Comic Demystifies the Life of Migrants

Meet-the-somalis

Today we run 'Meet the Somalis - The illustrated stories of Somalis in seven cities in Europe' on Cartoon Movement. The comic was made for the Open Society Foundations by writer Benjamin Dix and artist Lindsay Pollock. We talk to them about this impressive project.

Why did you choose the Somalis in Europe as a topic for this comic?

Open Society Foundations’ At Home in Europe project were developing a series of research reports on Somalis in Europe and wanted to find new ways to introduce the findings to a broader audience. At Home in Europe commissioned us to undertake this work with the Somali community. Our comic is an adjunct to their fascinating reports, intended to introduce the topics accessibly through individual stories.

A beautiful aspect of the project is that the Somali migrant story has parallels with the stories and experiences of any migrant community. Issues of identity relating to first and following generations; the positives and negatives of cultural change and interaction; the practicalities of language and cultural barriers. Migrant communities can share all these experiences in common.

At present the Somali community is particularly scrutinised and frequently demonised. This, sadly, is also a common experience for migrant communities - perhaps Muslims in particular at the moment.

Because Somalis are presently suffering mistrust particularly acutely, they are an ideal community to collaborate with in a project that de-mystifies 'the alien within' by candid and relatable story telling. If people can be helped to scrutinise their assumptions about Somalis, by extension they may think more deeply about Pakistanis, Poles - or any of the nationalities who have joined us, and who lend their colours to the tapestry of our European identity.

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Is this a story that is best told in comic form? And why?

We love comics. They are a highly accessible and immediate medium. They welcome all readers - and even non-readers!

But this outward simplicity - skillfully executed - can bely a great complexity of expression. To read a comic is to be transported swiftly to any conceivable place or time, and directly into the mind of any sort of character.

Comics can function with remarkable flexibility. They might be diagrammatic, conveying complex information more clearly than text. They can harness the power of illustration, and all the wonderment or empathy that skilled drawing can convey. Naturally they are literary, exhibiting the qualities of allusion, symbolism and metaphor found in writing. And from film and theatre they borrow the techniques of mise en scene, conveying meaning and emotion through arrangement and design.

Once on the page however, all these qualities greet the reader in the simplest way. Before your mind even begins to read the first speech bubble, a character and a place has imprinted on your mind through the pictures. Comics are a form that explodes with creative and expressive potential, and in the present day, we're only beginning to explore the possibilities for journalism, memoir, and subjects that hew to the real world and lived experiences.

What were the challenges of the project? Was it difficult to get people to tell their stories?

Mts1We were blessed in our work by the collaboration of very knowledgeable fixers, in the person of Open Society Foundations’ researchers, in the various cities covered by "Meet The Somalis". From those contacts our luck redoubled, as we met countless Somalis from all walks of life who kindly sat with us and spoke candidly about their experiences. Those interviews were intimate, moving, often funny or sad. All the respondents should be commended for taking a chance on two strangers, trusting us with their stories, philosophies and thoughts.

As with many migrant communities, in media and political dialogue, Somalis are more often spoken about than with. Many of our respondents were glad of the chance to address the wider community, to redress some common misconceptions, and in optimism of initiating positive dialogue in the future.

It was important to us to represent the diversity of Somali identity. The anonymity afforded by comics meant that people could be open. They would not have to suffer the awkwardness of family, friends, or the community knowing, for example, their personal relationship to traditional Somali values. Additionally, interviewees could be explicit about issues like poverty, or about disagreements.

This allowed us to show some of the contrasts and contradictions found within the Somali community - as within any community.

Our biggest problem was managing the wealth of material we gathered in the field research. Stories had to be edited down to the bone, to achieve thematic focus and clarity about often quite complex situations.

The characterization of our protagonists was a pleasure. We could draw from the vivid and varied personalities of the Somalis we had encountered. Coming from a totally different background however, we were concerned about making errors in our representation of the Somalis - whether in some aspect of cultural practice, or the simple nuance of how we rendered behaviour or voice.

However, we were greatly assisted by a few Somalis who checked over our work and gave invaluable suggestions and corrections. 

How did your collaboration come about? Did you have this idea in mind and were you looking for a particular style of drawing, our did you and Lindsay come up with this concept together?

Mts2We have been working together for two years, principally on a graphic novel (currently in progress) about the 2009 civil war in Sri Lanka. This work is also fictionalised from first-hand testimony - this time from Tamil survivors of the brutal conflict. A preview of that project can be viewed at  www.thevanni.co.uk. When Open Society Foundations saw this work they suggested a collaboration about Somalis, following the same testimony-led model of writing.

Lindsay draws great inspiration from Raymond Briggs for his illustrations.

“When The Wind Blows” is a comic of devastating power, telling the story of an elderly, ordinary English couple, cut off alone in their suburban home, in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. It's a forbidding subject, but the gentle humanity of Brigg's loving drawing draws you in. When the most upsetting scenes of the story arrive, the simple warmth of Brigg's style almost puts an arm around the reader to carry them through.

Following Briggs, Lindsay tried his best to depict the world - houses, streets, parks, mosques, villages - in a way that was truthful but softened. This was not vivid, clear-eyed photojournalism. We were writing from conversations - full of digression, memory and warmth. Lindsay's intention was that a gentle, story-book style would capture something of the warm human voices we had listened to at kitchen tables, on the streets and in cafes.

