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“The freedom to investigate, interpret and express the relationship between ourselves and our environment is natural and healthy, so the act of making art is a purpose unto itself. Having said that, it is precisely these definitions that also make it a socio-political statement.”

The work of cartoonist Joshua Knowles jumps between humor, conversation and advocacy with surprising ease. Travelling beyond linguistic boundaries, the renowned cartoonist specializes in capturing discussions through artwork, illustrated in real time.

His most recent work brought to life the statements and discussions at the virtual commemoration marking the 5th anniversary of the endorsement of the Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda, the adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 and the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Representatives from governments, the UN, international and regional organizations, academia, and civil society gathered at the virtual commemoration calling for the need to scale-up creative, collaborative and integrated action across the climate change, DRR and human mobility policy areas. Joshua Knowles talks to us about his experience and his role as an artist in the equation…


PDD Secretariat: Tell us about your experience during the 5th Anniversary Commemoration event. Which comments or ideas caught your attention?

Mr. Joshua Knowles: There were so many aspects to the conversation. It was a real eye-opener to hear how all encompassing the issue of climate change is. Responding effectively is a race against time and the clock is ticking. Pretty much every other challenge I heard about at the event cascades from, or is woven into, this issue. From displacement, health and food security to cultural identity, human rights, self-determination and livelihood – it’s everything and everyone’s issue. If my work can support changing things for the better, I want to help anyway I can. A lot of time has already been wasted so we all have to think like cathedral builders now, working triple speed, using every resource available. I was inspired by the proactive and practical steps some governments are taking. For example, the collaboration of design tech innovators and policy makers under the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) risk resilience programs in the Philippines – this is such a pragmatic and positive force in the world.

Illustration capturing the DSWD risk resilience programs in the Philippines during the 5th anniversary commemoration event.

PDD Secretariat: What impact do you hope your work has on people?

Mr. Joshua Knowles: My baseline intention is to record and communicate conversations and concepts clearly and effectively, as a journalist or a translator would.

When my visual interpretation transcends the written language barrier – even better. My best hope is that I can engage and connect useful ideas between people in an inspiring and inventive way, adding a spark of creative expression to help illuminate, expand and move the conversation forward.

Joshua Knowles in action during the 2017 Platform on Disaster Displacement Advisory Committee Meeting.

PDD Secretariat: You make these complex conversations about climate change, disasters and displacement not only accessible but in our opinion, also very cool. How do you maintain this thin line between critically informative and entertaining?

Strategic priorities of the Nansen Protection Agenda.

Mr. Joshua Knowles: Technically, I’m working quickly in real time so there’s a sketchy cartoonish quality to the work by default. I have to make decisions about whether to lean into that or not, depending on the subject matter and occasion. It’s an ongoing challenge in the process: to juggle simple and complicated, technical and emotional, the serious weight of the topic and the humor of good conversation and storytelling. Economy of text and image is crucial, so I’m always listening for key words and concepts to build images and narrative. Once I have the content in place I have to work out my approach and calculate whether less is more, less is less or more is more- it’s quite a balancing act!

PDD Secretariat: In this current climate, the relationship between art, politics and the environment has gotten increasingly complicated. How do you see your role as an artist in this equation?

Mr. Joshua Knowles: I believe in Art for Arts sake – it’s important that art doesn’t need to justify itself to exist or be made. Creative expression is a deeply human instinct. The freedom to investigate, interpret and express the relationship between ourselves and our environment is natural and healthy, so the act of making art is a purpose unto itself. Having said that, it is precisely these definitions that also make it a socio-political statement. It’s impossible to have one aspect without the other.

I’m personally drawn to making art with a functional element, in a shared space and with an end user in mind. In that respect I see myself as a craftsperson or designer too. I enjoy connecting and collaborating with others, sharing learning and building towards a common goal. When drawing for PDD, I feel like a link in a chain of communication and ideas between the project participants and the wider public audience. My work is a practical kind of art making, with problem solving at the heart of the intention. I like a challenge, and there are big challenges in the world right now that need urgent attention, so if I can help in any way, I will!

Illustration of the discussions during the 5th anniversary commemoration event.

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Illustrations: © Joshua Knowles

Useful Links

WATCH - Joshua Knowles Live Sketch Animation

WATCH - Recording of the High Level Panel Discussions

WATCH - Recording of the Technical Panel Discussions

Learn more about PDD’s work in our Workplan 2019-2022:

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