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Matt Rota's Art, told by the artist.

CIA Bombings of Somalia

These illustrations were created for the publication In These Times which came out under the Trump administration and described how the president gave the CIA free reign to engage Al-Shabaab however they wanted in Somalia, which resulted in the development of covert operations focused on drone bombing. Good intel is historically hard to gather in Somalia, so the attacks were more haphazard and reckless than usual. Typically when the CIA drops bombs it has to take responsibility for it, those records are public and journalists can access them. But in Somalia, Trump authorized the CIA to not disclose any involvement, unless directly asked by journalists about a bombing of which they [the journalists] knew the exact date and time.

This article attempted to track particular instances of those bombings as well as the collateral damage. Specifically the destruction of farms and livestock and the effect that had on the population. Many of the farmers are adverse to Al-Shabaab, but because of the covert nature of the attacks by the CIA, they have an easier time negotiating with the terrorist group than the CIA; and as their infrastructure and jobs are being destroyed, they find themselves more at the mercy of the devil they know than the one that bombs them from invisible locations.

I worked on this with a journalist in Mogadishu, we chatted over What’sApp. She would send me cell phone footage of farms bombed by the CIA and transcripts of interviews with farmers. Because of the nature of a project like this, details were important. She would describe specific scenes, and the details had to be well researched. The Somali men had to LOOK like Somali men. In the market scene, for instance, it had to be a specific bike. The Al-Shabaab members had to have specific clothing, scarfs, etc. The market had to look correct, the fruit on cardboard on the ground instead of tables. There was a lot of discussion over those details. Even the smoke cloud from the bombing had to be accurate, this was important because it had to be the sort of bomb that the CIA would drop, not say, from a grenade or other missile, otherwise it would potentially discredit the accusations against the CIA. With a topic like this there is a lot of responsibility for accuracy and representation for the sake of credibility, and In These Times is very meticulous, which I deeply respect, and enjoyed engaging with.

ISIS Trials

These illustrations were created for Zeit Magazine. This was during the Trials in Bagdad after ISIS was driven out of Iraq. There were no photographers allowed in the trials, so I was working with a journalist in Baghdad. He would attend the trials in the daytime and go back to his hotel at night and Facetime me from his unlit hotel room where he was sitting in bed in a bulletproof vest telling me details about the trial and courtroom. In particular, the trials were along religious lines, ISIS being Sunni fundamentalist, so the trials had a deadly religious context. The accused ranged from militants to people forced to drive cars for the Islamic State, and other lesser jobs, often because their family was being held hostage by ISIS. Those facing trials would have their heads wrapped in beach towels so they couldn’t see anything, and were led into the court in a long line, their left hands on the shoulder of the prisoner in front of them (seen in one of the illustrations). These were the sort of details the journalist talked about. I had to take notes and make sketches from them and send him pictures, we’d go back and forth on the details until he was comfortable with them.

The Lost Generation

This group of illustrations was created for “Foreign Policy”; which ran a podcast earlier this year on the anniversary of the start of the Syrian Revolution. The podcast was about the children that grew up in refugee camps in Lebanon. Their struggle to get an education, and have basic amenities like proper plumbing and heating in the winter. This is another project that required a lot of research and accuracy. The work I do is not necessarily realistic, it has a journalistic quality, but also a cerebral, expressionist distortion to it. I want the people and places to feel real, not like concepts, rather like actual specific places, but also there is a risk in being too accurate, the drawings could become too technical and cold. I also want the viewers to feel something, to have an emotional reaction, primarily I want the drawings to create a sense of empathy, but without them feeling sentimental. That's the balance I always try to strike. If the people and places feel real, they are more human, more relatable, and that is essential in a story like this, or anything dealing with war and related traumas. Something too abstract keeps the reality at a distance, keeps it vague and kind of “over there”, somewhere far away and easy to forget. In cases like this, I want to be sensitive to the people in the story, give them dignity, not use the trauma in the story as the subject in a way that feels exploitative or sensational either. It is essential with art to build human and emotional connections.

This series of illustrations was selected by The Society of Illustrators, NYC, as some of the best editorial illustrations of 2021 and will be on view at the NYC Museum of Illustration in March. Congratulations Matt!

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