Mts4The artist is always somehow present when you view an illustration. The reader looks down at the page from the same perspective as the one who drew it; essentially on the very page the reader holds. Your eyes are where theirs were at the moment of drawing. This effect links the moments of drawing and reading. The illustrator is invisibly present with the reader, looking down at the same page.

This is different from text in a book, which is type-set and edited. A novel might be scrawled in red biro, but it will arrive at the reader's eye in a smart type-script. In this way, comics are more intimate. And when an artist draws as humanely as Briggs, his invisible, unconscious 'presence' with the reader, and the page, is warm, and sympathetic. That's the quality that Briggs brings to his work.

Do you have any plans for future comic projects?

As outlined above, we are continuing to work on a large project on the Sri Lankan conflict – www.thevanni.co.uk - and are also currently in the initial stages of a serialised project on the Syrian refugee crises.

All images from 'Meet the Somalis' - © Benjamin Dix & Lindsay Pollock


Cartooning in Libya: A Soft Target in Murky Waters

Interview with Libyan cartoonist Nabil Fannoush - by Tjeerd Royaards

Nabil Fannoush contributes a daily comic strip to the independent daily The New Libya. Although his comic has received mostly positive reactions, radical religious, tribal and militia elements have been hostile to what he's drawing, and have even attacked to newspaper headquarters. He is currently residing in Canada to study, and has been urged by the newspaper editor-in-chief to remain there for the time being. We talk to him about the state of cartooning in Libya.

Are there many cartoonists in Libya, and did this number grow after the fall of Gaddafi?

'I think you'd get different answers depending on who you ask... For me the answer is no in both cases. As far as I'm concerned the late Mohammed Alzwawi was the only cartoonist Libya ever had and is a great loss because the culture of media and information is very underdeveloped here, and I consider cartoons to be more media than art. There are some artists whose drawings are published in newspapers, and the artwork is very good, but to me if they do not address issues and identify with the readers and their daily lives then they're not cartoons. It doesn't help that many of the artists copy Alzwawi's drawing style, but that is just my personal opinion.'

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Why and when did you start doing comics?

'It's a bit of a long story, and for me personally quite an unhappy one at times, but I'll try to make it brief: drawing in caricature used to be a hobby of mine as a boy, and I used to participate in exhibitions all the time. I always wanted to be a professional cartoonist, but  as I got older I began to understand that the regime heavily censors media, making Libya a hostile environment for cartoons.

I did not think it was right to negotiate the integrity of what I say through my drawings and tailoring them to suit the regime's standards, so I focused on earning a degree in computer science (and currently study and work in that field), but I still drew on request from NGOs and local causes without signature. I often drew anonymously when a subject bothered me enough. God knows I was fearful for myself at times, but it was fear for my family's safety that prevented me from drawing openly at the time. I had no right to endanger them.

After the fall of Gaddafi, an acquaintance of mine who is familiar with my work introduced me to Faisal Alhammali, the chief executive of Libya Aljadida (The New Libya) - which I consider to be the first truly independent Libyan newspaper since the sixties -  and a long time unknown soldier for free Libyan press. Mr. Alhammali asked me if I was interested in drawing a daily cartoon for their paper. He did not want to enlist any of the known artists drawing for other papers because he shares my views regarding their work and he wanted something different. The concept of a daily strip featuring a central character is a new one for Libya, so I showed him a strip I've been working on in my spare time: Faraj Yawmi, a young Libyan professional struggling with the difficulties of daily Libyan life. Mr. Hammali liked it, and the newspaper has been publishing the strip exclusively since then. I believe that around 300 episodes have been published so far.'

Fannoush2

What do you hope to achieve with your work?

'One hope is that I give the average Libyan, who for decades was and still is suffering from marginalization, a voice that can be heard over the noise from the plethora of Libyan media that serves private interest and political agendas and not the public good: they ignore the daily suffering of ordinary people. Another thing I aim for that is the more daunting task of appealing to them for awareness and tolerance, which sadly are in short supply in Libya right now. People need to understand that they need to compromise on things and tolerate each other and differing views for the overall benefit of their country and put aside prejudices and short term personal gain.'

You have received threats because of your work. What is the situation for you at the moment?

'There have been a number of threats,  though my cartoons are in general well received. When they first started I was actually shocked and surprised by them and by the several attacks on the paper, the last of which caused a great deal of damage.

My work is not offensive in any way that I can perceive, that's not what it's for. I almost never refer to a particular person or entity, just occurrences and mentalities in a vein of cheeky humour; I take great pains to make sure that any cartoon is not taken out of context in that way, and the newspaper editors go through them to make sure. Also even if I do cross some line by accident I do not see any need for such an approach, as I have a policy of openness and availability to readers to hear complaints or grievances, and if anyone is offended to my knowledge I would make an effort to seek them out first to assure, appease and accommodate that person, so there is no need for militancy.

