The view from her studio in Berlin gives illustrator Ann Kiernan pause for thought when she arrives at her desk every morning. Room 215 looks out on Hohenschönhausen, once the main political prison run by the East German Communist Ministry of State Security, better known as the Stasi.
It was from this grim location that the Stasi spied on its citizens for four decades. The opening scene of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's award-winning 2006 film The Lives of Others, in which a man is tortured with sleep deprivation until he makes a confession, was set at Hohenschönhausen.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the prison was left untouched as very few people knew of its existence in the restricted zone of East Berlin.
"There's an oak tree directly outside my window," Kiernan says on the phone from Germany. "Just beyond the tree is a corner guard-tower of the prison. My view looks into the prison yard toward the front of the prison and along the high wall on Lichtenauer Strasse. There are a couple of visitors hanging about taking photos." The prison was closed in October 1990, and is now a memorial to the German Democratic Republic's totalitarian past.
When Kiernan moved to Berlin in 1994 to further her artistic ambitions and moved into the studio, the first thing she did was take a tour of the prison.
"You get a first-hand account of what prisoners experienced, because a lot of the tours are given by ex-inmates. The prison is a stark reminder of how oppressive systems work.
"The structure as a whole in East Germany under Stasi rule worked on informants. So the population as a whole was under pretty constant psychological stress. A person could be taken there in the dead of night, interrogated into a confession and a typical sentence could be between 15-25 years in very harsh conditions.
"They might have never found out the reason why. While it's a historical tour into the past here in Berlin," she says, "it's a living reality in many places in the world."
It was another political prison, albeit a digital one, that recently brought the Kells-born artist international acclaim. Her illustration, Twitter Jail (see page 18), won her the prestigious Moira Gemmill Illustrator of the Year and the V&A Illustrated Journalism Award 2020. The illustration accompanied an article by Wael Eskandar ('How Twitter is gagging Arabic users and acting as morality police') for independent media site Open Democracy.
Kiernan read Eskandar's article in advance of starting her work on the illustration. He wanted to show that censorship is an aggressive act. "There was a definite direction he wanted to go with the image," she says. "The article was a deep dive into Twitter censorship, so he didn't want a Twitter logo but it should be obvious the article was about the topic."
She was on the way to her studio when she saw a small dead bird on the street. She made "a quick sketch, made the image and sent it to him". However, this first idea - which Kiernan named Dead Tweet - was rejected. Although Eskandar loved it, he felt it was a little too morbid.
"So while he thought the Dead Tweet was not right, he still thought that the idea of a shot bird was the right way to go. He suggested I try an image in the flowy ink style I work in and the result was Twitter Jail," says Ann.
The V&A judges described what Kiernan came up with as a "violent but beautiful image" and "an innovative interpretation of the well-known corporate logo."
While Kiernan understands how social-media platforms can be a force for good, especially for movements such as Black Lives Matter, MeToo and Repeal the Eighth, she says that Twitter should be "separate from governmental influence and in regions like Middle East and North Africa, users should be afforded the same rules as Western users."
Born in March 1973, Kiernan grew up in the Kells countryside in Co Meath. On days when it was miserable and wet, she got lost in books or drawing. Kiernan loved making marks on paper, the smell of crayons in her hand or how paper "buckled" when it got wet with paint. "And that had a satisfying crackling sound when it dried," she says.
"I was always very sensory, so the smells and sounds of drawing were and are still part of the appeal for me - I think it's the same for a lot of artists. I became wholly absorbed back then and luckily when I draw and paint I still do."
She would later go on to study classical animation at Ballyfermot Senior College.
Ann's younger sister, Olivia, is a novelist, whose most recent book, If Looks Could Kill, was released last summer. Kiernan says it was healthy to have another creative so close. "We have always enjoyed sharing ideas and teasing things out when inspiration is lacking. At times, when I'm sitting looking at a blank page, a chat about how some plot thread is causing a problem is exactly the ignition that's needed for both her and me.
"Olivia writes crime fiction so that can lead to some pretty grisly conversations but she knows I'm not fearful to push boundaries when it comes to putting things on paper in a visual sense, so that works really well for us both. It's made for interesting eavesdropping at times. She would regularly call me when I'm on the train, which I'm sure caused more than a few missed stops for hooked commuters."
In terms of her politics, Kiernan says she is interested in civil society. "I am interested in politics, but most of all, I'm interested in the human story and how we all affect each other sharing this planet."
How would she describe her political journey as an artist? What shaped her?
"When I moved to Dublin to go to art school in 1991, Ireland was just dragging itself out of the 1980s which was a pretty dismal time - for unemployment, emigration, the troubles in Northern Ireland, women's rights. The greenhouse effect was a hot topic then and there was major drugs crisis, in Dublin in particular. A lot of students I knew were politically interested. Regularly, I joined marches for rights or change."
