After 83 days in detention, Mohammad Saba'aneh releases his first cartoon from prison.
After 83 days in detention, Mohammad Saba'aneh releases his first cartoon from prison.
In March, we reviewed The Art of Controversy by Victor S. Navasky, a (historic) tour of 30 of the world's best cartoonists and the controversial work they created. In a post on Buzzfeed, Navasky has compiled a list of 15 cartoons that had a profound and lasting impact on the world. All these cartoons are also features in the book.
Liza Donnelly is a cartoonist for The New Yorker; her cartoons also appear on Forbes.com and Women's eNews.org. We meet in Caen at the 3rd International Cartoonists Festival, where we talk about women and cartoons.
I wrote a book titled Funny Ladies, which is about the history of cartoonists who are women in the New Yorker magazine. It spans from 1925 to the present, and there actually were women cartoonists in the first issue in 1925. So I've done a lot of research on that topic, and I have been involved with women cartoonists around the world as well. Reading about why there aren't more women cartoonists, and also reading about humor and gender, I can say that it's a complicated question. There isn't one answer.
First of all, there have been very few role models for women to want to become a cartoonist. Secondly, women are often raised in a culture, American culture as well as other cultures, to not be funny. To be funny, to be the jokester or humorist, has traditionally been a man's job. Also, women are raised in many cultures to be the peacemaker, to make everybody happy. And humor is often ridicule, poking fun at other people, even if it is a friendly and loving kind of poking. This is not something women have been raised to do.
Another reason is that, historically, editors have been men. It's not that they say 'I do not want a woman cartoonist', but they may not understand her perspective as well as they would understand the perspective from a man. And they may not see it as important.
I have heard you say that in the past, there were women cartoonists, like in the first issue of the New Yorker in 1925, but also before that, when women fought for the right to vote. Do you think there is a lack of causes for women in the US to rally around?
There's plenty of reasons for women in the US to draw cartoons with all the attacks, particularly local, on women's rights. But of course women draw cartoons about everything, are interested in all political issues; I and other women don’t draw cartoons just about women’s issues. The women who created cartoons for US Suffrage in the 1910’s did have a cause, and after the vote was won, many of those women stopped drawing political cartoons, oddly. I am passionate about global women’s rights, so I focus a certain percentage of what I draw on that.
Is there a difference in motivation between men and women when it comes to making cartoons?
I've taught cartooning to students aged anywhere between 6 to 15, and you can see little girls more often draw to please others, to make others happy. Boys draw for their own interest, or to show their male friends how funny they can be. I'm generalizing, but there is an interesting divide. This may be, and probably is, cultural conditioning.
Humor is, or can be, an aggressive and dominating activity, particularly something like stand-up comedy. And I think you can sort of talk about cartoons in the same breath. A comic is standing on the stage, and he's got control of the audience. Women have not been raised to be like that, to exert that kind of control.
Why do you think it's important that we get more women to become political cartoonists?
Don't you think we should have cartoons from everybody, both genders and all races? That would only increase the perspective of what's going on in the world. The other thing I'd like to talk about is something that I also cover in my TED talk Drawing on humor for change. Although women don't necessarily draw differently than men, there perhaps may be a perspective from women that might differ from the perspective from men. And if it is a different perspective, then we need to hear about it. In most cultures, women are the care-givers, the ones that raise the children and pass on tradition. It is their job to know the rules of the culture they live in, and they know more intimately what's going on in that culture.
"Once you open up the standards for what is a good cartoon, you're going to get different people. Not just white men."
So this points to possibly two different kinds of cartooning. There is the political cartooning that's about major events, about world leaders, governments and laws, about conflict and war. About “big” issues. Some cartoonists can possibly contribute a different kind of cartoon, bringing attention to what's going on the ground. What's happening with individuals in a society—traditions, families and relations between men and women. It's often important to know these details in order to help make things better.
That ties in with the next question: why do you think political cartoons are important?
I think cartoons increase the dialogue about what's going on in the world. And particularly international cartoons, that often don't have words, can talk to other cultures and show what is happening. Take Africa, for instance; I am not as familiar with events in Africa as I should be. But if I see a cartoon by a Nigerian cartoonist, I know that it's only one perspective, but it does give me an idea about what going on and I can go read more about it. So cartoons increase communication, and show us our humanity. We all share the same worries, desires and hopes.
