Opening night of “Sex. Money. Race. Gender.” will involve coloring, games, on-camera interviews, and revising historical documents. At least that’s what the audience will be doing. The artists, all members of the Ladydrawers Comics Collective, will be hula hooping, performing stand-up comedy, collaborating on a mural, and acting out a live-action comic.
The Ladydrawers, a loose affiliation of visual artists with an interest in social justice, is a project of Anne Elizabeth Moore, an artist, writer, educator, and general phenom whose own work frequently focuses on gender in media and culture. In 2009 Moore began teaching a class at the School of the Art Institute about gender in comics; the class looks not only at the representation of women in comic books and graphic novels, but also at the existing conditions for women and transgender artists in those fields. The conditions they found, Moore says, were “really appalling,” with women and trans writers and illustrators published at lower rates than their male counterparts and paid drastically less.
When the semester ended, students in the class discovered that they had started a conversation they were too passionate about to drop. “We realized, this is what we do now,” Moore says. “We hang out and make comics about really difficult issues together.” That’s Ladydrawers.
They’ve since broadened their scope to finding visually creative ways to take on issues of bias in other cultural forms, not just comics. Essentially any stereotype, loophole, prejudice, economic condition, or unwritten rule that can inhibit someone from joining the cultural conversation because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, or economic status is in their line of fire. Projects have included a mail campaign in which postcards designed by the Ladydrawers to highlight inequality in the comics industry were sent to anyone working in that industry; a road trip to Missouri to hand-deliver copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves to the office of U.S. congressman Todd Akin; and a collaborative comic strip currently published at Truthout.org.
The work in “Sex. Money. Race. Gender.,” Moore says, ranges from “didactic to weird.” It includes Cash Kitty, a photography project by Melissa Gira Grant in which sex workers take pictures of the money they make alongside their pets; captions contain information on what the money was spent on. Throughout the month the show is up, four Chicago artists (Polly Yates, Elliott Junkyard, Danielle Chenette, and Sarah Bell) collaborate on The Wall of the Unknown, a mural that explores sex and gender. Labor, an installation in the gallery’s front window by Elizabeth White, documents ways in which the collective’s artists supported themselves while preparing work for the exhibit, such as child care, retail, and sex work.
The collective will also hold workshops in the gallery space—an “experimental-pedagogical” series designed to raise participants’ awareness of the social conditions they live in. Life and Labor, for instance, a workshop led by journalist Sarah Jaffe and cartoonist Delia Jean Hickey, will explore the emotional toll of working in the service industry.
Hickey worked for years as a waitress at Miller’s Pub in the Loop, and used the experience in her comic book series Station in Life (she’ll also be the one hula hooping on opening night). She wanted to look at the impact of “reducing your own status to elevate that of the person you’re serving” on a daily basis, and the drain that has on people’s lives. “You’re stuffed into these emotional circumstances where you’re required to act a certain way,” she says. “What sort of impact does that have on your sense of self or being?”
Jaffe will talk about the serving class in America in light of gender, race, and economic issues. Hickey will lead the participants in artistic response to what they’ve heard, in an activity that combines self-portraiture with the placemat doodling.
“Being superdidactic about oppressions has not been effective,” Moore says; the collective attracts artists who care about addressing inequality but recognize the importance of art, participation, and humor. As such, visitors to the exhibit might find themselves filling in pages of a giant coloring book called Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls Will Be . . ., in which standard fairy-tale situations are presented in a different gender context. The caption on one page, which portrays Rapunzel gazing out from her tower, reads, “This time she had some power tools, a pair of scissors, a roll of duct tape, a Tina Turner album and a bus pass.”