectively will allow us to respond intelligently to the challenges facing our society. We reject and oppose the scapegoating of any marginalized community, regardless of its cultural designation.

The name Provocateur Pencils stems from the concept of provocation from Alan Male’s idea of the illustrator as provocateur: “Illustration is a catalyst for significant change regarding societal attitudes (...) The principal objective is to create a platform to change their frames of reference by critically reflecting in their beliefs to consciously challenge and create new ways of defining everything that controls or influences their world. This is the precept that defines provocation.”

Although I received positive feedback and even made friends through the campaign, from a personal perspective I will for sure never do it this way again. The campaign was more a direct responsive reaction than a thought-through action with in-depth political tactic. To put it in other words, due to the model minority myth (which was created to criminalize and police Black bodies), a lot of people of Asian descent are dispossessed from their own historical narratives of resistance to racism and assimilation. Therefore in the contemporary time, many lack tools to engage with their own experiences, but above all that, although it pushes them to denounce the racism they are victim of, their reaction is not necessarily followed by a refusal to the system that creates the racism on them and on Black, Indigenous and other People of Colour. “Asians are not the virus” is a depoliticized defensive mechanism. It doesn’t engage critically with the system that makes Asian people the scapegoat for the virus, in the contrary of #HateIsAVirus #WashTheHate or #NotYourModelMinorityMyth. #BlackLivesMatter is an example of a good # rooted in resistance history, as it is a reference to the Black Liberation Movement. Whenever #BLM is used, there is a spectrum of representations and narratives that stamp in people’s imaginary. It is equivalent as saying “the Black Liberation movement that fought for all people’s civil rights has never disappeared, it is a continuum”. Me in 2020 deciding to come up with #asiansarenotthevirus within one week also shows the state of mind I was in: urgency. The truth is that non-performative changes demand time to think through. This being said, I experienced a lot of discomfort when launching the campaign and when facing criticism. I think it is necessary to sit with discomfort because without it, it ends up with only centering pride on “me, my intentions and my art”. Which is not constructive for the long term if our goal is to go further as a collective. Over all, I learned a lot through this experience and I guess that’s what I will remember when I’ll get 80 years old and make fun of young naïve Ravy in the beginning of the pandemic!

How do visual communication and race theory intersect?

Using visuals to spread race conceptualization of classes and using race to reinforce visual social imaginary has a long history.

This intersection stems from the first form of illustration: painting. Empires commissioned large paintings where they asked the artist to depict them as heroic personae, saving the world from the Other’s invasion. The act of racial-stereotyping others played a big part in strategies of visual narratives for the nation to win wars.

Today, we live in a world where space and time are fragmented through fast-paced digital devices, platforms, and networks. We produce, consume, and spread an immense amount of images, which also multiplies and intensifies the flow of already existing racial and gender biases and stereotypes in the form of representations, myths, and racist narratives (in which we take part without noticing it).

The positive part is that everything that has the power to suppress, oppress, and control people has the same ability to liberate and strengthen people. Being born with ease and talent for creating visuals is, in a certain way, an opportunity to discover the agency that comes with it. Making things also shapes ideas. I like to think that ideas of accessibility, healing, building community, and caring are much more significant than racial capitalism.  

What does ‘art with a purpose’ mean to you?

I believe art has always existed as a verb for transforming, re-enacting, claiming, identifying, etc. A purpose is embedded in the making, as art is a language. It is a mode of communication that mediates our relations, which are embricked in power dynamics. Indeed, art is never without a purpose. That being said, I believe making art ‘just’ to make art with the idea of little to no strings attached to political responsibility nor socio-cultural bias is a modern capitalist invention. It has become the norm, transforming artistic making, pieces, and professions into marketable products.

To me, ‘art with a purpose’ is about reclaiming the political stance of art. It means exploring, remembering, and re-enacting creative transformative justice.

What does ‘art with a purpose’ mean to you?

