Life after Trump: Christoph Niemann, Na Kim and Edel Rodriguez look to the future
The past four years have seen striking magazine covers, biting political cartoons and design as activism. Will that be part of the outgoing president’s lasting impact?
During his unsuccessful run for the White House in 2019, Senator Michael Bennet said: “If you elect me president, I promise you won’t have to think about me for two weeks at a time.” He was trying to tap into an emotion many of us have felt in recent years: a desire for just a bit less news (at least from the White House).
This week, as Trump allowed President-elect Joe Biden to start the transition of power (although without actually conceding the election), a question occurred to our team at It’s Nice That: Has the outgoing president had a lasting impact on the world of creativity? The past four years have certainly seen some striking magazine covers, biting political cartoons and inspiring activism in design. Looking back, will we see that as part of the Trump legacy? Or will things go back to “normal” creatively once he leaves office?
To mull over this question and unpack it, we spoke to three prominent illustrators, who have been asked more than most over the past four years to depict President Trump: Christoph Niemann, the renowned illustrator of well over 20 New Yorker covers and the face of one particularly brilliant episode of Netflix’s popular series Abstract; Na Kim, an art director and illustrator, whose work can regularly be seen gracing the pages of The New York Times; and Edel Rodriguez, the artist behind many a cover for Time magazine and Der Spiegel, responsible for some of the most famous depictions of Trump since 2016.
It turns out they all have differing opinions on what The Trump Years will mean for their work and the creative and publishing industries more generally. Below you’ll find some hope that the creative world will be left in a better place off the back of this period of history, but you’ll also hear some words of warning against being too optimistic. And you’ll find a modicum of excitement, too, for the hopefully quieter news cycle that Michael Bennet once promised.
Edel was born in Havana, Cuba, and grew up there until he was eight years old, when his family emigrated to the United States during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. He studied painting in New York before later going on to work as an art director at Time magazine for 14 years. Today he is one of the world’s best-known illustrators, has illustrated over 150 magazine covers, written two children’s books, and exhibits his paintings all over the world, from Latin America to Europe and the US.
It’s Nice That: How many times have you personally depicted Trump? And what was the experience like, creatively and personally?
Edel Rodriguez: I’ve created about 25 magazine covers on this president and have created about 150 other illustrations for magazines, book covers and to be shared online. I saw him as a danger to the country and the world from the start and felt that it was very important to confront him and deny him the traditional treatment that a president would get. Politicians are typically depicted on magazine covers in photographs or flattering paintings that compliment them in some manner. My work is much more strident and something that neither the president nor any of his supporters are likely to share or frame in their offices. I felt it was important to deny him that legitimacy in the public’s eyes. I wanted to keep a visual record of the racist, misogynist and illegal conduct of this president for future generations. Magazine covers mark a point in time and I’m glad I was able to get this kind of work on covers that were seen worldwide.
INT: Depicting Trump has been such a feature of the past four years for many illustrators. Now that he is leaving the White House, what do you think that will mean for you and your practice? Is it nice to think you'll be doing it less or will you miss parts of it?
ER: I’m looking forward to only hearing from my president once a month or so. I look forward to spending more time on my paintings, books and other editorial work. I felt I was the right person, at the right place and time, and saw it as a duty as an immigrant to become involved in following through on my ideas and on this overall project. If the work looks angry, it’s because I was. If some felt it was disrespectful, well, yes, that was my intent.
INT: It feels like some of the “Trump work” created over the past four years – by you and others – has been some of the best work around. Do you think Trump has left any kind of lasting legacy on the worlds of illustration and art direction?
ER: My hope is that these years will show clients that strong, opinion-centred art is something that can excite a readership and bring attention to the publications that publish it. I hope that publishers will look at and publish work that is more personal, where the artists have a genuine take on what is going on. Rather than giving artists assignments with ideas that are already set in stone, clients should be on the lookout to see where the artist’s head is at and amplify their work by publishing it. I was working on my online campaign for about a year before the work was picked up by publishers. Some of the images that landed in magazines were things that I was already working on or had published on my own social media feeds and street posters first.
Na Kim is an in-house art director at the New York-based publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She also works as a freelance illustrator and, in her spare time, maintains a lively interest in bready creations that resemble haute-couture shoes.
It’s Nice That: How many times have you personally depicted Trump or commissioned a visual that depicts him? And what was the experience like?