Certain extremist and fundamentalist elements for some reason I do not understand do not respond to my approach and efforts at dialogue and appeasement, and that saddens me, but there really isn't anything more I can do for them, and I see no reason to stop drawing for not accommodating radical views I can in no way foresee. All I can do is continue and hope for the best. If I am able to give even the smallest of comfort for a few ordinary people it's worth the risk.'

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Fannoush4Nabil: 'This image is the original ending I wanted for the strip, as I felt it a more powerful message, but I was afraid that people might focus on the taboo aspect and miss the point... So instead I used a more "socially acceptable" drawing, and provided the Facebook page with the original ending so that it would be shown by request only.'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is it dangerous to be a cartoonist in general in Libya?

'It can be at times, unfortunately. The danger now is different from that of an oppressive regime and carte-blanche security apparatus, and in a way more sinister. It's the opposite extreme of armed lawlessness and fundamentalists-religious, ethnic, tribal or otherwise- who are answerable to no one but themselves. They need not fear accountability for any act, including murder and genocide. Unless a cartoonist becomes part of the problem and aligns with the militias and their agendas for protection (at the cost of integrity and serving the public), he or she is a soft target with little or no protection from a very weak state.

Even something as insignificant as misunderstanding a cartoon's plot can turn tragic: while I was away the newspaper premises was attacked because a shopkeeper of a grocery store somewhere in Tripoli somehow thought that a strip I drew was about him personally, and to this day I am still bewildered as to how he came to that conclusion and why would he then commit such an act.'

Is there censorship or are there taboos (subjects you cannot draw about) in Libya?

'Not officially, but there are, quite a lot of them and someone forgot to print the manual. To me it's not the fact that there are taboos that's the main problem, it's the rather murky, unclear and often contradictory views on what can be said or not. The general definition of 'Taboo' in Libya right now is 'something that displeases someone'.  It is mostly religiously fanatic groups taking advantage of the post-war chaos in Libya  that are most dangerous to a cartoonist armed with ink and a pencil.

A lot of the complaints are things that I cannot in any way foresee. For example, a few weeks ago I was inspired to draw a cartoon about traffic and fuel consumption when I saw a young Tripolitanean lady going to work on a bicycle. Suddenly some people said I was "offending religion" by drawing (or in their words encouraging) a woman on a bicycle. This was considered "improper".  I wasn't given any clear explanation for why I was offending the faith by drawing a woman on a bicycle even though women in Libya drive cars and walk out in public late at night . You can see why at times it can be quite frustrating, but I must be patient with these people, keep reaching out  and hope they reach back.'

All images © Nabil Fannoush - translation from Arabic courtesy of Nabil Fannoush.


'The First Thing to Explode in the Arab Spring was Art'

Interview with cartoonist Khalid Albaih - by Tjeerd Royaards

AlbaihKhalid Albaih is Sudanese, but has been living in Qatar since he was 10 year old. His work, that focuses mainly on the Arab World and Sudan has become immensely popular in the last two years. His Facebook page Khartoon! (a play on cartoon and Khartoum, the capital of Sudan) has accumulated close to 60,000 fans, he was featured by the BBC and the New York Times, and had a solo exhibition of his work in London in September of this year. While in Doha, we visited with him to talk about his work and outlook on the region.

Your style is quite distinctive, can you tell us something about it?

'Most of my work is online, and a lot of people view it on their phone or tablet, so you want something that's stands out, something very simple. Really clean, not a lot of color. The good thing of working with social media is that you know your fans. My audience is young, about 14 to 30 years old. They involved in pop culture, fashion, and whatever is going on right now. With my work, I try to connect with them, creating something clean and simple, that can be worn on a t-shirt.'

Is this style something that evolved over time?

'My background is interior design, and that's probably where my love for simple clean design comes from. I try to blend cartoons and art. My images should be beautiful to look at, even if the person doesn't know what the cartoon is about. This blending also involves doing other things. Right now, I'm not only doing cartoons, but also installations and comics. But it always has a political or social dimension.'

You draw a lot about Sudan.Why is this your favorite subject?

'To me, the government in Sudan is ridiculous. I mean, the decisions that they make, they don't seem to even think about it. I think they live 40 years ago. It's sad, really. And for me, that's funny, because the whole world is laughing at them. They're spending millions of dollars on security, spending 70% of the budget on military. That's insane. In the meantime, a large part of the Sudanese people is starving. Why would you spend money on planes and bombs, and not buy bread for your people? So every time I read the news on Sudan, there's so much material for cartoons. '

Khalid1

Do you do any cartoons about Qatar, about politics here?

'Not so much. Part of the reason is that, although I have been living here since I was 10 years old, I am a refugee here. But I am also quite proud of what Qatar has achieved in the last decade. When I was a kid, nobody knew about Qatar, and now, if you mention you live in Qatar, everybody knows it, mostly in a positive way. Al Jazeera is based here, and the Qatar Foundation has worldwide recognition for its activities.

I try to keep away from Qatari politics in my work, because I don't want to be viewed as a cartoonist that has to suck up to the government, because I live here. Or, alternatively, that I'm playing against them, because as a cartoonist I have to stand up to their policies.'

How do you feel about the negative side of Qatar, the World Cup workers' conditions, the lack of democracy?

