We recently launched a learning pack to accompany the Illustrating Anthropology exhibition in order to help students navigate their way through the large selection of contributors and the diversity of work on show. The learning pack identifies five categories of ways that anthropologists are using illustration: to illustrate difficult subjects, to tell stories, to produce visual field notes, to collaborate with research participants, and to illustrate information. The categories emerged during the judging of the exhibition entries, and the learning pack identifies several exemplary pieces. After this more informative section are a series of activities that encourage students to think about the categories more critically, and find their own favourite examples on the site. Finally, there are activities that get students to try out anthropological illustration for themselves. Please feel free to download the learning pack here and share among your networks.

We have invited students to respond to the activities and share their work and thoughts with us on this blog. The first person to respond to this open call was Lydia Asoniti who graduated from UCL in 2014 with a BSc in Social Anthropology and has subsequently received her MSc in Social Policy from the LSE, as well as furthering her study at the Athens School of Fine Arts. Below is her response to the learning pack, showcasing her own original artwork and responding to some of the questions posed. Lydia’s beautiful and evocative mixed media collages highlight that there are diverse approaches to illustration which don’t have to rely on traditional methods of drawing or painting. The images should give confidence even to those who protest that it’s impossible for them to illustrate anthropology because they ‘can’t draw’! We hope you enjoy this first student response and encourage you to get in touch with your own (or your students’) work. Blog posts do not have to feature a lot of text, we would be equally happy to showcase visual work with brief background information.


An exploration of Illustration in Anthropology

By Lydia Asoniti

The exhibition “Illustrating Anthropology”  has really inspired me as it showed me a new means to connect my love for drawing and human experience.  The ability to use a variety of techniques to demonstrate sociocultural phenomena and communicate them with a greater audience, I believe greatly changes the way Anthropological research is understood and engaged with. Below is my exploration of an illustrative journey through Anthropological issues which includes artworks and a reflection, based on some of the exhibited work. I have loved expressing myself in a creative manner as much as analysing different artistic practices in relation to culture, sociality, agency and process. My work inherently touches upon events that surround me, problematise me and create questions.

Illustrating difficult subjects: This example of my work was created in response to the drinking water shortage experienced in South Africa in 2018. Day Zero is the term referring to the Water Crisis reaching its peak, which is believed to occur in big cities such as Moscow, Tokyo, London in the following years should behaviours around water consumption be maintained.

The illustration on the right is my interpretation of the emotional turmoil regarding the strict lockdown regime in Athens, Greece. Strong emotions, dreams and desires are all expressed in this abstract collage.               

Illustrating stories: Below is a piece demonstrating the impact of loneliness on individuals and their later retreat in a community setting. Entangled in psychological and mental health drawbacks, one may feel imprisoned in one’s self without a social group for support. Getting closer to religion and its practices, visiting healthcare practitioners, are all an effort to improve wellbeing; but ultimately it is the return to community life that brings tranquility and balance.

Retreat, Mixed media, Lydia Asoniti

Illustrating field notes: This illustration portrays the feelings and physicality of familial disconnect and social distancing.

Barb wire , Mixed media, Lydia Asoniti

Illustrating together: This illustration answers the question: ‘What did your childhood look like?” The sweetness and playfulness of childhood with sunshine and flowers are reminiscent of joy and carelessness.                      

Surrealist Flowers , Mixed media, Lydia Asoniti

 Illustrating information: This illustration is of the human organs that are responsible for the five senses and the stimuli they receive to activate them.                        

My body as.. , Mixed media, Lydia Asoniti

This section consists of my reflections and thoughts based on an illustration from the exhibition. The “just desserts” illustration by Shelly Errington is used to answer questions of effectiveness, design and information sharing.

