Apila Pepita is an illustrator and comics artist who often deals with issues such as feminism, animal rights, queer identities and mental health. Let’s meditate with Apila Pepita upon storytelling as a tool for empowerment, the importance to listen to the animals and giving a voice to minorities.
Apila Pepita, how do you define yourself?
I would call myself mostly an illustrator and a comics artist. I do consider myself to be also an activist. My activism is very much linked to my art – I can explore themes that I deem important to discuss. I can open up conversations in an easily approachable and digestible way. I enable the working of other artists by creating platforms for them to share their stories. For some issues like ableism and racism, I am not the person being impacted by it, so I want others to speak from their own experience. Giving a voice to minorities through events and publications, and sharing their work on online platforms can help to be heard by a wider audience. I have done activist work dealing with feminism, LGBTQAI+ rights, green politics, anti-racism, veganism, animal rights, environmental issues and mental health awareness.
What is veganism for you?
Veganism is a very important part of my life. I could not imagine going back to consuming animal products. I became vegan for the animals and the environment, my health was a secondary benefit. It was hard to find vegan food in Finland when I adapted plant based diet around 2011. Now it is super easy to find a vegan alternative to everything in any supermarket in Helsinki. Vegan food has become more popular and the producers are also taking note of it. There are many new vegan food products coming out in Finland these days, I don’t even have the time to try out everything. Eating vegan food has helped me to have a healthier relationship with food and I don’t feel guilty when eating the food I eat. I have had eating disorders in the past, so being able to not worry about food all the time is very liberating! I can also eat more food, if I eat mostly fruits and vegetables. I hope to have a mainly raw vegan diet in the future.
Veganism is not just about food for me, I also consider the other products I consume. I don’t want to support companies that use animal products when making their products. I used to study fashion design, the process of making clothes is familiar to me. I don’t buy clothes that have wool, leather, silk or other animal ingredients in them. I had some old clothes that had been made of wool or leather, but I have given most of them away since I don’t want to walk around promoting the use of animal products in clothes. I also buy only vegan and cruelty free makeup products.
Veganism for me is also about respecting animals. I don’t want to talk about animals in an oppressive way. I use language that respects animals. For example, I say “I take care of my dog” rather than “I own my dog” to say that I am a caregiver to the animal and not the possessor of her/him. I also don’t want to put bad connotations to animals. For example, instead of saying “pigs are dirty and stupid”, I would say “pigs are clean and smart”, which builds respect and maybe makes people to question eating the animal.
When taking care of my dog, I want to put the dog’s needs and natural habits up front. I am not trying to change the dog to be a puppet and a human pleaser. I let my dog to do his dog things, like barking and growling, which are a natural part of dogs’ communication. I don’t want to completely train my dog not being able to express himself with his own language. Many people see a dog’s barking as a negative thing, but it is just their form of communication.
You have said that “While my visuals might be colourful and happy I do often tackle difficult subjects in my art and try to contrast the darkness with cuteness.” Can you elaborate on this?
With my art I have dealt with difficult topics such as mental health, trans rights, sexual abuse and substance abuse. Especially when I am making my comics or illustrations for a younger audience I want the art to be easy to approach. That is why I usually opt for a colourful and light-hearted tone to make the taboo subjects less scary. Using dark visuals with dark subjects has also a place, but for me education and accessibility are the most important. The visuals used in illustration create stereotypes.
When creating stories I am often trying to persuade the reader of something, whether it be that nature should be respected or how to be more considered towards trans people. Like any kind of media, comics can influence people. The stories told in comics create stereotypes that can have an impact on the real world in a negative way. Building positive connotations to different groups of people is important.
Intersectional feminism is at the core of my work. I want to take into account the many different aspects that can have an impact on our lives in an oppressive way.
Any thoughts on why graphic novels and comics have been so widely used for telling the stories, including of social justice warriors through the lens of diversity and intersectionality?
Underground comics have been a voice of the minorities for a long time. When there is a big production house behind a project it will make adjustments to it and try to make it more marketable to a wider audience. With comics the production process is much different. Comics can usually be made by just one person instead of a whole crew of people having their own opinion on each choice made in the production. A comics can be an artistic materialisation of only one person’s mind. There might be an editor chiming in on the process, but usually you are allowed to do whatever you want with comics, especially in Finland where the audience for comics is much smaller than in USA, for example. Comics are usually not a financial success in Finland, it is a work of passion. When you are doing passion projects, you have a need to say something with your story.
People often use comics for autobiographical storytelling. Through true experiences stories of oppression can be very impactful. The comics blog format, very popular in Finland, has had people exploring themes of mental health very openly. The sample of others discussing their issues through their comics can inspire others to do the same as well. The comics scene in Finland is also very accepting, so bringing difficult subjects out will most likely meet with praise rather than hate.
You are organising a project called “Näkymätön sukupuoli”. What is this project all about?
“Näkymätön sukupuoli” started as a school project with my classmates in 2015. We were tasked to create an art work about gender for the course’s end exhibition. I suggested we showcase non-binary gender identities in this project. Being a non-binary person myself I felt that there wasn’t much information available in Finland. Spreading information about non-binary genders could help people to find themselves relating of it and also help others be more aware of using the right terms of non-binary people. To give an accurate representation of non-binary gender identities, we decided to interview non-binary people and offer their feelings and experiences on how they found themselves and how they identify.