'Qatar is a country where everybody is making money and doing well. Qatari citizens have entitlements to the extent that you would not believe (Editor's note: Qatari citizens receive free schooling and healthcare, and higher income and benefits compared to non-Qatari workers). And they love their country, and their government, for it. So their question is: why do we need democracy? Of course, we know the truth; around the edges, horrible stuff is going on. I think a consequence of a welfare state like in Qatar is that, unless something happens to you directly , there is no common ground or need to acknowledge or appreciate the value of human rights or free speech.

That said, because of the government investment in education, the younger generation is getting educated. As a result, their mindset is changing, and these values will gain in importance in the future.'

Khalid2

How about local Qatari cartoonists, are they doing a good job?

'I think in general Qatari artists are doing well for themselves. I work at the Qatar Museums Authority, and a lot of the exhibitions that we do feature art that challenge the society, that ask a lot of questions. So we have challenging artists in a conservative society, and I think that's important. And this goes for cartoonists too; they're asking questions.'

How do you feel about the role of cartoons in the Arab world in general, since the outbreak of the Arab Spring?

'With the outbreak of popular uprisings throughout the Arab world, visual culture, whether it be cartoons, graffiti or other types of art, have definitely gained momentum. Before, everybody was kept in boxes; the Arab Spring unleashed a flood of creativity. The first thing that exploded with the Arab Spring was art. Graffiti artists took to the streets and basically covered up all the the walls; this is how frustrated they were. When we grew up, drawing or writing about politics was a nightmare, not just for you, but for your family, because anything could happen. So we were told to stay away from politics as far as possible.

I think, in it's essence, the Arab Spring is the fight for freedom of our generation. When the revolution started, everybody just took to the streets, and artists poured their feelings and frustrations into their art and cartoons. The West was of course looking at the region, and the cartoonists were the stars of the region, of the revolution.

The Arab Spring is history in the making, and cartoonists in the region are the chroniclers of that history and of the feelings of the people. It is our time.'

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For countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the transition to democracy is proving difficult. Are you optimistic about the future of the region?

'I am. I read somewhere that after the French Revolution it took 70 years for the country to settle down, to become the mother of democracy. When you think about it, the Arab region has suffered repressive regimes for 100 years, longer in some cases. We're not used to freedom, we don't know what freedom is. We never had freedom. If anybody in this region says 'I had freedom', he's lying. So, for us, this is just the start. We're just starting to know what we can and can't do. I think the future is looking positive. I mean, just look at what happened in Egypt: they didn't like the situation, and they changed it. After all these years of oppression, things are not just going to settle down.'

So, do you have any idea what the end result will be?

'The problem is that the West is looking at this region and saying 'if they don't do this, then they won't have freedom', basically imposing their own concept of how democracy should work. Looking at what is going on right now, I think this region will come up with something that suits it. Maybe it will not resemble what we think of as democracy now, but the idea of democracy is also evolving. In 70 years, the concept of democracy will be different that it is now. But I am definitely optimistic that we will come up with something, because we broke the wall. And people are dying right now to prevent that wall from being built up again.'


Turning the Unknown into the Known

Interview with Augusto Paim, the journalist behind 'So Close, Far Away!'

Today we are very proud to present a new comics report on Cartoon Movement. 'So Close, Faraway!' is a piece of in-depth, interactive comics journalism from Brazil that will take you on a journey with Jorge, a 43-year old homeless person, roaming the streets of Porto Alegre. To learn something more about the background and motivation of this story, we talk to the author, Augusto Paim.

Paim

Why did you choose the homeless of Brazil as a topic for this comic?

'When I work on a comics journalism piece, I need to focus my attention on the storytelling, sometimes much more than on the research itself. That's why I prefer to deal with topics I have already worked with. In this case, I have a rich background from former written reports I did over the last years, and this is very helpful.

Topics like slums and homelessness touch me, because they make us perceive the reality and the society from a new point of view. When I talk about homelessness with people in Brazil, I hear a lot of complaints that are full of prejudice and ignorance. People like to be sensitive, but only with family or friends. People fear the unknown and protect their sensibility against it. But the unknown can turn into the known very easily, and journalists can be of some help in this process. This is a process healthy for an individual, but also for the society at large, because some big social problems - like violence - are based on mutual ignorance and lack of communication. This is the case with the issue of homelessness. The homeless stay on the same sidewalks where other people walk fast in their daily routines. But they are unseen. Why? Because they are the unknown. So, with this comic report I intended to help to improve this situation. I know this is a form of idealism, but he journalists that I admire are idealists, too.'

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Augusto talking to Jorge.

Your last production for Cartoon Movement focused on the favelas; is the plight of people living in poverty a recurring theme in your work as a journalist?

'Journalism has a social rule. This is not new - actually this must be a value of the profession, but journalists eventually forget it in the hard routine of daily newspapers. I don't work in a newsroom, so I could choose not to forget it. When I work on a personal project in the field of journalism, I try to deal with topics of social and cultural importance. This is the case of poverty in Brazil. The Brazilian population must get better information about economical and social injustice. It's the job of journalists to help to inform the citizens about the inequality in Brazil, this inequality that for many people seems so natural and unalterable, and that make the real victims seem to be the villains. Some members of social classes don't want to cross the line: why would someone from the middle class try to understand how a homeless person feels? Why would a rich person go into the slums? The journalist is that one who crosses these borders and with the collected information can help to build a society that is more fair.'