Na Kim: I can’t think of an exact number off the top of my head, but it’s probably around 20 times. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given and trusted with, but creatively, personally, mentally, it’s gruelling. I don’t enjoy any part of it, to be honest. For a lot of these illustrations and articles, you’re required to depict Trump and these polarising figures in a neutral non-partisan way, and I find that part extremely difficult. Lipstick on a pig situation, you know what you mean?
INT: Now that he is leaving the White House, what do you think that will mean for illustrators, art directors and publishers? For some, depicting Trump has been a huge part of their businesses and work for the past four years.
NK: I’d love to imagine a world where we never have to show his face or name again, but I highly doubt it. The consequences of the past four years will be lasting, and the news and media will definitely have to reflect that. I think we will be parsing and figuring out the lasting trauma of the past four years for a long time.
INT: It feels like some of this work has been some of the best art that’s come out of the past four years. Do you think Trump has left any kind of lasting legacy on the worlds of illustration and art direction?
NK: Figuring out interesting ways to depict the same figure or idea over and over again can be a challenge, but I think a lot of publications have successfully learned how to do that. I also don’t think you could look at a red hat again without thinking of Trump, so I think it’s something we’ll have to avoid for a while!
Having studied graphic design in his native Germany, Christoph moved to New York in the late 1990s and made a name for himself as an illustrator with a gift for deftly capturing an atmosphere, a personality, a thought using just a few simple lines. Now back in Berlin, he’s become one of the world’s most cherished (and busiest) illustrators.
It’s Nice That: You said recently that you’ve probably only drawn Trump three or four times. I’m keen to know what that experience was like, creatively and personally?
Christoph Niemann: I turned down a number of jobs that were about Trump. For me, the difficulty with Trump is separating the policies from the person. As terrible as he is, I still think he is not the problem – really it’s Trumpism, it’s the idea behind it. I have a rule for myself (that I sometimes don’t quite manage to stick to), which is not to make fun of people’s appearances. Because it’s what the other side does. And when you remember the campaign against Hillary and how there were such vile comments, depictions of her, attacks on her for being a woman who’s not, you know, 20. It was so disgusting. It’s easy to make Trump look ridiculous in a kind of cartoony way, but that is not how he should be defeated. It is the message that one should be focusing on journalistically. This is something I’ve been struggling with.
INT: Are you saying that mocking his appearance is like making light of him? And actually he needs to be taken more seriously, because of what he stands for.
CN: Absolutely. If we make fun of him, it feels like a sense of relief. But you change nothing. And it’s also part of the game. It’s deflection. And what we’ve actually done is create hot air and while we’re distracted, he is able to sneak by his policies. Something that really freaked me out was when I read an interview or quote from him, where he said that he deliberately throws out Tweets that he knows the left will go crazy about, and how this actually fuels his base and fuels him. So we’re doing exactly what he wants us to do.
INT: Do you think Trump has left any kind of lasting legacy on illustration, art direction and publishing? Do you feel like the world that you exist in will be changed by the four years of Trump?
CN: Art Spiegelman once wrote fantastic piece on how a caricature develops, how, for example, with George W. Bush, it took a while for him to be branded as a certain recognisable shape. And the same is actually true for Hitler – there were a lot of short people with this kind of parting in their hair and the small moustache, but now it takes two strokes and you recognise it. Most politicians, when they come into power, will become very prominent after a while, and there’s a certain formula that then becomes recognisable. The same has happened with Trump now, because you only have to put blonde hair on something and then you have two choices – either Boris Johnson or Trump. There’s a new piece of vocabulary in the graphic language and that new shorthand. But the problem with Trump is that he said and did so much outlandish stuff. Often it’s been problematic to find an image for it. Because the whole idea of a classic caricature is an exaggeration. And usually, when you say somebody is a modern-day racist, you would exaggerate that and say, “Oh, he’s like somebody pretending an entire other people consists of rapists.” And then he actually says Mexicans are rapists. There’s no way to really exaggerate. How much further do you want to push that? So that’s been the legacy.
INT: What do you think life after Trump looks like for people like you who have drawn him and been asked a lot to draw him over the past four years?
CN: Somebody said about Biden that the greatest promise of a Biden presidency independently of how we think about his politics is that we won’t have to think about him every day. That has been a problem – we have a world of eight billion people, we have a climate crisis, we have huge problems, from democracy movements in Asia to cybersecurity, like there are so many things! And I feel we’ve been completely co-opted by this one politician in one country of 330 million people. I just want to give more computing power in my brain back to the stuff that maybe matters more than this one guy and I feel he has had more of my mental pie than he deserved.
Edel Rodriguez: Magazine covers (Copyright © Edel Rodriguez, 2020)