It has been a full month since the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked by two gunmen in Paris, leaving eleven people dead (including the magazine’s editor and three of its cartoonists) and injuring eleven others. The reverberations can still be felt: in the whipped up hysteria around “Islamic terror,” the increase of scapegoating against Muslims (particularly in France, but across Europe and in North America), and the renewed debate over the responsibilities and power of graphic artists.
Leila Abdelrazaq is a Chicago-based artist and organizer. She is the author of the forthcoming graphic novel, Baddawi, which tells the story of her father's childhood growing up as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon amidst civil war and political turmoil. She also serves on the national Students for Justice in Palestine steering committee.
Jennifer Camper is a cartoonist and illustrator living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work explores themes of gender, race, class, Lebanese-American identity and queer politics, and has appeared in The Village Voice, Bitch, Ms. Magazine and other outlets. She has also published four books, including subGURLZ and Rude Girls and Dangerous Women.
Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer in New York City. She is a columnist at VICE, and has written for publications including The New York Times, Paris Review, and Vanity Fair. She is the illustrator of Discordia (with Laurie Penny), as well as art books Devil In the Details and Week In Hell. Her 2013 solo exhibition “Shell Game” focused on the uprisings of 2011.
Melanie West is an anti-racist activist, artist and comic book lover with a Bachelors of Science in Studio Art living in Rochester, New York. Her work can be viewed at her blog.
These four artists and illustrators spoke with Red Wedge to share some of their thoughts on imagery, Charlie Hebdo, and the difference between art that empowers and art that reinforces the status quo.
Obviously the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices back in January were horrifying for everyone, but what were your reactions as artists, as illustrators, as cartoonists?
Jennifer: My first reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders was sorrow. This was a tragic loss of creative people. My second reaction was anger. Killing cartoonists is stupid and illogical, because the cartoons still remain, and in fact received more attention and support than ever. My third reaction was concern. People will use these murders to fuel Anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia. These murderers were not Muslims, they are psychotics who misinterpret Islam.
Leila: When I heard about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I felt that just because I draw comics, I would be expected to identify with the artists, but I really, really didn’t. I identify with people on the basis of shared morals and philosophies, and did not feel that I had much in common at all with the artists. Just because we use the same craft, doesn’t mean we are on the same team. I also did not feel compelled to defend their artistic work just because they had been killed for it.
Molly: Fucking gutted. To me, the artists at Charlie Hebdo are just the latest in a long line of cartoonists beaten, jailed and murdered by authoritarians. I think of Ali Ferzat, the Syrian cartoonist whose hands were broken for mocking President Bashar al-Assad. Or of Palestinian cartoonist Naj al-Ali, the creator of Handala, who was gunned down outside his office in London, probably by a Mossad agent. Right now, in Israel, a right wing politician is calling for the death of Haaretz cartoonists because of their visual criticism of the war in Gaza. Cartoonists are mocking by nature, and because of that, their work threatens censorious assholes of all stripes.
Melanie: I immediately felt the horrifying, and often overlooked, reality of how powerful art is. Images create a profound visceral language which evoke, as most artists wish, an intensely emotional response. Of course, no one deserved to die. That is not in question. However when we take into account the full context of neocolonialism, ongoing slaughter and the obvious discrepancies within positions of power, we find a place where art can be a bomb. The best term for this is image annihilation. Unfortunately, I cannot presently find its original source. But in short, image annihilation describes the way in which representation can kill us. Images can destroy our reputations, our sense of self, and our grip on reality. They can rob us of personhood, especially if we are barred from the means that largely construct, and tone our socio-political identities. I think that is what happened here. And I think a lot of people with tremendous power, and specifically power of the press, are not taught how much weight their work carries. They do not understand that they can uphold institutional oppression, with certain images and provoke hate crimes, or kill someone inside so deeply, that they feel the need to strike back.
Right now there seems to be a lot of rather chauvinistic chest-beating about freedom of speech and freedom of artistic expression in the wake of the shootings. And yet, this seems to forget that artists are hardly afforded uninterrupted freedom of expression, both in the west and in regimes supported by the west. How do you think this affects you as an artist? How do you think it affects radical cartoonists, illustrators and artists as a whole?
