I will confess that I’ve always had the desire to be recognised by an Institution: schools, libraries, museums, universities, you know. Buildings. Bodies. I want my books to be analysed and mined formally, to bridge the gap between the public and institutions, to educate, to inspire joy in learning. I love the world. I love the platonic ideal of academia: to chase a subject wholeheartedly, to share and introduce to outsiders the joy and madness and wonder that comes from seeing something unexpected in a different way, to find interdisciplinary solidarity in fellow nerds. Though I’ve officially left academia to pursue a career that more aligns with my way of storytelling, of learning and teaching, I’m still a scholar at heart. I want to be a part of this network, because it is where I feel most at home in.
And yet recently I was reminded of the Reason why I left academia, and it’s forced me to reconsider my desire to be Institutionally Recognised, if it’s even worth it.
Brief backstory: For 10 years I had studied and persevered for a career in academia. My interests were varied: decolonising therapy, interfaith anthropology and diplomacy, astronomy, biology, science communication. My intent back then was to find something to specialise and pursue public outreach a la Carl Sagan. So there was a kind of established path to take: graduate to a PhD level, stay in a university, publish papers, get a tenure.
Except as I got older, I saw the cracks. Academia was becoming more for-profit and corporatised; the barrier of a cannibalistic, stubborn, white, colonial, cis male legacy; the burnout, harrassment and discrimination of marginalised academics; the pressure to publish pretty-sounding papers that would please newsfeeds and corporate interests in order to obtain increasingly competitive funding. Additionally, 10 years of devoting myself to satisfy the institution of academia (just so I could get a career in it!) had distorted my self-esteem.
So I bounced.
I bounced because I needed to protect my passion for learning. I felt like a vital part of me was gradually being co-opted for corporate, performative, pretentious reasons that went against my principles for open, accessible education. Most importantly, I realised the core of why I wanted to get into academia, to pick up my varied interests at a university level, is because I wanted to tell stories and I wanted to reach out to people. I wanted to explore the world in all its possibilities. I wanted my knowledge to be transformative and beneficial to the public, not confined to the paywalled and jargon-wrought gates of the ivory tower, seen only by a limited privileged audience. So I left and became a professional artist/writer/graphic novelist.
But I am back here again. Except, I am at the courtyard rather than inside the tower. I am looking at this building and body and wondering if it’s worth it to play the game again for the sake of returning inside.
My goals have changed now. I want to be Institutionally Recognised because I want the gatekeepers to recognise the bridging, accessible quality of graphic novels. That artists and writers can perform public outreach, to bring discourse and encourage engagement in history and science and all of the world’s wonders. It’s already happening in a way – some big museums are commissioning graphic novels about their collections, schools are introducing graphic novels into their curricula, etc.
Yes, this is what I also want for myself, but I want to be more ambitious and radical than that, I think. As a creator, I want an active participation in the outreach, rather than a passive one. I don’t simply want to be assigned material or a name in a giftshop. I want to be in the museums pairing art objects with comics pages, comparing a historical artist’s process to a present-day artist’s process, establishing a genealogy between illuminated manuscripts and comics. Get visitors to process their thoughts on collections through comics, have them experience and participate in the conversation of the past, present and future. You know, actual communication. I am a face and a body with a way of seeing and thinking who could be beneficial.
But trying to achieve this is slow and agonising. Plus there’s a kind of established path to take: make a traditionally printed graphic novel (usually realist, autobiographical, political) published by an Institution that somehow appeals to the gatekeeper’s taste for high art, and get enough awards from another Institution to be passively inducted into curricula and giftshops of other Institutions. National Book Award! The Booker Prize! Any diversion away from this path is a lego brick at the bottom of a creator’s feet.
And yes I would like this aspiration for myself (if I can get it). At the same time, I actually care about my sanity. And I think it’s better if I just worked with the people/workers inside the Institution who are open-minded and radical and share the same values and goals. Rather than dance artificially-sanctioned steps so my art can be appreciated by stakeholders or CEOs or some high-level cats who are invested in separating culture from the masses so they can maintain an aura of prestige.
Being the star of a gallery show or an exhibition or an award ceremony is not valuable or important to me if it continues to uphold barriers between the Institution and the public*, of so-called high art and pop culture. If it gives the message that the art is only for Very Smart and Very Prestigious People of a certain flavour and educational background. If it continues to perpetuate alienation from marginalised groups about their place in history and the future. If it discourages children (and adults!) from finding a home in the whitewashed halls of these buildings and bodies. If it imposes heavy penalties and geographical barriers for the privilege of accessing art and knowledge. If it separates my fellow peers like wheat and the chaff.
*IMO the Institution should never be separated from the public but that’s a hot take for another day
I will always want to contribute to museums, schools, libraries, etc and I will forever be open to a working relationship. But I guess, what Institutional Recognition means to me nowadays compared to when I was 18 – 22, has an edge. Something that can’t be polished away, and something that I am happy to brandish.
Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.
She writes and illustrates quite a few webcomics and graphic novels. When not making books, she lulls away her time with essays on craft, life and experiences in the publishing industry. Some of her thoughts of art and life are rather unstructured and will evolve over time as this blog matures, as they should be.
Currently committed to being Alexander the Great's death doula. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.
Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur
French Book Tour, January 2024