Over the last two decades, have you seen an increase in women cartoonists?
I think there is an increase, but it might be more global than in the United States. Although in the US I think there are more women involved in doing webcomics. But that's not surprising because there aren't many outlets for cartoonists. Newspapers are dying, and the New Yorker is one of the last places where you can do the type of cartoons I do.
When I got into the New Yorker in 1979, my editor at the time was Lee Lorenz, and I interviewed him for my book Funny Ladies. He actually brought in a number of women cartoonists, myself, Nurit Karlin, who is an Israeli woman, Roz Chast and Victoria Roberts. In the interview, I asked him why. He said he was not looking for women cartoonists, he was looking for different ways to express humor. The editor before him had a more narrow concept of what a cartoon should be.
A New Yorker cartoon doesn't have to be a picture with a caption; it could be an ephemeral, weird and wacky kind of humor, like the work of Roz Chast, quietly political like the work of Nurit Karlin, or slice-of-life type cartoons by Victoria Roberts, where the humor is not all that obvious.
Once you open up the standards for what is a good cartoon, you're going to get different people. Not just white men. But still, in 2013, the New Yorker only has around eight women cartoonists, out of a pool of about 50 regular contributor cartoonists.
We are one step closer to achieving one of our main objectives: to have cartoonists from every country on earth. We're delighted to welcome Lai Lone, our first cartoonist from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). He will be contributing cartoons about international subjects, but also share his critical perspectives on the fragile Myanmar democracy.
Next week, Cartoon Movement will be present in Caen at the 3e Festival International du Dessin de Presse. Some of the world's best cartoonists will be present, and we hope to interview some of them for the blog.
This is the third edition of the festival, and the most comprehensive to date. Starting out in 2011 as a two-day event hat was created by the Caen Memorial and Cartooning for Peace, the festival has developed into a week long dialogue between cartoonists, journalists, students and the general public. Issues that will be debated are the future of editorial cartoons, the role of cartoons in revolutions, censorship and taboos.
A special item on the program is a showing of the documentary project Fini de Rire (No More Laughing) by Olivier Malvoisin. Some months back, we reported on this project, and commented that it was a great project, but a shame that it was only available in French and German, and that some of the features didn't seem to work. Last week we learned that we had stumbled upon a beta version, which explains why it was incomplete.
No More Laughing is a transmedia project, consisting of a documentary and a webdoc:
No More Laughing intends to revisit a number of major and minor events that occurred during the first years of the millennium. The lines are redrawn through cartoonists and their cartoons. As the story progresses in Israel, in Palestine, in Germany, in Tunisia, in France, in Belgium and in the United States, the film plots the various twists and turns of contemporary taboos and asks the following question: where does freedom of expression stand today?
No More Laughing, the webdoc is drawing new boundaries for freedom of expression thanks to relevant and powerful testimonies from cartoonists from all four corners of the globe, thus inviting Internet users to join in and assist with its experiment. Together with the various press cartoonists, the webdoc creates a global map of taboos and barriers to the freedom of expression.
We intend to talk to the director Olivier Malvoisin about this project, the reasons for making a (web)documentary and what he hopes to achieve.
So stay tuned next week for more cartooning news, updates and interviews from France!
From Monday April 8 until Saturday April 13, Le Mémorial de Caen is hosting the 3e Festival International du Dessin de Presse. The event is co-organized by Iranian cartoonist Kianoush Ramezani, and a number of Cartoon Movement contributors will be present: Vladimir Kazanevsky, KAP and Willis from Tunis. Some other great artists that will be present are Jeff Danziger, Liza Donnely, Kichka and Haddad.
The program includes a daily (evening) debate on themes such as the role of cartoons in newspapers and on the Internet, the existence of cartoon taboos and self-censorship, and censorship by the media cartoonists work for. On Friday, the program offers a preview of the Arte documentary Fini de Rire, directed by Olivier Malvoisin, in the presence of some of the cartoonists who participated.
A full program of the week (in French) can be found here.