Melanie: It can make freedom of expression a game in which, if you’re aren’t siding with the winners (in some capacity) then you’re unlikely to get your work published.
Jennifer: Cartoonists are generally under-paid, consequently they must be driven by passion to make comics. Cartoonists often struggle against tremendous odds to disseminate their work. People seem to pay attention to cartoonists more when they are murdered.
Leila: I want to start by saying that this is not an issue of free speech. We need to refine our understanding of what exactly censorship and repression of free speech actually are and how they function. They are systems — widespread systems that prevent large swaths of people from expressing themselves freely. We understand that disenfranchised communities cannot be racist against the hegemonic community, though there may be instances of prejudice that occur (understandably so, after generations of repression) because it is a system.
The same is true for freedom of speech — disenfranchised communities cannot seriously pose a threat to the freedom of speech of those who essentially control the media! We need to understand that the attack against Charlie Hebdo cartoonists was one incident. It does not constitute a widespread system that seriously threatens everyone’s freedom of speech. I think as radical artists, if we hope to combat censorship, we need to be very clear about what censorship actually means. Censorship is something that legitimately affects us in many very subversive ways. Personally, I am always really suspicious when the mainstream media suddenly start acting like it gives a shit about freedom of speech, as if they haven’t been a major part of the problem the entire time! The issue with the Charlie Hebdo attack is not a battle for free speech, though the slogan of “free speech” has suddenly been co-opted by the mainstream media. The attack is an incident that should cause us as artists to ask ourselves a slew of important questions regarding what our responsibilities are when it comes to representations of “the other,” and what we can do to challenge existing systems of repression rather than re-enforce them.
Molly: The #JeSuisCharlie March in Paris played host to a bunch of politicians, which is to say, hypocritical jackasses. Representatives from every country that jails journalists, from Russia to Saudi to the US, were linking arms and braying about freedom. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard Holtrop had it right when he said, "We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends.”
People who never would have been caught dead with a bunch of foul mouthed scribblers suddenly love those scribblers' corpses. It reminds me of how, after 9/11, the American politicians who most demonized New York City came to my hometown to make photo-ops in front of the place where two thousand of my neighbors were murdered.
I'm for free speech here. Free speech everywhere. Free speech for everyone. I've stood up for Muslims like Tarek Mehanna, who are imprisoned in the US for little more than dissent, even though me and Mehanna are ideological opposites. Pointing out that free speech in the West is ultimately illusory is good. But its just a baby step. For too many people it stops there. It becomes a form of what-aboutism, rather than a starting point to build support of global free expression.
As for the classic “are cartoonists afraid?” Fuck no, I'm not afraid. It would be fucking ludicrous if I said that I was, or if nearly any Western cartoonists said they were scared. There are cartoonists truly at risk in this world, of being jailed, attacked or killed, and they are not from the West. Their bravery puts ours to shame.
There's been a lot of debate and discussion about the contradictory nature of Charlie Hebdo. On the one hand, the magazine has played some role in the left and has been critical of of anti-immigration policies, fascists, etc. Yet on the other, the images of Muslims, (the political official Christiane Taubira, and the captured women of Boko Haram are appallingly racist). What are we to make of the magazine?
Molly: The idea of the consistent platform, with the consistent voice, is dead. Look at The New York Times. The New York Times publishes some of the finest journalism in the world. It also publishes the hallucinogenic mewling of Thomas Friedman. Its lies about chemical weapons helped pave the way for the Iraq War, and thus hundreds of thousands of deaths. What does all this say about any individual Times journalist? Especially if they were just murdered? I don't know. But I sure do know that their murder wouldn't be “explained” by posting Thomas Friedman columns on Twitter.
Brilliant leftist satire ran in Charlie Hebdo. There were also some tactics of satirizing racism (like the drawing of Christiane Taubira as a monkey, done in parody of a similar image by the National Front) that were once accepted, but have aged hideously. They also ran shit that made my skin crawl. The cover of the Raba'a massacre victim was particularly disgusting. It was cheap. It was low. It was punching down against victims of a military dictatorship in the worst possible way. Equal opportunity offense only really works if the playing field is level.
