Last week I shared an overview of this year’s International Comics Festival of Algiers—FIBDA. In this next installment I take a closer look at the origins of the creative energy in Algeria today and the current state of comics in the country.
Festivals have always played a key role in encouraging creativity among comics artists and in helping them get their work published, and the Arab world saw quite a few in the eighties. Festivals emerged in Tunisia in 1983 (Salon International de la Bande Dessinée de Tazarka), in Algeria between 1986 and 1989 (Festival de la bande dessinée et de la caricature de Bordj El Kiffan), as well as in Lebanon in 1987 and 1988 (Festival International de la bande dessinée de Beyrouth).
This period of growth in the history of Algerian comics was interrupted by the civil war that lasted over a decade in the nineties and through the early 2000s. It was only a few years after this fatal conflict that FIBDA started, in 2008, acting as a catalyst in the rebirth of Algerian comics.
As part of its efforts to support young talent and the development of a local market for comics, FIBDA has organized workshops and awards for young talent. At the beginning of their enterprise there were only two Algerian publishers of comics present at FIBDA. Four years later, there were seven Algerian publishers, as well as publishers from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mali. Although FIBDA seems set on remaining an author’s festival, one not built around publishers' activities and agendas, it does acknowledge the importance of supporting young publishing outfits within Algeria and elsewhere on the African continent, and invites more from across the world.
Publisher Lazhari Labter, from Lazhari Labter Editions, provides a useful overview of the history of Algerian comics in his seminal book Panorama de la Bande Dessinée Algérienne 1969-2009 (Overview of Algerian Comics 1969-2009). The book follows the early years of the Algerian comics scene, shedding light on such forerunners as M’Quidèch, the first Algerian comics magazine, founded in 1969, and unfortunately closed in 1973. Starting in 1967, comics had started to be appear in major newspapers like Algérie Actualité and El Moudjahid, with works like Naâr and une sirène à Sidi Ferruch from Mohamed Aram, Commando en mission from Noureddine Hiahemzizou, Le Pont from Rachid Aït Kaci, and Moustache et les Belgacem from Menouar Merabtene, better known as Slim. The eighties saw a major boom in the production of comics and the first Algerian comics festival was formed in 1986: the Comics and Cartoon Festival of Bordj El Kiffan. New talent also began to emerge in magazines like Tarik, Tim et Simsim and El Manchar. This burst of creative energy was interrupted by the civil war in 1991. The young artist Rym Mokhtari mentioned the creative void that followed those years in a panel discussion at FIBDA, but also pointed out the renaissance of Algerian comics of the last few years, a movement that FIBDA has been at the center of.
Signing session with Algerian comics artist Slim
Among those aiding in this renaissance is Belgian comic artist Étienne Schréder who has held a series of workshops for young Algerian artists, (mentioned in my last post), which resulted in the publication of a collection of works entitled Monsters. Rym was one of the participants, and she shared her experience at a panel, explaining that she had had her doubts about the workshops, wondering if the participants would be taught “drawing” again. But she attended them, first out of curiosity, and then ended up staying, “because it was more than just drawing, we were talking about a visual language, about comics. Étienne has pushed us to go further.” Monsters has allowed its participants to explore themes they would not have had the opportunity to express otherwise. “We couldn’t have done it for any publisher” says Rym, “we are always limited in what we can do, both in terms of humor as well as in the political cartoon, which has a long tradition in Algeria. In Monsters, we chose to focus on the theme of the ‘Monster,’ exploring a variety of subject matters that would not have been of interest to any other editor or publisher.” The theme of “Monsters” was a unanimous choice among the participants; “Monsters” says Rym, “also explores difference, not just horror.”
Cover of Monsters
But an annual comics festival, even if it includes a workshop series leading to a quality publication, is not enough to boost a creative economy around comics. Being a professional comics artist is still a challenge in Algeria. Young artists have to struggle against a number of limits—the realities of the market, the lack of readers, the difficulties of distributing comics (there are very few bookshops), the absence of institutions of higher education that concentrate on comics, and the lack of significant opportunities for producing and publishing comics outside select venues like FIBDA. However, this creative energy, and the results of the workshops displayed in the impressive Monsters, show that young Algerian artists still have a lot on their minds and that they will continue their endeavor, whatever the conditions of the market, which they continue to build, drawing by drawing. “It is a spirit,” says Schréder, “it is moving and it makes everything possible.” Following the path their precursors started on at the end of the eighties, Algerian artists, young and old alike, are now at the very beginning of a new era for comics in their country.
In my next post I will focus on the work of comics artist Brahim Raïs, author of the award-winning Les Passants, and Tuk Tuk, the comics collective created a few weeks before the Egyptian Revolution.