This article by Sophie J. Williamson originally appeared Art Monthly Issue 364 (March 2013). It is reproduced here with permission of the author.
On 6 June 2010, Khaled Mohamed Saeed, a young Egyptian, died at the hands of police officers after a brutal beating in a suburb of Alexandria. Subsequently the image of his disfigured corpse, released by his family, spliced alongside his passport photograph, was vigorously redistributed by online networks throughout Egypt, inciting widespread rage against endemic police brutality. It was this single striking image that inspired the first Egyptian protests, in both Alexandria and Cairo, and marked the rapid countdown to the revolution.
In his seminal text The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord writes that ‘the spectacle is not a collection of images; rather it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by image’. Debord was writing in the context of the May 1968 protests in Paris, where distributed posters depicting simple yet striking iconography played a major role in uniting workers. Throughout the socalled Arab Spring the use of iconic posters has continued to play a part, with an abundance of artists turning their hand to producing them; and new networks have emerged, such as the poster blog The Syrian People Know Their Way, which uses digital networks more effectively to collate, produce and disseminate imagery. Moreover, the image is at the heart of political dynamics in the Middle East. Spectacle is employed by all sides – the state, oppositional groups and ordinary people are all utilising the image to exert political influence. Images such as that of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire, or Hamza Ali Al-Kateeb, the 13-year-old Syrian boy who died while in government custody, are familiar worldwide. As Lina Khatib has recently outlined in Image Politics in the Middle East, the construction of social and political reality throughout the political struggle has been an inherently visually productive process, with an endless process of competing images battling, reversing, erasing and replacing one another.
The Egyptian revolution is often misleadingly referred to as the ‘Facebook Revolution’. It is important to recognise the wider media context of independent online news channels and online activist forums that, coupled with the infrastructure of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, were integral to providing material and information to Al Jazeera and other international media. Importantly, however, the redistribution of the image does not only exist online; images, and their associated commentary, also spread materially and in person through mosques, cafes, squares and other public meeting places. Throughout the revolution and the continuing political struggles, images have circulated cyclically from online to the streets, then back to mass media and online media. A Google search for Khaled Mohamed Saeed will produce numerous rehashings of the original image, from YouTube montages to photographs of graffiti, from Twitter meme to documentary footage of protesters’ placards.
'The image is at the heart of political dynamics in the Middle East.'
At least since the elections of 2005, when protesters, attacked by thugs and the riot police, responded by photographing incidents of state brutality and later integrating the imagery into their demonstration banners, the camera has been a potent weapon of resistance to political oppression. The photograph is commonly seen to evidence history visually; however, as Susan Sontag reminds us, ‘to photograph [is] to compose’. In Egypt, in an atmosphere of acute visual awareness, no single image, however amateur in its production, can be seen to represent an objective truth. The decision by Saeed’s family to capture and circulate the image was a highly politicised act; what has become clear is that reality and consciousness are not only reflected but also produced by images and screens. What is so poignant about the image of Saeed is not the initial intention in its creation but how the image was received by its audience. As Roland Barthes has written, ‘the language of the image is not merely the totality of utterances emitted … It is also the totality of utterances received.’
While the redistributed image of Saeed remained largely unchanged, the supporting story that circulated with it varied considerably. Seized from an internet cafe, some accounts say that he was left dead in the street after a brutal beating in a doorway, while others claim that he was bundled into a police van only for his corpse to be dumped minutes later. Official police reports say that, as a regular drug user arrested for theft and weapons possession, he choked to death while trying to swallow hashish. His family, however, claims that he was uploading video material that implicated members of the Egyptian police in a drug deal. The photo itself was taken after an autopsy, which sparked disputes about whether some of the injuries seen in the image were delivered before his death or were the outcome of postmortem examinations. Saeed’s neighbour, Amro Ali, has since published an in-depth critique of the events, Saeeds of Revolution: De-Mythologizing Khaled Saeed, which gives an insight into Saeed’s somewhat dubious past. However, the discrepancies in these details were not important to the thousands of Egyptians who redistributed the image through their Facebook and Twitter accounts. The image quickly became independent of any objective retelling of its story; it stood for itself as telling of a seemingly objective reality of police brutality and the loss of individual dignity prevalent across the country. As it reached epidemic circulation, the image reflected a desire for political action within the population, creating new social and political dynamics in its path. A Facebook group, We are all Khaled Said, set up by Google executive and internet activist Wael Ghonim, attracted hundreds of thousands of followers within weeks, creating in turn a human rights outcry across the globe. Within weeks Saeed was elevated to become a national rallying point within Egypt itself. It was through this Facebook group that the first calls to protest were announced. Whether he was an online activist uploading incriminating footage or just another of Eygpt’s disaffected youths, Saeed became the revolutionary poster child who inspired the masses.