But no human deserves to be reduced to the worst thing their publication ever printed. Unfortunately, I saw a lot of that on American leftist twitter, which mostly could neither read French, nor figure out which Charlie Hebdo artist drew which piece. People I respected compared them to Der Sturmer and the KKK, while knowing nothing about them. Some people even blamed them for the Iraq War, in which France had no part. How soon Freedom Fries were forgotten.
Jennifer: Charlie Hebdo was born in the political climate of 1970’s France. That it exists today, in today’s publishing environment, is remarkable. I appreciate clever political discourse even if I don’t agree with every point. The majority of Charlie Hebdo’s contributors were white, heterosexual men, and their publication reflects that. With new contributors, that might change.
Leila: Just because somebody says something I agree with, doesn’t mean we are on the same page. Libertarians may say individual things that, taken out of context, radical leftists may agree with. Does that mean that we want to work with libertarians? Let’s look at the entire source, not just one piece of it. I personally don’t want anything to do with publications that are producing racist vitriol. As radical artists, we cannot accept this. We must set ourselves to a higher standard than that.
Melanie: If you uphold one form of oppression, then you inevitably support them all. Stratums feed off each other. That is why allies must go all the way. You cannot pick and chose when you will uphold justice. Your politics must be intersectional. Thus you must consider your work as a continuum. Your work is a spectrum of your thoughts, and if you don’t consider what they say together, then your efforts will become fractured and hypocritical, as we see here. Whatever good intentions they had were not visible. Thus those pictures should stand as a lesson in self reflexivity. Those images should be categorized as a place where the politics went astray.
On the subject the racist cartoons: What do we have to say to those who are now telling Muslims that they should "just get over" racist portrayals? Are these really just funny pictures, or do they play a role in terms of society's ideas? What do you think is the difference between satire that "punches down" and that which "punches up”?
Leila: Racist cartoons really aren’t funny. I don’t understand why that needs to be explained, so I’ll leave that task to someone else.
Melanie: If you do not know what it is like to have your image co-opted on an institutional scale, then you have no right to lecture those in that reality. Of course pictures alone don’t cause murder. But when those pictures are connected to an ongoing history of oppression that disenfranchises you from the right to control your land, your voice, your body, and/or your identity, then they’re not pictures anymore. They’re incredible reflections and constant reminders of how much you do not own yourself. This is a form of hegemony that mostly only the oppressed recognize. And with all the hate crimes happening to innocent people, it is just willful ignorance to argue otherwise.
Next the idea of satire “punching up” is beautiful. It instantly illustrates the positions battled here. When insightful and sharp demonstrations surge from the oppressed up through their oppressors, it is resistance. When the arrows drop from the top, to slaughter the unprotected, it is oppression. And understanding this requires a lot of self awareness. It requires a lot of history. And so many artists are unaware of history. They only see the surface. They don’t understand that drawing a picture of Jesus Christ is vastly different from depicting the Prophet Muhammad. They don’t get that on one side, Christianity is a religion that features a lot of people with a lot of global dominance, while on the other side, Islam is a faith that has been bludgeoned in order to justify the pillaging and imperial slaughter of the East. Within that context, a Western body blatantly disrespecting Islam (like when drawing the Prophet Muhammad) is dropping arrows from the top. They are driving salt into the wound. They’re punching down, and they shouldn’t be surprised when people get desperate and punch back.
Jennifer: The most effective way to counter art one doesn’t like is to make one’s own art. We need to encourage artists reflecting Arab, Muslim, female, POC, gay, and other “outsider” perspectives.
Ridiculing people who have less power is expected, and therefore it’s not as funny as ridiculing people who have more power. That’s how humor works — we laugh at what is surprising.
Stepping back into something more general, this is the first time that the question of the cartoonist's or the illustrator's role in the world at large discussed on such a wide scale in recent memory. Do you think there is a role for artists and cartoonists to play? How about specifically in building a culture of anti-racism? Is there a connection between this and fighting for true, global freedom of expression?