Just desserts, Shelly Errington, Illustrating Anthropology Exhibition 2021

1. How does illustration help to convey the information/story presented?

This work by Shelly Errigton is a design demonstrating the subject of packaged food quality industrially produced, in a simple and analytical manner. The information is presented in an illustration that resembles a chart so that the issue is understood synthetically. The space is divided into segments that are connected to the central circular structure. It is there, that the main problem of  packaged food is portrayed; alienation from nature and agriculture. The segments surrounding it show the constituents of food that render it unhealthy. The simple illustration, labels and the title of the graphs tell a story in a concise, multifaceted manner allowing me to connect the information and explore the issue at stake.                                                                 

2. Why do you think the artist/researcher chose this technique, and to what extent is it effective?

I believe that the artist chose the specific technique in order to facilitate the understanding of a plethora of information, that would otherwise get communicated through descriptive language and statistics. This is a much more playful way to demonstrate quantities and the information regarding the dietary implications of packaged goods. Additionally, the placement of information makes complete sense in guiding primary and secondary attention to the theme. The title and wording enclose the graph and are placed in parallel, almost creating a continuation of narrative that aid the perception of the subject.

3. How do you think you would feel if you were the subject of this illustration?

I would really like for a personalised display of my dietary habits. I believe that it would allow me to see what can be improved, reduced or eliminated. Moreover, the sketching of food would enable me to view my own needs focusing on a specific time frame and allow me to make connections with sociocultural factors that may have impacted on my decisions. It would be really interesting to have multiple illustrations done in specific time frames to allow for comparison and examinarion of the link between external factors and diets. This would later help me understand how my body reacts and what it needs when factors in the environment change.

4. What did this illustration do which couldn’t be done with writing or more standard forms of photography?

The objects on display are simply drawn and labeled so that they are understood by everyone. The selection of objects clarifies what is meant in each category and maintains my attention. Contrary to photographs which might have seemed overcrowded and difficult to pick up on specific food items. In addition, the sketching technique portrays the food in a playful way and makes it more relatable and personal rather than it being depicted digitally similar to advertisements,  which alienate the consumer from the actual product. The white backdrop and simple lines let the information “breathe” and create space for thoughts to be developed. Overall I believe that a digital collage of the illustration would act like a barrier of impersonality for its perception but the illustration is more relatable and familiar.

5. What might be the benefits of telling difficult stories using illustration? What are the challenges?

The benefits of storytelling through illustration is the ability to give it a character and tailor it depending on the audience that it is addressed. On the other hand, illustrations demonstrate the personal style of their creators, which might interfere in the transfer of messages and the perception of the subject. When difficult stories are expressed by the subjects that experienced them, they can transfer powerful emotions and act as a healing process to their creators.  The Illustrations eliminate the language barrier and allow information to be easily and widely disseminated through images. It is challenging though to ensure that information is understood by everyone in the way it  was intended, as our own individual experiences are at play when trying to make sense of an image. The selection of what is portrayed is also tricky. On the one hand, what is sketched out is rendered focal or more important and what is left out is supplementary information. That information might enhance the context and create a different lens through which one can understand the story and why it may have been difficult.

6. If someone was drawing your story, how would you like them to do it? What might be important for you?

I believe for a story to be successful in transmitting the emotions and messages efficiently, it is important to have an in depth understanding and connection with the individual that is responsible for the illustration part of a story. This would enable the illustrator to get a feel of my own approach, first-hand description of observations and events in an effort to transmit to them the field of research. It is also important to see eye to eye regarding the artistic techniques used, so that the most appropriate one can be selected to communicate the story and all that it entails. Finally, the illustration style, wording and palette are also something that must be decided cooperatively so that they represent the illustrator’s style as much as the theme on display and guide the audience’s thoughts.

7. Do you keep a diary with illustrations already, or use drawing to help with your studies (e.g. revision notes)? How/why?

Throughout the past couple of years it has been really useful for me to draw in order to simplify and express emotions and situations I have encountered. The representations are rather abstract and need an introductory caption in order for one to understand what they may refer to. I have realised though, that the more abstract my drawings are, the better they connect my emotional state with a specific event and time period. Giving me the space to create allows me to decompress, silence my mind and let myself loose while speaking with colours, images, shapes and different mediums. Once finished, I am able to assess my emotions and thoughts created through experiences and situations.

Posted by:publicanthropologists

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