Is this a story that is best told with comics journalism? And why?

'For me, comics journalism has some technical features that turn this modality of journalism into the best way for telling some stories. For example: subjectivity and semi-anonymity. By subjectivity I mean that drawings bring a more personal approach to a subject, in comparison with photographs. If I have a story in which the memories of the source (a person) are more important than numbers, data and objective information, I shall prefer to tell it in comics format. That was the case with 'So close, faraway!', because the drawings focus on Jorge's day-to-day. And with 'semi-anonymity' I refer to the fact that the drawings help to protect the identity of the source. In the case of our report, we can know by the text the name of the homeless, his age and his occupation, as well as we can have access to some flash information about his daily routine. But we can't see his face as exactly as in a photograph. This is very helpful for topics when we want/must preserve the identity of the source, if we are dealing with a hard story.'

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Fragment from 'So Close, Faraway!'.

Why did you choose to work with Bruno Ortiz (the artist)?

'I choose the artist according to the subject of the report and the art style that I'm looking for. I've already developed some non-journalistic works with Bruno Ortiz and I love his watercolors and the way he displays the page layout. Also, I knew that he has interest in and knowledge about social topics in Brazil. So, these are technical details for the decision of inviting Bruno to work with me on this piece. However, I was more surprised when I saw how good Bruno deals with some journalistic procedures, without having been trained in journalism (he graduated on History). Bruno has a natural talent to make interviews, as I noticed by his talks with the homeless Jorge. Bruno helped me a lot in the interviews, that's why he is a good partner for further comic reportages. And indeed, his watercolors and layouts were exactly what I had in mind for such a sensitive topic.'

The comic is interactive, with pop-up texts and photographs. What is the added value of the interactivity (as opposed to an old-fashioned presentation of the comic)? '

'I'm always searching the best form for a report, be it written or in comics. The form must be strictly linked to the topic of the report. So, this is one point. The second one: in the beginning of the research for 'So close, faraway!' I was concerned about how to solve a specific problem of this work: shall I approach the topic 'homelessness in Brazil' by showing a case, or, another option, by giving an overview about its general situation in the country? It was hard to decide. Focusing on a case I could go deeper, because the reader would have the opportunity of feeling closer how a homeless lives. It would turn this work in a piece of Literary Journalism. But I couldn't choose only one case and treat it as an only example for all the diversity of lives on streets in Brazil. So, it was necessary to give an overview, too.

In the other two comics reports I have made, this was a big problem: how to mix the amount of information that must be presented in text with the necessity of comics language to 'show' instead of 'tell'. If we had more space and time to draw more pages, it would be easier, but we hadn't. I couldn't solve this questions at that time, but now I had a good model to follow, that is the reportage of Luke Radl, 'Chicaco is My Kind of Town'. When I saw this piece for the first time, I realized the possibilities of using hypertext resources inside a comic reportage, and I got inspired for our own piece.

We just separated texts from drawings. In the drawings from Bruno we see that deeper approach of Literary Journalism by following a day of Jorge, a homeless - a person - that most people don't notice and only pass by. We focused the 'camera' on Jorge in order to show a homeless as an ordinary citizen - like me and you. Instead of not noticing him, now we are with the homeless and the walkers turn into the invisible ones. And all this is told without words - the essence of a comic! On the other hand, in the 'hidden' texts and pictures we give the readers the opportunity of learning as much as they want about the homelessness in Brazil. This way, we show and we tell. And the reader learns and feels.'


The Hidden Power of Innocent Lines

Interview with Chilean cartoonist Fiestoforo.

Fiestoforo is a cartoonist from Chile now residing in the United Kingdom. His work forcuses mainly on injustice, and the many forms it takes. We talk to him about how he works, and about the cartoon as a form of protest.

Fiestoforo
Fish: Evolution, here I come! Police officer: Back off , you piece of shit!

What does your artist name, 'Fiestoforo', mean?

'Fiestoforo is a compound word meaning “he who carries the feast”, from fiesta or “feast” in Spanish and phoros, bearer in Greek, in the same way as the name Christophoros, but without the Messiah part.'

How and when did you become a cartoonist?

'I started to do cartoons a couple of years ago and published them on the internet. Through internet networking I was invited to join a group of political cartoonists. It was a gradual process that took some years. At the beginning I only drew for practice to become a better artist. Later I realised you can convey powerful ideas through cartooning.'

How do you work, and what materials do you use?

'The first stage of my process could be described as more traditional. I make a sketch with pencil, which is inked using a nib pen. Then, in the second stage, I resort to new technologies. I scan and colour the drawing using an open-source software called GIMP. I use a tablet for adding texture to the colours. Regularly, it takes a couple of hours to finish a cartoon.'

How did you develop your style?

'By trial and error, using several tools and materials, I chose those I was more comfortable with. Observing works by renowned artists and their techniques must have influenced me too.'

Why do political cartoons matter?

'Being a simple and efficient way to express a political view on any matter, it is difficult to find a cartoon that does not elicit any kind of response from the viewer. Therefore, I think they are powerful means of communication, disguised as innocent lines on a surface.'

