Some images have it in them to represent an entire situation in its complexity. The most recent was Aylan Kurdi. The cartoon on him by Juan Zero for instance shown here became the most read post of all times on this blog within a few hours.
The demand was already there for new ways to depict the loss of human life in the Mediterranean in combination with Europe neglecting and/or refusing to react. Aylan Kurdi combined it all. He was no longer in the water, he was not pleading for help and he never made it to a European coast. He was monumental in the devastating calm of his little body with his face protected from the prying. He was every child to whom the interest in his life and wellbeing came painfully too late.
Not all cartoons following his death have been lauded, with two drawings by Riss in the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo yet again at the center of debate. Mocking are they? The said drawings are heavy handed in all aspects of the word. Aylan Kurdi for one seems to have grown into an older boy. His position has changed and one eye is to be seen. The changes may seem minor at first, but the effect is fundamental. Both drawings are created along a them/us-dividing line, obviously aiming at mocking the Europeans, but their ideas are rather threadbare.
They have probably been seen already on most computer screens with ads on happy meal-offers next to the image of the drowned boy.
In the midst of the debate I could not but revel in the thought that even the staunchest opponents of the said drawings were arguing for cartoon art, singling out why these posed a problem to them.
It was not so much that Aylan Kurdi was drawn. There have been an abundance of cartoons on him in the first days following his death. Three of them are on this blog, drawn by a Syrian, an Egyptian and a Sudanese cartoonist respectively. If any drawing should prove disrespectful, it might have been the one by Khalid Wad Albaih on bayonetting a flag into his body. Only that cartoon is one of the very best, which points to the problem and solution alike. Khalid literally went to the core of the situation by incorporating the icon into the larger story, whereas the Riss ones resemble a first idea on division that was not further developed and thus remained exactly that – the image on division with two parts that do not correlate.
The discussions then ran along the rift; why make the division the whole point? Was it to underline the impossibility of crossing or that Charlie Hebdo endorsed the impossibility of it, implying human life of higher/lesser value on each side of it? In an Arabic reading right to left, what was Mickey Mouse was doing there - was Aylan Kurdi to be used in a meat factory? Questions, which were duly answered, each argument incorporating how they were made and what meaning was to be deduced from them.
The debate opened to another interesting aspect: The dehumanization. The mockery – let us ignore for a moment that it was never the intention - seemed dehumanizing in kind. Which was a notion that went both ways. The Europeans for instance, do they need re-humanizing? And if so can they be re-humanized by way of an icon? Really?
They were actually never arguing against drawing cartoons, but negotiating fundamental properties for a cartoon to be of quality, if the art form wants to be taken seriously. From two soon forgotten drawings, emerged an offspring, which would be Kierkegaard's pride and joy.
So to set an alternative them/us-dividing line and one adressing the very situation, which has led to so many drowning; Juan Zero has created the ultimate insult to the drawn paper. It is after all labeled the weakness of art that when all comes around the artwork is never the real thing.
|Juan Zero, May 31, 2015.|
The cockroach will still be here on the other side of a nuclear meltdown, we are told. Which seems just about right, when faced with a specimen of that creature.
And this is what makes for at special meeting before us: Juan Zero equals art with our utmost ideals, the courage to express them even when met with a most real force of nature. Art too aims at reality, only a reality of its own - not in spite of, but in its own way. I take the opportunity to quote my old hero Roger Fry that art "do not seek to imitate form, but to create form; not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for life (...) in fact, they aim not at illusion but at reality".
May the drawing come true.
The cartoon/photo shown is courtesy of Juan Zero and must not be reproduced without his permission.