In Hito Steyerl’s insightful essay ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, she describes the life of the online image as one of acceleration and deterioration; ‘a copy in motion’. The ‘poor image’ is one which has been ‘thrust into digital uncertainty’ – somersaulted through successions of uploading, downloading, reformatting, re-editing and redistribution; quality is transformed into accessibility. In turn, image-value is defined not by resolution and content but by velocity, intensity and spread. This is not only true of the physical quality of the image, as Steyerl speaks about it, but also of the depth of meaning, understanding and context of the image.
Steyerl reflects on this development in relation to Juan García Espinosa’s manifesto for the Imperfect Cinema, written in Cuba in the late 1960s, in which he claims that perfect cinema while ‘technically and artistically masterful is almost always reactionary cinema’. According to Espinosa, imperfect cinema, by insisting on its own imperfection, strives to overcome social division and – as in the economy of the poor image – merges art with life, blurring the distinction between consumer and producer, audience and author.
Espinosa predicted that, as video technology developed, the elitist position of traditional filmmakers would be undermined, enabling some sort of mass film production to emerge: an art of the people. The outcome has been much more widespread and affective than even Espinosa had anticipated. The economy of poor images, with its immediate possibility of worldwide distribution within a structure that facilitates almost instantaneous appropriation, enables the participation of a much larger group of producers than ever before. Users become the editors, critics, translators and (co-)authors within a constant frenzy of imagery production and re-production.
'In an atmosphere where the image plays such a powerful role in translating political sentiment, there is little doubt that established and highly visible artists, collectives and cultural organisations will be easy targets.'
For Steyerl this is a transition from ‘contemplation into distraction’. From an art perspective, we regularly see artists appropriating this kind of imagery in order to present a coherent argument for contemplative consumption. In the context of the explosion of citizen journalism over recent years, we need only to think of artists such as Thomas Hirschhorn or Rabih Mroué to have flashbacks of shocking imagery imprinted onto our memory. There have also been numerous cultural groups, born out of the Arab Spring, that have attempted to navigate the sea of imagery proliferating through the internet. From Egypt, two prominent examples come to mind: the Mosireen Collective’s video blog, representing perspectives not covered by the mainstream Egyptian press, is the country’s most-watched non-profit YouTube channel, and the group holds workshops on video editing from its Cairo-based media centre; and Wael Abbas’s Misr Digital blog collects stories that the press would not otherwise be able to report on directly but is able to sidestep censorship by reporting instead on his coverage of events.
While these practices are extremely effective – both Mosireen and Misr Digital have been avidly followed by an international audience and their stories re-reported by worldwide media – their organisation nevertheless places them in a precarious position. State-sponsored art played little or no part in the revolutions of the Arab Spring, the artists being fearful that involvement could affect their standing, future funding and livelihoods. Among the more daring independent organisations there have already been casualties; the non-profit art space Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum closed in January due to ‘heightened political and social transitions’ and prominent cartoonist Doaa Eladl, supposedly ‘freed from the censorship of the past’, is currently being sued by the secretary-general of the National Centre for Defence for her allegedly blasphemous depictions in the daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.
In an atmosphere where the image plays such a powerful role in translating political sentiment, there is little doubt that established and highly visible artists, collectives and cultural organisations will be easy targets. The vague language of President Mohamed Morsi’s new constitution, especially with regard to freedom of expression, inevitably reinforces concerns over the growing tyranny of the permanent state of emergency declared since the revolution. Using Giorgio Agamben’s definition of sovereign power as the ability to decide on the state of exception, to define what is permitted – who is included and who is not – Morsi effectively places himself outside the law. Agamben argues that sovereignty is therefore based on the ability to impose exclusion and is ‘the hidden foundation on which the entire political system rested’.