In 1992, Kiernan, who had just turned 19, went to the European Parliament in Strasbourg as part of a student delegation representing Ireland to talk about the greenhouse effect and other issues concerning young people. "It was a two-day event and was a first experience in engaging with young people who were coming from newly democratised countries."
She remembers a conversation with a counterpart from [now North] Macedonia, who was still getting used to her country's separation from the former Yugoslavia. "It was a big learning » » curve. This trip had a big impact on me."
The experience made Kiernan "more interested to look at what happens outside of Ireland".
Today, she lives in a small flat with a high ceilings in an old building in the neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg in former East Berlin.
"When I moved from Ireland I brought all my furniture and belongings," she says, "So there is a bit of an Irish feel to the place.
"It's a fast-changing area. There are wide streets and plenty of green areas. Good to run in the evenings. It's close to what you might describe as the centre of Berlin, but there is no real city centre."
Each neighbourhood, she says, has its own feel. "Kreuzberg and Neukölln have a more artsy vibe, but overall I have found Berlin to be a fantastic incubator for my practice."
Do her personal politics influence her work, or the work she chooses to take on?
"Up until now, I have not been approached for a commission that would make me question whether ethically I want to make that piece. Like most illustrators, I usually am approaching the publication so I guess I'm the one making that decision."
Last October, Kiernan produced six illustrations for The Washington Post for a series of articles to mark the second anniversary of the murder of exiled Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi. Kiernan felt "a lot of responsibility to hit the right tone. The written pieces were sometimes scathing, and some were deeply personal, especially the article written by Hatice Cengiz."
In the article, headlined, 'We have been deprived of Jamal Khashoggi's voice, but his silence says it all', Hatice wrote: "Two years ago, I believed I was embarking soon on one of the happiest days of my life. But today, I am writing this in memory of a tragic day that should not be forgotten by anyone - the day my fiancé, Jamal Khashoggi, entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and was brutally murdered. Over the past two years, I have had to deal with the pain and disappointment that those who committed this heinous crime and killed an innocent man in the most brutal way, and those who ordered this monstrosity, remain unprosecuted and unpunished."
"I simply wanted to visually describe the void that has been in her life since," Kiernan says, referring to her illustration of "a silhouette of Hatice which stands in a cut-out space in the shape of Jamal (opposite, right). It's a very quiet piece, and I incorporated some additional elements - a line of scarlet red crayon in the top corner of the image."
Another illustration from the series shows a broken scale of justice large in the foreground and in the background are some silhouettes identifiable as world leaders. There's a slash of red crayon on the ground in front of the scales.
"I like to put additional marks on my illustrations for emphasis or to somehow draw on emotion," Kiernan says. "A small delicate pencil line or red crayon mark can be a very effective way to quickly translate vulnerability or aggression."
For the portrait Kiernan made of Jamal (opposite, top), she wanted to draw the reader in - "so he looks directly at us. Over his shoulder is a gathering of silhouettes. Raising Justice off the ground, she holds her scales aloft."
Asked about the aesthetic of her work, Kiernan says: "I think my illustrations are getting known for having this delicate but violent aesthetic. How I achieve that is by using flowing inks and incorporating additional elements to translate emotion. As news moves increasingly online, I believe it's important to try to tap into the emotion of a written piece, and that was my approach to the Khashoggi images. The ink has an organic signature that is appealing, it allows the paper texture to be seen."
Kiernan was also commissioned by left-wing organisation Progressive International last year to illustrate an article about the Greek far-right political party and criminal organisation, Golden Dawn. "I'd read about the protests in Athens," she says, "I already had some awareness of the story."
The first thing that came into Kiernan's mind was that Greece was the birthplace of democracy. She knew a good backdrop for the image would be the Acropolis.
"I'd seen photos online of neo-Nazis marching in the streets with the typical paraphernalia - flags with swastikas and tiki torches. It was a case of putting those three elements together. I had the extinguished tiki torch with just smoke rising and it looked ok; then - sometimes it'll come to me in the middle of the night - the added element; that was the smoke forming the scales of justice." It's an undoubtedly impactful work (see pages 16 and 17), but Kiernan's illustrations also have the potential to have a real-world impact as well as an emotional one.
Did her award-winning Twitter Jail illustration and the accompanying article change anything?
"The article did result in some engagement with the journalist and Twitter, but unfortunately suspensions are still happening. His investigation was sparked when Egyptian protesters who were using Twitter to speak out against corruption began to have their accounts blocked and suspended," Kiernan says.
She adds that in terms of the Twitter politically, it is now 'flagging' disinformation on very public accounts, and, of course, permanently suspended former US President Donald Trump's account this month. "We can all read about this but activists' accounts in the Middle East and North Africa regions are regularly suspended," she says.
Kiernan firmly believes that we all have the potential to be change-makers.
"I am a believer in the visuals of 'feet on the ground' or the show of numbers to make change. Now I get the opportunity to bring a visual impact to issues that sometimes go unseen."
To see more of Ann Kiernan's work, see annkiernan.com
Illustrations by Ann Kiernan