Monday, 31 March 2014

"Your turn, Cartoonist"

The journalist and Middle East-specialist, who has been an advocate for taking action for Syria since the very beginning, Anders Jerichow, said something very thought-provoking the other day:

- Have we lost our sense of empathy?

By "we" he meant the old democracies and not least the level of debate within Denmark itself. Are we feeling so safe that we have forgotten to take an interest in those, who are in trouble?

Empathy as the ability to transgress one's own mental boundaries, creating the possibility of a common ground for understanding. Previous generations have passed on the insight of worse times, ensuring a memory living on, even when not directly experienced. But the remembrance of it disappears when it is no longer felt necessary.

The family of my paternal grandfather firmly believed that every second generation would lose their lives on the battlefield forcing the next generation to start all over again. Only in turn to see their children lose their lives in the next war. They were French-Alsatians and lived in the European version of the Middle East-conflict.

It made a strong impact on me when my Uncle told me how my great-great-great-grandmother was among the women struggling across the battlefield after the French-German war in 1870/71 looking for their men, hoping in a way not to find them among the fallen. The women themselves were starving, looking for anything to eat, with the rotting horses right in front of them. Only that in itself posed a danger to them. Being allowed to eat horse-meat or refraining from it would expose immediately to the other women, which side they were on.

We would not wish this for anyone, but if being in a safe place has left us unable to take part even in mind on the situation of others, then we have lost, not gained. The Iranian exiled cartoonist Mana Neyestani has reflected this through the archetype of suffering. Anyone who has witnessed a loved and dear one fight for his or her life recognize the strength, the anger and the will to survive, and the ultimate pain of it not being possible:

Mana Neyestani: The Gospel According to Facebook,
March 17, 2014.

Each joint of his body is bent, making him a landscape of high-lights and shadow. The effect creates a body tense with existential pain. But just as we feel his pain upon us, the dramatic change of perspective with its greater force of the stark contrasts of black and white makes mere modulations of his own drawn lines. Looming behind him, but all the more dangerous when exposing him to the strongest light of being. 

It is a story told in shadow and light, making us feel his pain in the outburst as well as the silent pain that ensues. We share the revelatory light of the Seen with him as today's proof of existence. This is the dimension of the great poet, conveying understanding to us, changing us in the process.

This was the role assigned to Christ in 1000 years of art history. So time to let him take a break, while the cartoonist takes over. And by this not just making the latter the victim of the story. The cartoonist is the activist, dynamically taking his responsibility upon him, as the one who makes the human tale come alive.

Per Marquard Otzen, Nail-gazing, April 10, 2009.
- Your turn, Cartoonist

The artworks shown are courtesy of their artists and must not be reproduced without their permission.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Confrontation: "To face in defiance or hostility"

The very idea of a picture plane is a confrontation with its beholder. And if the picture plane happens to strike first, it has every chance of winning the encounter. Case in point:

Nadia Khiari: WillisFromTunis, October 15, 2011.
"Yesterday on Friday, October 14, Tunisia celebrated World Mental Health Day!"
- Stop laughing, you biiitch!

Willis wins hands down every time. His insolence blocks our view, while his voice is embodied in the firm certainty of the line, throwing exclamation marks at us. The latter is even build into his favorite insolence of all with the three added i's.

Willis is the epitome of how everyone began talking and was talking incessantly after the revolution, as Nadia Khiari has emphasized. He has lately had a French alter ego. "The neo-modern expression of exasperation" according Le Bonjour Tristesse himself, whose confrontational monologues takes on the outraged character, that insane uncle, we have all had, using the rage as an excuse for speaking at lightning speed. Pictorially he undresses French culture by each time including one or two clichés. This is his latest outrage, mes copains:

- this time he actually nearly ran out of breath

In Danish he would be called a Jeronimus, the character, who was given a voice by Ludvig Holberg in the play Mascarade in 1724, and in the early 20th century set to music by Carl Nielsen. In the vein of Pantalone, a Jeronimus is the constantly complaining grump, who whines for the times, when there was no tea, no chocolate, no coffee companies, and certainly not the masquerades. Peace is no more, as he sings, concluded with aching emphasis in Danish on the double f's of Freden er forbi. Because the worst has taken place, in the masquerade...