While for Morsi, and Hosni Mubarak before him, this is possible with established figures and organisations, it is much harder, arguably impossible, to censor in its entirety online activity which is spearheaded not by an individual but by the masses; as Deleuze and Guattari argue, ‘sovereignty only rules over what it is capable of interiorising’. Within a networked society, the power of the political institution is undermined, giving way to the power of instrumental fl ows and cultural codes that are embedded in networks. As Franco Bifo has argued, the internet can no longer be viewed as purely an instrumental tool, but as a sphere or an environment where the ‘anthropological mutation produced by digital media and by the acceleration of the Infosphere is the most relevant effect from the point of view of social and political effects’. Furthermore, cultural memory is increasingly taking on a more visual form, as Sontag has outlined: ‘in an era of information overload the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for memorising it.’
Citizens are therefore able to reclaim a national memory independent from the authoritarian state. The image of Saeed exemplifies the state’s powerlessness to have full biopolitical control over its people. The viral image is outside the scope of the law so it facilitates the construction of anonymous global networks and a shared history that political institutions are incapable of regulating. As the image travels it builds alliances, provoking translation or new readings, and in doing so creates new publics and debates. Each individual that cared enough to redistribute the image – whether digitally, in printed form or by word of mouth – became an active player in the growing catalytic potential of this single image to realise the ideology it represents.
There is no doubt that the proliferation of iconic imagery in the public realm has acted to enhance, consolidate and articulate public opinion across the Arab world. The image of Saeed proves that the digital image is not as ephemeral as we might commonly think; as Steyerl argues: ‘just as a photograph is lodged in paper, the digital image is lodged in a circulatory system of desire and exchange.’ With this transient form, the viral image comes to encapsulate moments where politics and representation have collided and subsequently affected one another. Bifo has claimed that ‘history has been replaced by the endless flowing recombination of fragmentary images. Political awareness and political strategy have been replaced by the random recombination of frantic precarious activity.’ However, as the image of Saeed exemplifies, it is precisely because of this ‘frantic precarious activity’, without any curatorial control, that the viral image has the potential to become a powerful and democratic political catalyst.
SOPHIE J WILLIAMSON is a curator based in London.
Our cartoonists come from all over the globe, but some countries are better represented than others. Cuba is such a country. Over the last months, we have welcomed several Cuban artists, and we have become curious about the cartooning scene in Cuba. We talk to three Cuban artists about political cartoons, censorship, and the future of Cuba.
What, in your opinion, is the power of political cartoons?
Adán Iglesias Toledo: Political cartoons are drawn chronicles of national and international events. They are as important as the TV news. Today and especially with youth who read very little press are more important to provide important information in short.
Alfredo Martirena: Cartoons in general have a great impact on their readers. Political cartoons also have the advantage that since their text has to be synthetic and intelligent and give a message, the reader can assimilate this rapidly. It all fits in one frame and a quick look at it gives a general idea of the conflict in question.
Osvaldo Gutierrez Gomez: The political cartoon has the power to express and report successes and failures of the political system of each country or government, but always according to the opinion of the artist or the medium in which the cartoons appears.
We have a lot of cartoonists Cubans here in Cartoon Movement. Are there many artists in Cuba (and if so, why)?
Adán: Cuba is an island unknown in many aspects. It has a long tradition of humor and literary figure but is little known. Certainly there are many editorial cartoonists in Cuba, and of good quality. Although there are few newspapers to publish the pictures (before the collapse of the socialist bloc in Europe there were more spaces), the best dailies have remained. The Internet is used by the new generation of artists, especially those doing contemporary art.
Martirena: In Cuba there is a strong team of cartoonists, part of a tradition that began in the early 1900s. All the publications at that time started to include cartoons to illustrate serious articles. In Cuba we have three major cartoon and comic publications: Melaito, DDT and Palante. Each one of them has been around for over 40 years, which makes for possible for young cartoonists to have a podium for their work; this way the number of good cartoonists increases.
