The comic artist
Since winning UNICEF’s worldwide school superhero comic contest last January, Rizka Ramli consistently gets asked the same questions: “Who inspired you to draw?”; “What style of drawing and what kind of subjects do you enjoy most?” Her reply is twofold, at once interrogative and sophisticated: “Does there have to be a who? The world inspires me”; “I draw whatever speaks to me.”
Rizka, who was still 17 when she was declared winner, projects a quiet confidence and more than a hint of the pure artist. It’s as if she were born to draw, and her body of work—mostly manga-style, of various narrative depths—attests to it.
However, on the matter of Cipta, her winning superhero, she becomes animated. Although not strictly biographical, much of Rizka’s own story resonates through her.
"I created Cipta, literary, a few hours before the competition deadline. It was one of those ‘ping’ moments,” she said gleefully. “I suddenly knew what she looked like, how she moved in this world.”
Cipta is a junior high school student with the ability to see The Silence—a dark, ominous figure who goes around forcing victims and witnesses of violence into silence. UNICEF created this supervillain to symbolize the already existing silence on violence. To fight this creature, Cipta draws many birds—“doves,” Rizka insisted, “the symbol of peace”—, breathes life into them and send them all over the world. The birds stay with those in need, encourage them to draw the experiences they are reluctant to talk about, and bring the drawings to whomever they are intended: the perpetrator, the authorities, a friend, or Cipta herself.
“The idea is to encourage victims and witnesses of violence to speak up,” said Rizka, “Like me, many people find it easier to draw than talk, especially when what they went through was traumatic.”
In the beginning, Rizka envisaged Cipta as a student in her own school in Makassar who grew up with her single working mother, an idealistic journalist. One day the mother disappeared, presumably killed by the powers that be. Cipta had to learn to fend for herself.
Later, Rizka decided that her superhero should be a nomadic figure, moving from school to school. “Cipta may have supernatural abilities, but her approach to combating bullying and violence is essentially one of peace,” she added. “And this might have something to do with my own experience.”
Rizka was nine when she had her first experience with bullying. She was riding her bicycle alone in her neighborhood, and as she was pulling into an alley, she was verbally accosted by a group of older local children.
“As I turned back, another group of children was blocking my way. I was hemmed in. So I just sat still, on my bike, waiting until sundown for them to disperse. I was paralyzed.”
For a while Rizka refused to go out of the house. One of her siblings had to bring her to and pick her up from school. It was in this turmoil that she found refuge in her drawing, fed by a steady supply of video games, anime films and comic books.
At junior high school her encounter with bullying and harassment became more frequent. Soon she became more attuned to their varying shades. “There were days in which I would just cry at home. I stopped drawing, because I didn’t want to remember. I also ate a lot and got fat. I guess I wanted to make myself less attractive. Not that it changed anything. I still got jeered at, catcalled, bullied by both boys and girls.”
At the end of junior high, she somehow found her way back to drawing, and to her world of comics. “That was when I started thinking, oh, there is a way of articulating a problem without having to speak about it.” This feeling solidified in her, little by little, up until UNICEF launched its school superhero contest in October 2018. The contest was designed to help end bullying and violence that confront children and young people around the world.
“It stirred something in me,” Rizka said. “It made me rethink my relationship with drawing, the possibilities of art as a tool of resistance.” It also made her take a harder look at herself. “I realized I’m non-confrontational by nature. Maybe that’s why I chose the dove as Cipta’s messenger.”
In April, she started working with a team of comic professionals in the US to produce a 10-page comic book based on her concept. “I learned a lot in the process. They showed me not only how to convey violence with more subtlety, but also how to plot, pace and be more concise.”
Now that she has graduated from high school, Rizka has a lot of free time on her hands. For now, she is contented with the few drawing commissions that have come her way. “They will keep me busy during the holiday,” she said. She is hoping to get accepted at ISI, the famous art school in Yogyakarta.
She is also excited about her upcoming trip to New York, and about presenting the book at the annual United Nations High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). “If I have only one message to convey to people I’ll meet there, it will be that schools should be the one place free of violence and bullying, not the other way around.”