Your work focuses on indigenous rights, intercultural relations, social movement, and environmental affairs. In the Arab World, the Arab Spring seems to have shifted the role of political cartoon; stencilled on walls and signs they have almost become a form of protest. How do you see this development?

'What I have noticed is that people are recognising the power of symbols. Regularly they are used by governments and institutions to foster their beliefs and values and published on common items, so common that you do not even realise their presence. For example,  in Chile, the military dictatorship in the 80’s had coins bearing the image of lady liberty as if she had just broken a chain with the date of the coup d'état marked. Back then the image was quite solemn, but today when you look at it, it seems naive and in bad taste, specially because you realise what they were trying to do. Now I think people are occupying and displaying their own symbols, probably because it is quite simple and straightforward to share images on the internet.'

How do you see the future of political cartoons?

'The immediacy of information and communication is affecting political cartoons. If a cartoon is published days after an event, it may even seem outdated. Therefore, I have noticed that on the internet you can see reactions in the form of political cartoons minutes after an significant event occurs. This may affect the way political cartoons depict opinions, because the focus is on yielding a quick response, instead of reflecting on the events to craft a well-thought piece. Obviously, there are examples of both approaches.'

If the cartoon will be used more and more as a form of protest, is there a future for professional cartoonists (meaning cartoonists that can earn a living from their work)?

'I think there is. A professional cartoonist has developed a set of skills based on knowledge and experience. If you know about composition, design, colour schemes, analysis of discourse, etc. you will better to convey your ideas, and the result would be more pleasing for the viewers. I think this will be valued by the recipients of your work.'

In the slideshow below you can see a step-by-spep process of how Fiestoforo creates his cartoons. For an even more detailed explanation of his work process, check out 'How to make a political cartoon' on instructables.com. Fiestoforo also has two Youtube videos explaining how to add color and texture using GIMP.

 

Interview by Tjeerd Royaards. To see more of Fiestoforo's work, visit his website or Facebook page.


'There is No Future for Art in Sudan'

TalalTalal Nayer is a cartoonist from North Sudan. The country has witnessed a lot of violence and political turmoil in the last decade. The conflict in Darfur, the separation of South Sudan, to name just a few. Last week, many Sudanese took to the streets to protest against the government’s cuts to fuel price subsidies. The government responded with the use of force, resulting to deadly clashes between protesters and security forces. According to human right groups in Sudan, at least 50 people were killed in the last week. We talk to Talal about being a politically engaged artist in Sudan.

What's the situation for cartoonists in Sudan currently?

'Honestly, it’s horrible from any perspective. In 1989 the National Islamic Front - currently National Congress Party – came to power by a military coup; a few days later the Islamists opened countless detention centers where many civilians were tortured and killed. All the newspapers were closed and many cartoonists lost their jobs. Some of them retired, some emigrated, and the rest are working in miserable conditions.

Newspapers of Khartoum are controlled by the government; journalists are working under the pressure of military forces, police and security, in a single-party state ruled by General Omar al-Bashir. The International Criminal Court accused al-Bashir of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. The ICC issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir. So, the president is a red line. In fact, he is THE RED LINE.

It is forbidden to draw the face of al-Bashir, even if the cartoon is a compliment of the president. Editors-in-chief receive a list of unwanted subjects for publishing, directly from the National Security Agency. In this polluted environment any free-thinking cartoonist will not survive.

The government forced many cartoonists to run in circles, many of them unable to escape out of ready-listed duplication subjects. If any cartoonist challenges the government, he will find himself jobless, just like what happened to me. I worked for three newspapers in Sudan as a cartoonist; the government closed two of them by force, permanently. Anybody can imagine the rest of the story. Free political cartoonists are not welcome in this country.

I feel sad and angry when I see some of my colleagues legitimizing the genocide and racist crimes of the military government in the Darfur region. They are also supporting the war on my region Kurdufan, where I currently live.'

Dardur

You also work for the Saudi Gazette, an English newspaper in Saudi Arabia, not a country particularly known for freedom and tolerance. Are there any subjects you cannot draw about in this publication?

'Frankly, I haven't faced any problem in my work with the Saudis, at least until now. In general, I draw about international affairs and issues of the Middle East and Africa; this may save me from a direct clash with internal Saudi policies. I draw freely two cartoons per day for Saudi Gazette, and they choose a cartoon, put the second on in our 'Cartoon Bank'.

Saudi Arabia is the leading country of the so-called 'Islamic World', and religion is the most sensitive subject in all countries that are ruled by Sharia Law. When I desire to express my opinion about religion I publish what I want on my personal blog where I can freely express myself.

Publishing my cartoons in Saudi newspaper is not a new challenge for me; I think it’s even better than Sudan where I faced worse. In Sudan, in addition to censorship, my cartoons have been distorted by editors-in-chief to gain the satisfaction of security officers by re-editing my works and changing my comments of my cartoons.'

How do you work, and what materials do you use?

'I use very simple materials: 2H pencils, black pens with different thickness tones, mainly I prefer Uni Pin pens. I was coloring with watercolors, or wooden colors, but now I'm working with Adobe Photoshop to save time. I prefer old fashioned coloring, but drawing three cartoons per day doesn't allow me to spend a long time on coloring by hand.'