I believe art has always existed as a verb for transforming, re-enacting, claiming, identifying, etc. A purpose is embedded in the making, as art is a language. It is a mode of communication that mediates our relations, which are embricked in power dynamics. Indeed, art is never without a purpose. That being said, I believe making art ‘just’ to make art with the idea of little to no strings attached to political responsibility nor socio-cultural bias is a modern capitalist invention. It has become the norm, transforming artistic making, pieces, and professions into marketable products.

To me, ‘art with a purpose’ is about reclaiming the political stance of art. It means exploring, remembering, and re-enacting creative transformative justice.

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What are you up to these days?

Since mid-2020 I decided to put creation full time on the side to explore illustration more cognitively. Through a Master in Media Studies, I look at illustration as a language of mediation where representations and visual narrative play a part in relations of race, culture and power. But more than that, I look at how we can twist visual strategies of assimilation into tactics for political agency and racial trauma healing.

On one hand, studying critical race theory is fascinating because it makes me understand why my life is the way it is, on top of making me more responsible in my profession (in a way, I I have a direct influence on people’s minds with the images I create). On the other hand, I have to admit that emotionally, dissecting white supremacy’s media strategies of domination, control and surveillance is taking a toll on me in a pandemic context layered with dehumanizing and unprepared state’s responses and extreme violence on Asian, Indigenous, Black, Brown, Queer, Trans, disabled and sex worker bodies. I then decided to change my project to something that will nurture more than exhaust me. At first, I wanted to make a silent graphic novel about my family’s migration stories. It is something I have been thinking and wanting to do for 15 years, I have even accumulated all sorts of sound and visual artifacts about my parents and siblings. With more in-depth thoughts concerning ways to preserve privacy and safety in my Cambodian community against white voyeurism and white perversion (gaze), I changed the project to keep my family’s stories in my intimate sphere, for now.

My project is then about building a visual portfolio for future murals that involve building trust through methods of oral history with communities living with intergenerational transcolonial and race-based trauma. Developing methods specific to, with and about marginalized communities whose oral history has been stolen by a settler or extractivist colonialism is a way to invite them in reclaiming what they have been dispossessed. Specifically, for all illustrations, artists mostly research over the internet for inspiration, but few are skilled to recognize and sort out racial and gender stereotypes (still today, I myself, have to keep my knowledge up to date to develop better tools to unlearn ingrained stereotypes in my mind). Which is also at play with their/our already existing biases. Sometimes the representations and visual narrative either invisibilize a group or portray it inaccurately. This also happens for books, posters and all kinds of visual media, but murals’ dimensions are at another level, it becomes part of the everyday landscape, so are the ideas inserted, consciously or not. In a way, murals shape the public sphere’s social imaginary. Therefore, I am working specifically on methods that take into account the trust we need to build with people that live in the area of the mural. Trust requires time and most importantly, an intentional engagement of the artist in refusing to dehumanize them as only an object of study. I am exploring this through my current master thesis project about the Cambodian Canadian community in Montreal and how illustration can be a sight of generational trauma healing. Focusing on healing is definitely nurturing. I also received funding for it from Conseil des arts de Montréal. In a way, it shows how race-based issues can no longer be seen as racialized people’s problems and responsibilities. Actually, it is much more the opposite, as colonialism is first and foremost white people’s (sometimes denied) history.

What advice would you give to an illustrator who is interested in using her/his/their work for social justice work?