All are equal!

Democratic ideas are by their very definition near impossible to depict, so the voice of exasperation, the outraged and the bully with each their simplifications at hand verbalize the positive undercurrents, giving them visibility. Another case in point this time with full view all the way to his uvula:

The Fatwa of the Day according to Yahia Boulahia:
"Tunisia adopts its new Constitution"
- The Constitution of Shame.
You turn your back on the Divine Book for a rag written by humans.

He is no longer the slick Self-Righteous he used to be. He is all saliva and sweat, not to mention his shiny forehead. Too much equality ahead?

Even so, the new constitution still leaves much to be desired. Censorship is not a thing of the past, and so there are times, when silence becomes a very direct comment, this one is from Willis' first months of existence:

Nadia Khiari, WillisFromTunis, April 19, 2011.
The reason for Willis' silence these past days:
- When I have nothing interesting to say, I keep my mouth shut!

Since the word here is confrontation, let us not relax the level now and so in giving the final words to Le Bonjour Tristesse:

Une bonne semaine de merde à vous!

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Cartooning: The Art of Danger

Kianoush Ramezani: Cartooning; The Art of Danger in IRAN, March 16, 2014.

Last night Kianoush Ramezani gave a TEDx Talk in The Hague unfolding his definition of the cartoonist as an activist. The cartoonist is an observer of society, who explains and expresses his or her opinions freely. Kianoush knows only too well from his own life when that is not the case, which he tells of here - adding the need to guarantee the safety of the cartoonist after the fact too, after his or her having spoken out:

Kianoush is himself the very example of an activist. He is an organizer, personally taking initiatives and seeing each of them through. There are the direct means to secure his colleagues, giving them a voice through curating exhibitions and creating organizations, which overlook their safety, while he on the other hand has warned about the dangers of islamists in Tunisia and Egypt and their involvement in the social media. All of it on the two sides of his being forced into exile.

The very definition of a cartoonist.
- The delicacy of the only just sprouted against the rope of silence.
While Kianoush did not take part in the green revolution of the young Iranians in 2009,
it was fighting for their right to speak up, which forced him to leave his country.

The social media are the crucial sources to interact as Kianoush underlines with the conclusion: Secure society needs activists and activists need to be promoted in their social networks. The plan to do so is being drawn up...

The cartoons shown are courtesy of Kianoush and must not be reproduced without his permission.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Action versus Reaction

"One thing I don't like about professional cartooning is to follow the news, to wait for the crisis to react! A cartoonist must observe and "act", not just "react". A cartoonist is supposed to be an Activist in the society, not just the illustrator of the world's stupid news!"

Kianoush Ramezani, gravure of older drawing 2010-12 for the exhibition
 Paper to Plate, Plate to Press, Press to Paper - Deja Vu, March 2013.

- as stated by Kianoush Ramezani last Saturday, putting into perspective the situation Hans Bendix was in 80 years ago. Bendix created critical platforms such as magazines in which to inform and discuss the dangers of Fascism in Europe. He set out the very day Hitler came to power, January 30, 1933, much to the chagrin of the Danish Foreign Secretary, who tried to appease that mighty German neighbor to the south. The Danish public at large followed the official line of "having no need" of speaking up on what was taking place. 

And here was a blasted cartoonist who included the words "Concentration Camp" in a drawing as early 1933, while his contemporaries cried on print: Why talk about it! No one else does!!!

Hans Bendix, the cover of the 2nd issue of Aandehullet 
(the name referring to the blowhole of the whale)
February 1934.