Makingof

How did you develop your style?

'In my early beginnings I was impressed by Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat. We exchanged a few phone calls. I saw some of his cartoons in an old magazine (from 1995) for the first time in 2006. Ali Ferzat was a shock for me at that time, because we were isolated in Sudan, and we are still isolated from the current movement of art. I was shocked because the ideas and his artistic style were something completely different for me.

Also I liked cartoons of Cuban artist Arístides Esteban Hernández Guerrero (ARES) who gave me good advise that helped me a lot. I tried from the beginning to be independent in my ideas and my style. I tried very hard not to adapt anything from Ares or Ferzat; I tried my best to develop my own style slowly but steadily. I am working hard on ideas. I think I haven't achieved yet what I want, but I guess I am going in the right direction.'

Why do political cartoons matter?

'For me drawing cartoons is a positive way to express my ideas about life. The main inspiration sources for my cartoons are my political believes, and my mission is to carry the message of awareness to my people, and show them the way back to democracy and social equality. Sudan is so politicized and polarization pervades everything. It’s very difficult to be yourself in Sudan, but I take responsibility and voice my opinion. I know it’s risky but it is part of my duty as cartoonist.

General

Political cartoons are very important for me. I wrote a, as of yet unpublished, book about the relationship of politics and religion in Sudan, but I feel the cartoon is my strongest weapon. It’s stronger than writing, because it is easier for me to attract the tension of readers by my drawings. Cartoons are more popular than articles, and drawing is an artistic way to record history in very simple ways. In my opinion, any political cartoonist is a historian. Collecting cartoons from any newspaper is like a timeline of political events and social changes in the state, and all around the world.'

In what way can political cartoons/cartoonists contribute to the future of Sudan?

'From a very personal view, and based on my life in this country: there is no future for art in Sudan. Sudan is a single-party state; the totalitarian state always wants to control every activity in the country, even the personal life of any citizen.

I was a co-founder of the Sudanese Cartoon Association in 2009. When we tried to establish something we found ourselves facing a 'carrot and stick policy'. We were surrounded from everywhere; the government wanted SCA to support the ruling party (NCP) in the 2010 Elections. I was surprised when I saw ministers and some high officials in the government sitting and speaking in our first constituent meeting, I didn’t even know who invited them. Two days after the meeting the government controlled the SCA, and the founding members were marginalized.

I faced many challenges during my time in the executive office of the Sudanese Cartoon Association, I did my best to do something good, but everything was politicized and out of control. Finally I chose to resign permanently in the early 2011. Now the SCA is clinically dead. The current members don’t want to make any radical changes for themselves, or for Sudan.

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Besides that, Sudan is a very conservative country, and many religious Sudanese think drawing and music and sports are “Haram” or “Forbidden”. The Salafists have a following of hundreds of thousands people, and they say to them that all artists and painters will face Allah in the Day of Judgment.

The Salafists say that Allah creates all creatures in a perfect form, and art is a distortion and a simulation of God’s creation. Challenging God is a crime, and according to the Salafist view all artists deserve to burn in hell. I can see that Sudan is drowning slowly in the Somalization and religious hysteria. Someday this country will be a nightmare for the rest of the world; it will be more dangerous than any current crisis in the world. In this gloomy environment, there is no future for anything.'

Interview by Tjeerd Royaards. All images by Talal Nayer. If you want to see more of his work visit his portfolio page at Cartoon Movement and his personal blog.


CRNI Interviews Jonathan Guyer

Cartoonists Rights Network International conducts an interview with cartoonist Jonathan Guyer. Guyer is associate editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. From 2012-2013, he was a Fulbright fellow researching political cartoons in Egypt.

He runs a blog called Oum Cartoon, where he writes about anything and everything to do with political cartoons in Egypt. Watch this informal 20-minute interview if you're interested in learning more about Egyptian cartoons:

 


Censorship in Venezuela, or Not?

Interview with Venezuelan cartoonist Emilio Agra

Emilio AgraWe all know censorship exists. But it is more difficult to determine to what extent censorship exists in any given country. Political cartoonists often operate at the borders of what is allowed to be published, and they are probably the best gauges we have when it comes to measuring press freedom.

But what if cartoonists themselves do not a agree that there actually is censorship, or do not agree with each other about the level of censorship that exists? In February of this year, we interviewed three Cuban cartoonists about working in Cuba. Surprisingly, they did not feel they were heavily censored in their work. This is surprising, because Cuba is ranked 171 (out of 179 countries) in the Free Press Index 2013.

This month, we noticed Emilio Agra commenting on an interview with Rayma Suprani in the webdoc 'No Laughing Matter'. Rayma Suprani is also a Venezuelan cartoonist, and in her experience, there is much censorship in Venezuela. She is very critical of the Venezuelan government, and has been threatened and intimidated because of her work. To hear her side of the story, watch this interview in the webdoc, and read this interview from 2012 at Sampsonia Way. According to Emilio, Ramya's claims about the Venezuelan media are untrue, and her fear of oppression is exaggerated.