  • Be careful not to romanticize activism/social justice work. The more you'll get into this work, the more you'll see that processes of assimilation are at play in conflictual politics and visions inside and between militant groups and initiatives. Although it is unpleasant, frustrating, disappointing and even hurtful, it is a reality you have to live with. You better be clear with yourself about politics and core values you believe in and ways to speak truth to power. For my part, I am not much comfortable with DEI-Diversity Equity Inclusion, because it is a depoliticized approach to systemic racism. To be able to talk about diversity implies a place of power looking through the lens of otherness, where others are the diversity, and ourselves are the norm. Therefore, there is right from start a clear chessboard game where racialized bodies (the diversity) are assimilated or tokenized to do soft work that bypasses the system that is at the root of their own oppression and exploitation. Same for inclusion: being able to talk and make decisions about inclusivity means also being in a higher position of power that gets to decide which factors exclude some to include others. A wave of Black scholars talk much more about 'belonging', rejecting the DEI approach, which uses the lexicon of white supremacy.
  • I would say that thinking through *what* social justice means to you is one necessary step. Then, *which* social justice you relate to can lead to the type of work you may develop.
  • No one lives in clusters. Everything we have the privilege to experience (e.g. making a living from arts) is due to past struggles endured by people that fought so we don’t need to. At least, we have more agency than in their era. Once these two questions are answered, I think it is easier to understand how to commit in the long run, find meaning and grow through it as a liberating practice.
  • I didn’t have the same path as many illustrators I know. Artists I have met are attracted by making art for the beauty of art. My case is different. I am touched by art when I see it, but when I make art, I am attracted to the action of creating ideas. Illustration is more like a vehicle to me. I would say that it is the biggest difference when we use our artwork for social justice. Art is not the purpose, but the process. It is a tool in the process of creating new portals of change. So I would say that the second step is to imagine yourself using an art practice as a language of everyday life. It becomes a place of communication and relation to others, and a sight of archiving and developing a sense of identity through it. For some, it is film, collage, photography or even cooking. Find yours!
  • Be clear about for and with whom you want to do that work. Be sure of which community you have in mind helps to do it with accountability to that community. One sentence that I keep repeating myself is “how does this work that I do benefit that community?” Decentralizing ourselves and our work is crucial so that we don’t fall into the trap of appropriating each other’s justice struggle to become a successful saviour or an exceptional artist.
  • Deconstruct the idea of urgency, which is a symptom of white supremacy. Performity, productivity, and competition are symptomatic of (racial) capitalism. Your work will take different forms over the years; sometimes you’ll love it, sometimes you’ll hate it. In the end, you need to find growth in it because change starts also from accepting that it needs time, like a lifetime project.
  • Be aware that no one is protected from the activist burnout AND that using one of your passions (art) to fuel another passion (social justice) can kill your passion(s). Be sure to nurture your love for creating in small daily joyful ways that do not empty your energy nor require you to think about people you don’t know.
  • Concentrate on intimate ways to nurture yourself (and people in your personal sphere if, like for me, direct-community care is self-care). I personally adore long naps, bingeing k-dramas, hunting for new non-western grocery stores, looking for new bowls in second hand shops, spending time with my mom, making food tupperwares for my friends, having my skin care routine, and having cooking projects (I made pink sushis recently, and I have a cooking diary online!).
  • Be gentle with yourself. You can’t change the world on your own and that’s a fact. But you can take part in a wave of change where your individuality is in relation to the collective. Focus on the collective, your relation and your accountability to it. Rest is part of a relationship, as much as accepting help from others is too. In other words, don’t think of your art as the one revolutionary thing that will flip the world’s messiness. It will never happen or you will suffer from the inhumane pressure that comes with it. Think instead of the ongoing revolution you accept to be part of by making your art part of the spectrum of initiatives that already exist. Be thankful to all the people that already participate in that spectrum and credit them when you talk about your inspirations, process and ideas in interviews or even in your artwork.
  • Learn the vocabulary that will help you navigate throughout your lifelong journey. There will be much more situations where you will experience change than make change. So it’s good that you learn words to narrate your own story.
  • Along the way, people and situations will tend to convince you that what you do is hate, but remember that transformative justice comes from a place of love.
  • Last but not least, especially if you come from a marginalized class, it’s good to also step out of activist work for society sometimes to put in priority your intentional presence in your direct community, like your kids, your parents, your friends, etc. Preserve them as your priority to not let racial capitalism, white supremacy and other systems of domination sneaking in your intimate sphere

Love, Ravi