The project was well received at the exhibition and I wanted to continue the project. I contacted Veera Järvenpää, the editor in chief of Voima Magazine and suggested that Voima could have an article about non-binary gender identities and use our interviews as a basis. Järvenpää got really excited about the prospect and wanted to have a whole article series in the Voima magazine. So each month as the magazine was published in 2016–2017 we had an interview of a non-binary person in the magazine. I found the interviewees through an open call on social media. Järvenpää wrote the interviews and Jenni Holma shot the portrait photographs. The interviews gained a lot of shares on social media as well and showed the need for this kind of information in Finnish.
In late 2016 we recieved a grant from Kone Foundation and were able to start working on a book based on the project! We updated the interviews and I, Kimmo Lust and Pii Anttonen also created autobiographical comics for the book. Kaisu Tervonen came to help with the interview alongside with Veera Järvenpää and Jenni Holma took new photos for the book. The book was finally published in spring 2018. The book has been very popular and we already made a second print of it! We are also having exhibitions with the photographs and comic around Finland and trying to get the information also out to smaller towns in northern Finland.
After we started the interview series in Voima many other Finnish medias have also highlighted non-binary people. This is a great development since before there was no talk about non-binary gender identities, their rights and needs in Finland. There was some problems with the trans clinic in Finland not giving out gender correction treatment for non-binary people las summer. But we demonstrated and made a fuss about it and now the possibility for treatment has been given back to non-binary people. Some non-binary people need treatment through hormones and surgery, but some do not need it.
You are also a part of an art project RIKKI that showcases the struggles of mental health sufferers with different mediums of art. How this project can offer support and help for rehabilitation?
I started RIKKI project in 2015with a small group of artistshoping to remove stigma around talking about mental health issues. The RIKKI is a mainly visual arts orientated art project. The RIKKI is open for everybody, we welcome anybody to join our ever-growing group of artists. The project offers a community for people struggling with mental health issues to create art together and share it with the world anonymously or with their own name. Many of the artists involved in the project find processing their own issues through art therapeutic. Finding others who might have similar issues can be validating and make you feel less alone with your problems.
We have had exhibitions all around Finland, we run a communal art blog and have published two books. Our latest book “Rikkinäisen mielen kuvat” was published in 2017 by Suuri Kurpitsa and had comics from over 20 artists. We are planning to have a third book as well. The books are a way for people to find us and learn about the lives of people struggling with mental health issues. It offers a touch into the real lives of the artists and it is told with their own voice. We have held comic workshops mainly in the capital area in Finland where we go to institutes with young people or people suffering with mental health issues. In these workshops we teach expressing one’s ideas through comics and offer them a healthy outlet for their issues.
We do not offer treatment for mental health issues, that is left for the professionals. What we can offer is community and a safe space to explore the troubles through different art forms.
What is the position of creativity and activism for you?
For me creativity and activism are a natural symbiosis. Art is the most natural way to communicate my thoughts, so I’d rather make art about a subject than talk about it. I do also talk about these topics, but for me making art feels easier and I can express myself that way better. Art might not be the best or most optimal way of doing activism but for me it feels like the only way I know how to do it. And if my art has been helpful in making an impact on this world then that is a good result and I will keep doing it.
What are the main ways graphic designers and illustrators can contribute to social impact?
The main way to make an impact as a visual designer is changing the norms of the visual language we use. Instead of just having skinny and conventionally attractive white people in illustrations we can choose to include other kinds of people and body types in our illustrations to make them more visible in our culture. Portraying a larger variety of bodies and humans in illustration can help minorities have representation in media and break the “standard human” mold that many people do not fit in. This can make us to love ourselves and our bodies more and not see ourselves as out of the norm and that we would need to achieve this fictitious image of a perfect human. We are all valued and great just the way we are.
Varied representation is key in breaking bad stereotypes. If you need to portray a family in an illustration, could that family have same sex parents? An adopted child or a disabled parent? Giving representation to minorities is important to make them normalised. Portraying positive lifestyles in illustration can help normalising these lifestyles as well, drawing your characters eating a vegan dinner instead of a steak. Little visual choices can have an impact on society in the longer run when these things are not seen as weird anymore, but normal. Also showing positive representations of animals, not making the animals look bad or disgusting, but good and respectful creatures. I try to portray my animals in a natural way (unless I am drawing fantasy animals like unicorns) and not add clothes or anthropomorphic features to animals so the viewer would not distance the pictured animal from nature. The more we distance the animals in our art from reality the less likely we are to relate to the animal when we see it in real life. By portraying animals doing their realistic behaviour in their natural environment we can also come to respect the natural way of these animals not see the modern changes to these animals as normal (for example short snouted dogs or keeping animals in captivity).
What vegans, creative activists, comics artists, etc would you say have influenced you the most, and why?
Finnish comic artists Kaisa Leka and Tiitu Takalo have inspired me to make artistic comics and their success has inspired me to pursue a career in this field. An illustrator Laura Heikkala and a comic artist JP Ahonen are also great role models, and anybody else with their wholesome personalities and down to earth attitudes even in their great success. My personal friend and a comic artist Kimmo Lust is a great inspiration to me with their courage to talk about difficult subjects and determinedly following their own unique style.
What’s next up for you?
I am currently working hard on my Master’s Thesis and hope to graduate next spring from my studies at Aalto University from the Visual Communication Design programme. For my thesis I am creating a webcomics called “Crop Circles” that will go online next year. You can follow my instagram @apilapepita to stay up to date on the webcomics. Also, I have many illustration gigs going on, but I can’t talk much about them yet! I have been learning animation recently and I will make some more animated shorts in the upcoming year.