Intrigued by his perspective, we talked to Emilio to find out more. Before going into the issue of censorship, he is keen to explain his stance on Venezuelan politics. Although he has a favorable attitude to the policies of the Chavez-government (and now, since the death of Chavez, lead by Nicolás Maduro), he says he is not blind to the many shortcomings of those in power. But for the most part, he is very critical of the United States and their interest in the wealth of resources that Venezuela has to offer. In his view, the portrayal to the outside world of Venezuela as unfree and dictatorial might well be a strategy of the US using the international media to regain the influence they lost with Chavez's rise to power.

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Is there censorship in Venezuela?

No, there is no censorship in Venezuela. Neither Rayma nor any cartoonist or reporter can say that did not publish anything for censorship. Even absurd and false news is published, and nothing happens. A cartoonist from one of the best known newspapers of the country made a cartoon that openly called to kill the president. This cartoonist still publishes today.

In your comment you mention that Venezuela has 120 newspapers (10 of which are state -owned or pro-government), of which 7 have national coverage. How many of these are state-owned or pro-government?

'The national newspapers are 'Ultimas Noticias' (currently the largest circulation), 'El Nacional', '2001', 'El Universal', 'El Mundo', 'Meridiano' (sports), 'Tal Cual', El Nuevo País'. These are all private. Government property are 'El Correo del Orinoco', 'Ciudad CCS' (only in Caracas) and 'Ciudad Petare' (only in part of eastern Caracas) and pro-government is the newspaper 'Vea'.

This is speaking only of the newspapers that are published in the capital and newspapers with nationwide coverage.'

Venezuela is placed 117th (out 179 countries) on the press freedom index of 2013. How do you explain that?

'I cannot explain it. We should know who makes that list and on what basis; if they are guided by the headlines and not by facts, it is logical that they are so poorly informed.

By the way, that reminds me the list of countries labeled as 'terrorists'. Who decides?'

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Ramya Suprani received threats because of her work, and Amnesty International called on the Venezuelan government to launch an impartial and thorough investigation. Why do you think Amnesty International felt the need to call for attention?

'If we talk of threats and insults, I might do a show with Twitter and threatening emails I received. The situation of political polarization in the country (which is much to blame to malicious media), leads to many 'exalted' and fanatical posturing on both sides, and threats which are no more than that. In my case I have not made noise with the threats I received.

Of course Amnesty International's work is to prevent these incidents and they must presume that the threats are serious.It is the state that determines the severity with which to investigate the matter. In the case of Rayma, is most likely that the Public Ministry has dismissed the case because in the end it just seemed like the action of some exalted anonymous.'

Here is an excerpt from the news of Rayma's complaint, published in the same newspaper where she works:

ALICIA DE LA ROSA | EL UNIVERSAL
Friday March 22, 2013 24:25 Caracas. - The cartoonist for El Universal, Rayma Suprani, went to the Attorney General's Office to report that has been the victim of threats and insults again, this time through anonymous messages on her cell phone and social networks.
The journalist and cartoonist took the opportunity to call the NGOs and the National College of Journalists (CNP) to issue statements warning and urge the state to the practice of journalism is respected.
"Journalism has to get ahead in these times and defend with the criticism, self-criticism and try to understand that this is not a given profession for brave is an exercise like any other and we are intimidating," she added.
In 2012, Rayma Suprani denounced 'La Hojilla' show host Mario Silva, for calling her work 'racist, classist and following instructions of the Empire.'

Are Venezuelan journalists regularly in danger for criticizing the government?

'Absolutely not. The strongest evidence is that all of those who say today that there is no freedom of expression, have been saying it for fourteen years, every day. Is incongruous to claim freely in all media that there is no freedom of communication!'

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Do you have trust in the government to protect/support writers, cartoonists etc. who are threatened because they criticize the regime?

'The word 'regime' is always used to negatively qualify a government. It is used with de facto governments (governments that may have seized power illegally), but in Venezuela sixteen elections were held in fourteen years, so the word 'regime' should not be used. Nobody calls the Obama administration a 'regime', in spite of having won the elections with a very narrow margin and acting worse than de facto regimes.

To answer your question, I believe that if the state would fail to protect free press, it would not only seriously damage the government's image, it would also be in contradiction with what this political project preaches.'

All images by Emilio Agra.


Interview with Sampsonia Way

CM's main editor Tjeerd Royaards talks to Sampsonia Way about the concept of more than one truth and the dilemmas of uncensored free speech:

These are really difficult issues. We also have this kind of issue when there are Middle Eastern cartoonists drawing about Israel, because they sometimes use symbology that Europeans are far more sensitive to or consider anti-Semitic. But, as I said, I’d rather have it generate a meaningful discussion than censor it. And I’m not saying I won’t ever censor anything on Cartoon Movement, but I’d like not to.

Read the full interview here.


The World Talks to Leslie Chew

Carol Hill, the global cartoon editor for PRI's the World, talks to Leslie Chew, a cartoonist from Singapore who is facing court because of his work. Chew is the creator of 'Demon-Cratic Singapore', which is published on Facebook. Although Chew claims the comic is about a fictional country with fictional characters, the Singapore government thought differently, and he was charged with sedition. Earlier this week, these charges were dropped, but he still faces a charge for contempt of court, for offending the judiciary in his comic. Hill talks to Chew and his lawyer how they feel about defeating this charge.