A Refugee’s Journey: Adapting Nick Sousanis’ “Grid and Gestures”

During the second lesson of the “Imaginative Communication” course [a Comparative Media course in which we explore the theme “To Say the Unutterable” by analyzing and comparing the depiction of Psychic Trauma in various visual media, from comics to animated & live-action movies, tv series or choreographies], I asked my Thai & exchange students at the Faculty of Communication Arts (Chulalongkorn University) to do the “Grid and Gestures” exercise developed by Nick Sousanis, professor of Humanities & Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University, and author of the groundbreaking comics dissertation Unflattening published by Harvard University Press in 2015.

[Course: Imgt Comm, 2800217, International Program, CommArts, Chulalongkorn University, 20 January 2020, with 35 students]

Above and below: CommArts students at work on the “Grid and Gestures” exercise


The purpose statement for the exercise provided by Nick Sousanis is as follows:

 “So here’s how to think about Grids & Gestures. Quickly, have a look at your ceiling tiles or other grid-ish things around you. If you then imagine putting these features to music, you might have regular long notes on the tiles, some shorter notes, and maybe rapid staccato beats on a ventilation grill. Ok, now come back to a comics page – and think about the idea that in comics, time is written in space. Comics are static – and it’s in the way we organize the space that we can convey movement and the passage of time. Unlike storyboards, to which comics are frequently compared, in comics we care not only about what goes on in the frame, but we care about the size of the panel, its shape, orientation, what it’s next to, what it’s not, and its overall location within the page composition. The way you orchestrate these elements on the page is significant to the meaning conveyed – there are some strong correspondences between comics and architecture in terms of thinking about the way the entire space operates together.

Having briefly thought about this, I want you to take a single sheet of paper (any size, shape will do) and drawing with a pencil or pen, carve it up in some grid-esque fashion that represents the shape of your day. It can be this day, a recent day, a memorable day, or a typical/amalgamation day. And then inhabit these spaces you’ve drawn on the page with lines, marks, or gestures that represent your activity or emotional state during those times represented. The emphasis here is to do your best to not draw things. (You can always do that later!) And also, you can leave space blank on your page – but that has to mean something. This isn’t writing where you can finish a final sentence mid-page. Every inch of the composition is important in comics – so be aware of that as well. Finally, when I do this in class or with groups, I give people about 5-10 minutes to do it, so they have to make decisions quickly. Try to give yourself a similar limit.”

Nick Sousanis (excerpted from this page)

Above: CommArts student at work on the “Grid and Gestures” exercise

Nanz 01
“Grid and Gestures” by Thai student Nanz. Description: “(1) I wake up late so I started the page with the cloud shape which refers to my dream. Then I have to hurry to take a shower and prepare myself to go to the University. I go to university by BTS [skytrain] and the station is crowded. When I arrive at the station near the campus, I notice that the sky is gloomy. (2) Suddenly, it starts raining. I’m stuck at the station and I’m worried I’ll be late in class. Moreover, I’m hungry since I forgot to eat something this morning. I have to figure out the way to reach my Faculty on time. I try to book a Grab taxi but there is no response. I have to walk under the rain to try to catch a taxi. (3) Finally, I reach the Faculty and I’m in class on time. When the course is finished, I come back home and take a shower. Before going to bed, I watch a movie on Netflix. Then I go to sleep. :)”

Adapting the exercise to depict a refugee’s journey

After this first exercise was completed, I asked the students to draw a second “Grids and Gestures” page but, instead of depicting a personal day/travel/experience, they had to draw the perilous travel of Syrian refugee Rania Mustafa Ali, 20, who had filmed her journey from the ruins of Kobane in Syria to Austria.

“Her footage shows what many refugees face on their perilous journey to Europe. Rania is cheated by smugglers, teargassed and beaten at the Macedonian border. She risks drowning in the Mediterranean, travelling in a boat meant to hold 15 people but stuffed with over 50. Those with disabilities are carried across raging rivers and muddy fields in their wheelchairs.” (The Guardian).

During the 22′ footage, some students drew the “Grids and Gestures” of Rania as her narrative was unfolding while other students preferred to take some notes and draw Rania’s grid right after the end of the film.

Students watching, drawing and/or taking notes during the projection of Rania’s footage.
Student Paar drawing Rania’s “Grid and Gestures” during the projection.
Student drawing Rania’s “Grid and Gestures” during the projection.

The outcome has been positive as students focused [more than usual] their attention on the emotions and struggles experienced by the refugees, trying to capture Rania’s emotional states, and discovering -as they were drawing on a limited space- the physicality and volume of incessant ups-and-downs (hopeful/hopeless…) and turns of events (wait/treks/dead ends/returns) faced during these precarious and usually dramatic odysseys. I’ll try to find time to study the results of this experiment in detail, and see if it tends to raise awareness/mindfulness (Sati/สติ) and empathy towards refugees. A promising exercise.

Here are some of the “grids and gestures” depicting the journey of Syrian refugee Rania Mustafa Ali and composed by CommArts students:

Nanz 02
Ranias’s journey by Thai student Nanz.
Palmmy 02
Ranias’s journey by Thai student Palmmy.
Rika 02
Ranias’s journey by Japanese student Rika.
Paar 02
Ranias’s journey by Thai student Paar.
Meg 02
Ranias’s journey by Dutch exchange student Meg.
Por 02
Ranias’s journey by Thai student Por.
Ink 02

Ranias’s journey by Thai student Ink.
Pure 02
Ranias’s journey by Japanese exchange student Pure.