Under the heading “Algiers, Bubbles without Frontiers,” this year's International Comics Festival of Algiers (Festival International de la Bande Dessinée d'Alger, or FIBDA) provides an important space for discussions and works around history, war, and conflict.
I previously wrote about FIBDA in this series with an eye to the role it has played in the evolution and renaissance of Algerian comics. In this installment I would like to focus on the role comics can play as a medium to show, illuminate, and sometimes prevent conflict.
FIBDA has presented various exhibitions and conferences on the theme, including an exhibition on Moroccan artist Brahim Rais’s award-winning Les Passants (pictured left), conferences on the use of educational comics to promote peace in Africa, and on the way comics artists represent “the other” in their work. This year the festival also featured the five young founding members of the Egyptian comics collective Tok Tok.
During one discussion, on the role of comics in the promotion of peace and reconciliation in Africa, Prof. Hilaire Mbiye, from the Université Catholique du Congo, spoke about comics commissioned by NGOs for educational purposes, emphasizing the importance of comics in reaching audiences who do not have access to reading material. “In general terms, educational comics have to be understood as a service to society” said Mbiye. These comics are usually commissioned by international organizations such as the Red Cross. They use comics as a means of disseminating information about social and health issues such as HIV/AIDS, the environment, or peace, and distribute these for free to all citizens. During his discussion, Mbiye appealed for more African institutions to initiate such projects, emphasizing that external perspectives tend to depict negative visions of Africa, showing the continent exclusively as a place of hunger, sickness, and war.
This year’s FIBDA also showcased Brahim Rais's Les passants (The Passersby), a work that was awarded the prize for Best Project last year at FIBDA. The subject matter of this wordless story is modern war. Rais explains: “I work with images, without words, so I can reach a wide number of people.” Les passants begins with a dream and tells the story of a character waking up from a massacre, and discovering that his dream has become the reality he lives in. “In the end, he himself becomes the target of an attack” says Rais. “War is always there. In this work, I try to illustrate my own revolt against war, my shout against war for peace.” Rais also explains that the story of Les Passants was inspired by war in general and not by a specific conflict or location. “I think the image is strong enough in itself to convey its message” says Rais. When asked if comics could play a role in preventing conflict, Rais shares his doubts: “I'm not even sure if most publishers accept these kinds of projects. I have been asked already if I have other projects [not depicting war] but I don't.” Rais also works as a visual artist, mainly doing painting and installations, and his next project will be about World War II. “I will treat it the same way I did with Les passants” he says, “Illustrating how I see WWII, from my own perspective.”
In addition to its set program of exhibitions and conferences, FIBDA also invited a wide variety of artists from all over the world to attend this year’s festival. Among them were Shennawy and Hicham Rahmah, two of the five founders of the Egyptian comics collective Tok Tok.
The five founders of Tok Tok, Andil, Abdallah, Hicham Rahmah, Tawfiq, Shennawy, and Makhlouf (pictured together, below), are professional cartoonists who have worked for Egyptian newspapers, in comics, and in children’s magazines. Shennawy explains that the main aim of Tok Tok was to show daily life from different perspectives. “The idea started with me and Hicham” says Shennawy, “then the others joined and we worked on the first issue for almost a year.” The first issue of Tok Tok came out on January 9, 2011 and presented mostly stories with social themes, “with a bit of politics and humor,” says Shennawy. Tok Tok is published every three months and the second issue came out after the revolution, urging the members to publish even more new stories about these historical events, “After Mubarak resigned, we had two weeks to finish the whole issue,” explains Shennawy, “and it went really well. We could publish stories that had taken place during the revolution and share more points of view. There were also social and lighter stories to break the whole political weight of the coverage of the events of the revolution.” The 1,500 copies of the second issue that they printed were immediately sold out. Hicham Rahmah, who'd been dreaming about creating a comics publication for adults for a long time, explains that “People in Egypt were really amazed. A lot of people in Egypt wanted to have a comics magazine for adults to discuss society and political issues.” Tok Tok started by printing 500 copies of their first issue, which vanished within two hours at the magazine’s launch party—now they have a circulation of about 1,500. Their success confirms that Egypt has many comics readers and comics creators: every issue of Tok Tok publishes work from new artists, most very young and previously unpublished. The magazine is distributed only in Egypt and mostly in Cairo and Alexandria, but the collective hope is to open it up to other Arabic-speaking countries. They have already received interest from around the world including from Germany and the US. “FIBDA gave us the opportunity to meet with other comics artists and see an Arabic festival” says Shennawy—”there aren’t any comics festivals in Egypt.” Hicham adds that their hope is to build such a festival in Egypt. After all, as he points out, “we do have a history of comics.” When talking about freedom of speech, both Hicham and Shennawy are pragmatic and hopeful, “Freedom of speech is not only about the government but also about the audience. The audience has its standards too, and we don't want to lose them. This is why we try to keep the content a bit spicy, and if we want to criticize the government, we do it in a less direct way. For instance, we pixelated an insult in one of our issues, and the result was even more interesting and had more impact. This is the kind of censorship we do to ourselves. We are trying to keep our audience and still do whatever we want” says Shennawy. “My situation is a bit different” explains Hicham, “because in 2005 I participated in a political newspaper and was always criticizing the Mubarak government. That's why I always feel I have some freedom to attack the government. And in Tok Tok, I feel I have the freedom to tackle a lot of different issues. After the revolution we had more space and freedom.” Tok Tok is often represented as the comics magazine that was born on Tahrir Square, but in fact the collective started a year before the revolution. “We want to make a revolution within comics” says Hicham, “We don't want to make all our comics about the revolution, we want to bring a new wave of comics into Egypt.”