Melanie: Yes I do think artists play a political role, whether they want to or not. Again what people draw within positions of power reflect and carve systems of power. So artists must be careful and aware of their intent. If we want to build cultures against racism, then we cannot be comfortable with racist art. I think a place to start would be to educate artists about image annihilation and their social positions. The world needs artists that are willing to be critical of themselves and the world around them. Artists that are exposed to the truth, are more likely to fight for true freedom. They could build bridges through more humanizing images. They could create a lot of space for healing, or aid in provoking some essential resistance.
Jennifer: All artists must decide their responsibility to truth — both in non-fiction and in fiction. If a work of art is based in something false or inaccurate, it will fail.
Leila: Artists and cartoonists do not simply have "a role to play" in this matter. We have an enormous responsibility when it comes to challenging racism, among many other systems of repression. Even if we don’t address these issues directly in our work, it is our responsibility to be aware of these issues and make sure (to the best of our abilities, anyways) that we are not perpetuating them in our work in subversive ways. What that looks like in each instance is a continual challenge for all of us, but we have to push ourselves and hold ourselves and each other to that standard, because if we don’t, nobody else will. That’s why I don’t understand people who are making excuses for Charlie Hebdo cartoonists on the basis of some of their work that was in line with leftist ideals. If we respect one-another as artists, it is our responsibility to hold one-another accountable on all fronts!
This is a tough time for artists to navigate obviously, so in the interest of letting you all have your say, do you have any final thoughts you'd like to share? Anything that we didn't touch on you want heard?
Melanie: I think Matt Bors messed up. First I just want to say, I usually love his cartoons and find his insights on point. However he recently made a comic that depicted the Prophet Muhammad, and I think a dialog is essential around that. I definitely saw it as dropping arrows from the top. It doesn’t matter that it “was not offensive” (in the sense that it did not ridicule the Prophet), because the present systems of power inevitably make it offensive. It will always be a cruel, co-optation and slight to something sacred, slapping people who are still fighting for their basic rights and humanity. People who, again, do not get to largely control the depiction of their religion, or themselves. So I think that if someone within that social position wants to depict the Prophet, it should be left to them. Only them. Outsiders, with privilege to eclipse those in the oppressive position, should keep our hands off. Last I’m not advocating for censorship. I would much rather see artists make a conscious choice not to do this, because they recognize there is a lot of unfair weight being thrown around. And I’d be happy to hear what other people think about this. And if Mr. Bors ever reads this, I’d be happy to hear his opinion as well.
Jennifer: The killings in Paris took place while possibly thousands were being slaughtered in Nigeria by Boko Haram. There was world-wide reaction to the deaths in France, much less for the deaths in Western Africa. People respond more to victims who look like oneself. The French also have greater powers of communication – journalism, social media, and an efficient government — while Nigeria has none of that.
Here’s a challenge — if you are upset by the Charlie Hebdo killings, please buy some comics or graphic novels. And donate money to help the refugees fleeing Boko Haram.
Molly: The whole thing makes me sick. It makes me sick that artists are shot to death, or left horrendously injured, for their work. It makes me sick the way social media reduces humans to single moments. It makes me sick that France is currently arresting people for making fun of the murders — a sort of mockery Charlie Hebdo would have richly approved of. It makes me sick how Western politicians will use the murders as an excuse to repress Muslims and increase surveillance. It makes me sick how this is fueling Islamophobia in the US.
I've seldom wanted to say “fuck everyone,” more than in the days after the murders. Irreverence and art. That's all I've got.
Leila: I don’t really think it’s particularly “tough to navigate” this issue as an artist. I do think it is “tough to navigate” as a Palestinian cartoonist from a Muslim family because there is the sense that if I express anything other than deep remorse for the deaths of these artists (why do Arabs and Muslims have to personally apologize every time one of us does something stupid?!) I will be accused of thinking that the attacks were justified. Obviously this is not the case. But somehow, because of who I am, I'm always obliged to give that disclaimer. So here it is: The attack was not by any means justified. Can we move on now? Maybe that should have gone at the beginning.
Jennifer Camper is a cartoonist and illustrator living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of four graphic books, including subGURLZ and Rude Girls and Dangerous Women.
Molly Crabapple is a writer and artist in New York City. She is a columnist for VICE, and has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times and Paris Review among others. Her memoir Drawing Blood will be published in 2015 by HarperCollins.