Lisa Kopper thinking aloud about ‘drawing black people’.
* For the purposes of simplicity, I will mostly be talking about black people in this article but much of what I say also applies to Indians, East Asians and other groups.
Multi-cultural books for children are a complex issue. Even the words ‘multi-cultural’ rankle. Nobody really knows what to call anything in this sensitive area – the ‘correct’ phraseology is always changing. I’m an illustrator and involved with images so I’ll just call it drawing black people, Indians, East Asians or whom so ever I am depicting.
I’m forever being asked two questions about this field of illustration: Why can’t people draw black people and why aren’t there more black illustrators? Now, as the ‘multi-cultural’ book becomes a more established part of children’s literature, I think there is a third question: What is the role of white artists and writers in the production of books about black people?
I’m a white artist but have done a number of books about people from all parts of the world. I often wonder whether I am right to do this work when more and more books are being published but, in percentage terms, fewer and fewer are illustrated by black artists.
When I was first asked in 1979 to illustrate a children’s series about an African child, my response was, ‘But don’t you really think a black artist should do this?’ The publisher replied, ‘We can’t find them.’ I did the books (the Jafta Family series) and the experience was wonderful for me; it opened up whole new worlds literally.
When I consider how my career came to take this direction, it wasn’t really an accident. I was made aware of social issues, poverty and discrimination early in life because my parents were involved with the emerging Civil Rights Movement in the United States. In the late fifties you never saw a black face anywhere in the media; not on TV, not on posters and in only one picture book and we all know what that was! Later I had a book for older children about a black girl growing up in the South. I remember looking and looking at the small line and wash drawings – they weren’t very special but they were the first pictures ‘ I’d seen that attempted to portray black people in a sympathetic way.
In the mid seventies, I did some work for the Anti-Apartheid Movement in this country. Despite my awareness of the bad representations of black people, I found it difficult to draw the kind of image I wanted. It was hard for me to see what was good and what wasn’t. The old stereotypes just kept sneaking onto the paper. I decided that I would have to make gradual progress and go for a good `feeling’ before fine drawing as I was having problems with features. I used a lot of silhouette and did my first small book (Children of Soweto) in woodcut – strong and effective but without detail.
I started thinking about the kind of difficulties I was experiencing and why I was so uncertain of my images. After all, artists draw many things they don’t know intimately – elephants, tigers, outer space … It was then that I realised that I, and probably most other children, had learned to draw both familiar and unfamiliar things from looking at pictures. That’s how I knew that girls on horses had long flowing hair and they certainly didn’t wear glasses or have big noses. But what pictures had I seen of black people? Virtually none. So if children learn to draw and see not so much from life as from other people’s drawing, then we were a whole generation grown up on Little Black Sambo.
We all learn from our own visual traditions. It’s the same for black and white children and worse for black artists in many other parts of the world where our shoddy traditions have replaced their own. Many African illustrators continue to draw themselves in the distorted way they learned from the books we made for them.
When I tackled the Jafta series, I was determined to break the pattern of my learned imagery. I decided that my child had to be as beautiful and appealing as I could possibly make him. I looked at photo after photo, spoke to numerous people from that part of Africa and made more mistakes for every finished piece of artwork than anyone could imagine. I can still see things I’d like to change, more as time passes, but I like to think my work is progressing with every book. Jafta will always be special to me because it really taught me how to draw. It also helped me to see in a less superficial way. People have looked different since then – more individual.
Then and now I always work with an author who knows his or her subject well. Not only does this help me to authenticate my drawings but, being something of a traditionalist, I still believe that the words are the heart of a book no matter how simple.
I hope that some of the books I have done will encourage other artists to break the mould in their own way so that we can establish new and varied images. I believe that what we see when we are very young is firmly fixed in our subconscious and hard to change. This is why picture book images are so important. People can’t draw black people because they haven’t had the visual resources to learn from. And perhaps also black people do not take seriously a profession which has represented them so badly. Most talented African artists select to do painting or sculpture which are more firmly rooted in their own traditions. I suspect the same might be true here.
To try and find out what happens to black art students, I did a telephone survey of the design and illustration departments of a number of London art colleges and polytechnics. The results were fairly grim. Again and again I was told, ‘We do not operate a discriminatory policy, we simply don’t get the applications from black and Asian students. We would welcome more.’ Some percentages were too small to count. Even in predominantly black colleges, the art departments were white ghettos. The few black students that there were (almost always boys) frequently did very well and several were prize winners. These, however, did not generally choose book illustration as a profession but opted more for fashion, design and advertising. Many teachers thought there was a class problem and black children were not getting the support they needed at home. Those students who actually chose to do children’s book illustration tended to be white, middle class girls.
All agreed that art college stage was too late – children needed to be encouraged and made aware of career possibilities at 0 and A level. I have always believed this and think some effort must be made to reach younger people. I spoke with a couple of black art students and they seemed to feel that regardless of their colour, they were not encouraged to develop as book illustrators and were given very little information about this field and the opportunities. My own advice to young gifted black people is to be artists first and make the effort to get into the system, no matter the problems and however painful it is. The black artists and writers I know agree with me on this. We don’t want arts apartheid; it won’t help anyone in the end.
For those of us who are white and working in this area, we must tread softly. There is a danger that we could become literary colonialists. All things being equal, it wouldn’t matter who wrote or drew what but unfortunately all things are not equal.
I can understand how black people must feel when so many of the books about them are done by us. Any group in a similar situation would feel uncomfortable and angry whether Jewish, Irish, Scottish or whatever. So we must guard against any feeling of doing books for `them’, of bestowing a favour. It is not, and no black person would see it as such. I personally feel privileged to have been able to travel around the world through my art and when what I have done is accepted by those people as good and right, I am honoured. We must always remember that we are guests in someone else’s culture. But I hope the day will come when we don’t even have to consider these issues, then we’ll know there’s real integration.
Lisa Kopper was born in Chicago in 1950 and moved to Britain in 1970 after studying painting and sculpture at Carnegie – Mellon University in Pennsylvania. Her first picture book was published by Evans in 1979; since then she has worked for a number of publishers; her work is much admired and in demand. Lisa is a thoughtful, articulate and outspoken member of her profession. She has a clutch of new books out this autumn.
The Books – a selection of in print books with Lisa Kopper illustrations.
The Jafta Family series (1981-83) – with Hugh Lewin. (See page 10)
An Elephant Came to Swim (1985) – with Hugh Lewin
Katie Moves House, Victoria Whitehead (1982), Dinosaur, 0 85122 385 0, £1.10 (pbk); 0 85122 386 9, £2.95 (hbk)
Rebekah and the Slide, Christine Parker (1983), Dinosaur, 0 85122 389 3, 95p (pbk); 0 85122 390 7, £2.95 (hbk)
Small World Series, with Leila Berg, Methuen, Dogs, 0 416 44020 7,Bees 0 416 44050 9, Worms 0 416 44040 1, Blood and Plasters 0 416 44030 4, (1983), £1.50 each, Rainbows 0 416 52380 6, Vacuum Cleaners 0 416 52590 3, Ducks 0 416 52610 1, Cars 0 416 52600 4, (1985), £1.95 each
The First Rains, Peter Bonnici (1984), Bell and Hyman, 0 7135 1457 4, £3.50
The Festival, Peter Bonnici (1984), Bell and Hyman, 0 7135 1458 2, £3.50
Coming Home, Ted Harriott (1985), Gollancz, 0 575 03583 8, £4.95
Amber’s Other Grandparents, Peter Bonnici (1985), Bodley Head, 0 370 30671 6, £5.50.