The cover above is from one of Bendix' best known initiatives, the magazine Aandehullet to which end he mobilized everyone he knew, cartooning colleagues included, to take part. In its fair simplicity the cover says it all. The drawing and the coloring are separated from each other. Everything that is unfree is within the blue field, while she is trying to escape. It can still go either way.

It is no coincidence that the struggling woman above is in the nude as is Kianoush' free speaker above. Nudity is linked to freedom and had a further implication in the 1930'ies, when the "childish laws" on pornography - according to Hans Bendix - made children of every citizen. A despotic rule or in the Danish case an Angst-ridden government finds an all too easy explanation in the need to protect its people.

The life of the magazine turned out to be a dramatic one in itself. The first issue was burned by its publisher, who feared what it might ignite and the police issued a ban against selling it on the street. By the third issue, the Prime Minister intervened and had it closed down.

Kianoush Ramezani, gravure of older drawing 2010-12 for the exhibition
 Paper to Plate, Plate to Press, Press to Paper - Deja Vu, March 2013.

Democracy was still new in the 1930ies, compared to the long line of despots in history. It was not be known whether democracy would pull through. As for Kianoush, he grew up in an Iran ruled by a theocracy. And so my reaction to his statement above was that the cartoonist as agens belongs to a situation in which democracy is out of hand. Action is after all less needed when the basic institutions are already in place, such as freedom of speech?

Of course I was wrong.

Kianoush for one has taken upon him the fundamental struggle for the right to live. The death penalty is so very obviously a political weapon, which is there graphically before us when seen in a map of the world. But then there are all the positions in-between. A boundary which is moved little by little, since we forget the radical difference of life and no longer being alive. Euthansia for one? Kianoush uses the hanging rope all through his drawn debate. The rope as the deadly agent, which takes on the ignition of life as well as the abolition of it.

Kianoush elaborated on his first words that the cartoonist takes on what few eyes see. It is not a matter of inventing a problem, cartoons are based on observation. The seen is then transformed onto the picture plane and since no one else addresses the problem, the provocation is right at hand.

Kianoush Ramezani, gravure of older drawing 2010-12 for the exhibition
 Paper to Plate, Plate to Press, Press to Paper - Deja Vu, March 2013.

To add to the meaning of his words, it was so inspiring to hear from Djamel Ghanem this morning. If only you could all have heard him. This was the inspired cartoonist on the war path with pen in hand. He is now in Europe, which has instantly instigated his next move: To address racism. There is a voice to the heard in this, as he said: It needs changing.

Europe has gained a new, critical voice, and so let us give the last word to Kianoush:

- All cartoonists as activists, but I am not sure of them being aware of it.

All works shown are courtesy of the artists and must not be reproduced without their permission.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

"I wipe away the line"

What a treat to be in the company of Hans Bendix' drawings once again. Busy weeks making the final preparations for a book on the cartoonist Hans Bendix and his anti-nazi cartoons 1933-40, sending off the chapters to my publisher with not much time for anything else. 

Tarek Alghorani introduced me to the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, and these days I keep returning to his words:

"I conquer the world with words,
conquer the mother tongue,verbs,
nouns, syntax.
I sweep away the beginning of things
and with a new language
that has the music of water the message of fire
I light the coming age
and stop time in your eyes
and wipe away the line that separates
time from this single moment."

Not that drawing equates a language. Drawing seems to come from a more fundamental level of human life, but in the process of drawing the cartoonist constantly challenges the basic line to begin anew. In the quest to define the never before: The Now. 

Qabbani uses the image of creating through wiping away. In this case wiping away the line that separates us from presence, and it is the perfect image of what takes place in the artistic process. The line is a notion as well as a physical reality and by wiping away, the artist creates a presence on paper that the line separated us from by its being there. A constant process, a struggle even, not to wipe away too much so that The Now never emerges. The struggle of each new drawing.

Juan Zero, From the series Free Syria, August 19, 2012.

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