Osvaldo: Yes, Cuba has always been a country of great comedians. Cubans say that we laugh at our own evils, and the cartoons are the perfect way to do this. We have a humorous publication, Palante, with over 50 years of existence, where this history and tradition is maintained, although currently there is a crisis in the publications, due to the shortage of paper and the economic situation in the country. We also have two of the most awarded cartoonists in the world: Ares and Boligan.
Is there a lot of censorship in Cuba, and how do you deal with censorship? What (if any) are subjects you cannot draw about?
Adán: Of course there is censorship. I do not think there is a country where this is not present. In the Cuban case it has its peculiarities. On of the criteria for the press is that everything published should have an eductional value; many topics are not published because they supposedly lack this educational value. Some of these topics, in my experience are: religion, racism, homophobia. But
there are others that are difficult to classify, and cartoonists are sometimes clever in the way they subtly include topics in their work.
Alfredo: I believe that there is censorship in media all over the world, starting with editors, in accordance with interests supported by the big news corporations, which silence inconvenient news and promote and adulterate others akin to their interests. We may have censorship in Cuba, but in my case, as a cartoonist, I have not felt it. I collaborate with many international media, magazines, and I have never felt limited and the works I sent have never been censored. Cartoonists here have a good sense of ethics, which guide our work. For example, here in Cuba we are not used to seeing cartoons of our politicians from the past 50 years, but not because it is prohibited, and some cartoons about our current president have been published. With the new economic reforms, there have been some calls for the press to criticize and point out what’s wrong in the country, but that most of the times stumbles upon the middle bureaucrats which excel at making our work difficult. That’s where I see the censorship in our country.
Osvaldo: I belief there is some degree of censorship everywhere in the world. Here in Cuba there is censorship as well, with a single party and media who all report on the same issues. I also belief that there is more self-censorship than censorship, a cartoonist not doing a cartoon on a certain topic, thinking it will not be published. As for me, I have never let that stop me, and will do a cartoon anyway. If they publish it or not, that is no longer my responsibility. I think that many of our artists are on the side of the Revolution and its leaders, and criticism is often about the social problems that exist in my country.
How do you see the future of Cuba?
Adán: Cuba is a socialist island just meters from the great imperialist power, the United States of America. This closeness has determined the existence of many Cubans. Whoever denies the blockade on Cuba exercised this power has not been on this planet more than 20 times when the United Nations has voted against it. This is a major constraint to living in this country, but it is a big mistake to hold our government responsible for the blockade. In Cuba, there is a large bureaucracy which keeps on growing. Significantly, President Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, has taken many measures to combat bureaucracy and inefficiency, but it still dominates the state apparatus. I think the current reform of the economy will contribute to a better country.
Alfredo: I envision a better future for Cuba. I think it will depend on better relations with the USA. If the USA lifts the 50 year-old embargo, Cuba would progress rapidly because of its highly educated population besides its scientific and technical potential.
Osvaldo: Cuba, in my personal opinion, is doing, economically and politically. what it should have been doing ten years ago: removing laws that should never have existed in the first place, but saving the key achievements of the Revolution, such as healthcare, education and sports for all. Cuba is a generous and peaceful country, and should be rewarded for its efforts through the years, facing the most arrogant and deadly enemy of the planet, the government of the USA.
What role can political cartoons and cartoonists play in shaping this future?
Adán: Fighting that bureaucracy is
fundamental to the future of prosperity we all desire. I do not think
the artists can change the world, but at least we can influence
consciousness. Humor is the best weapon against the bureaucracy, but
the artists who have a large podium, such as the Cuban daily Juventud
Rebelde (Laz, Falco and I) have the great limitation (and here
appears again the issue of censorship) that sometimes what we publish
in our newspaper is assumed as the editorial judgment of the whole
paper and the country and not the artist's personal opinion. So editors can be reluctant to print cartoons on cerain topics.
Alfredo: We can be like a bridge and in fact somehow we’re starting to make some steps in that direction, showing the world our truth, which is not always presented as such by the big transnational media.
Osvaldo: With cartoons, we are able to expose our mistakes without fear of being criticised or censored. It is the duty of all Cubans to create a more democratic Cuba. Do not fear the truth and accept it, no matter how hard.But it is alway up to us Cubans to make decisions about our country, without outside interference.