Toons shall overcome: The fight for freedom of expression
The story of Arifur Rahman comes with a forewarning — it isn’t meant to be taken lightly, or emulated, even for a seemingly harmless joke.
Arifur, 32, is an award-winning cartoonist from Bangladesh, known for his work on anti-corruption campaigns. He has been based in Drøbak, Norway, since 2010.
His online cartoons magazine, tOOnsMaG.com, recently hosted an international contest on the theme, “Freedom of Expression”, fielding resp-onses from 515 cartoonists across 82 countries. Selected works from the contest are now on display simultaneously in Bengaluru and Drøbak. That’s the good part.
Arifur also happens to be named in a list on an Islamic Sharia website, which includes Salman Rushdie, of individuals who have fatwas issued against them. His crime — a cartoon titled “Naam” (Name), which he made for the weekly Alpin magazine, on 17 September 2007.
The cartoon sparked off riots in Dhaka and across Bangladesh, and Arifur, 20 years old at the time, was arrested, while the newspaper Prothom Alo, the publishers of Alpin, were brought to the brink of shutting down.
Arifur's story, of having spent six months in prison, braving abuse, brutality and a spate of death threats, has been frequently retold, especially during the recent attacks against bloggers and journalists in Bangladesh. Arifur has in fact become a champion for the cause of cartooning, gaining solidarity from groups such as the Cartoonist Rights Network International, and the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), which facilitated his safe exile to Norway.
The issue, at the heart of the controversy, remains about political correctness and religious sensitivity.
Toeing the fine line
In that sense, Arifur’s cartoon finds context alongside the long-raging dispute (since 2005) over contentious content in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, apart from a handful of French, Norwegian, German, Italian and Spanish publications including Libération and Magazinet — incidents that led to the January 2015 armed attack at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, claiming 12 lives.
There are a few other instances to reference, including allegedly blasphemous suggestions in the animated series South Park (in 2010). More recently, concerns in the cartoons world extended to misappropriation, as the artist Matt Furie apparently ended the life of his character, Pepe the Frog, to avoid it from been linked to issues of racism and anti-Semitism. Released on May 6, Free Comic Book Day, Furie’s newest comic depicts a funeral with Pepe the Frog in a coffin.
All these cases have a few common elements — they speak for freedom of expression, they’re against the proliferation of communal hate and violence, and importantly, they all seek to validate the editorial cartoon as a potent tool of opinion making. Arifur is all too aware about the fine line between eliciting mirth, being provocative, and kindling a sense of understanding — where internet memes and vines have become the preferred modes for making political statements.
Think before you laugh
Not surprisingly, the tOOnsMaG contest resulted in a string of global issues being brought to light. The main concerns were expectedly of war, terrorism and fundamentalism (as addressed by entries from Ukraine, Iraq, Iran), and of martial law, urban policing and state suppression (from Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Egypt, Greece, Uzbekistan, El Salvador, Serbia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Norway, Brazil, Venezuela).
Other topics included the subjugation of the internet and the media (Austria, Belgium, Macedonia, Morocco, Peru, Uruguay, Kazakhstan); human rights (Hungary, Romania, Russia); rights of the girl child (Argentina); and cultural representation (Cuba, Mexico, Germany, Nigeria, Tanzania). By and large, barring a few calls for revolution (from Croatia, for instance), the broader themes unifying cartoonists the world over are clearly of peace and freedom (from Afghanistan, China and Syria to Spain, Colombia, Slovakia and Poland). For tOOnsMaG, the larger success was in celebrating the form of cartooning.
“We cartoonists can make people think,” asserts Arifur in an email exchange. “Cartoons make it possible for us to make a positive change,” he says. "If people learn to think, and realise, then change will come automatically. But, of course, that takes time.”
Arifur goes on to acknowledge that “It is very sad that in 2017 we’re still starved for world peace.” He admits, “Day by day, as some people take things forward, terrorists keep trying to take humankind backwards. It is very difficult to say what is going to happen a few years later, but I hope and believe that someday people will learn to tolerate freedom of speech, and hold respect for others.”
Resist, persist and satirise
In Arifur’s view, editorial cartoons have gradually evolved into a valid and purposeful form of protest, somewhat like poster making. “Cartoons are both the easiest and the strongest form of art,” he explains. “They can be used for humour, and also as a powerful tool of protest.” The fact of cartoons increasingly being faced with censorship only confirms how potent the form can be, he insists.
In an age where being outspoken is considered the new norm, cartoons can express a range of emotions — even while being serious, rather than frivolous and silly. While the qualities of sarcasm, irreverence and drollness might seem commonplace, cartoons have the rare ability to make one express joy, insists Arifur. Almost grudgingly, he adds, it’s also true that we’re rapidly losing reason and ways to laugh about things.
“Cartoons can teach us how to laugh,” affirms Arifur. “In the language of a cartoon, the artist presents an idea in a twisted way, which makes us laugh,” he offers, recalling his earliest motivations. “When I was a boy, I used to read Pran Kumar Sharma’s comics Chacha Chaudhary, Pinki and Billoo, which were all humorous comics.” The cartoons of Pran inspired him to become a cartoonist, shares Arifur.
The edit is passed
Arifur notes that cartooning has certainly come a long way from its privileged origins, as a
subversive form meant to shape popular opinion on political goings-on, such as in the erstwhile British magazine, Punch. “Editorial cartoons, as in The New Yorker and even RK Laxman’s daily cartoon for The Times of India, revealed the changes in how people were thinking, and talking about things,” he elaborates.
“Then there were magazines like MAD, which just taught us how to laugh,” he adds. “Importantly, they all gave us a sense of political understanding. Cartoons are now mainstream because they can communicate thoughtful messages. Some cartoons can tell us more than an article of thousand words.” It isn’t for no reason that the cartoonist’s job now commands as much importance as of the editor in certain circles, he remarks.
The key, he explains, is to distinguish editorial cartoons as a form that stands apart from animation, caricatures, illustrations, storyboards, sketches and cartoon strips. The task of the editorial cartoon, as he puts it, is rather tricky — “to make one think, and not just laugh”.
“Sure, editorial cartoons are also drawings. But these cartoons reflect political events from a particular time,” he says. In the last few decades, the need for cartoonists to fit in volumes of commentary into a single or handful of frames, also led to the rise of the graphic novel, observes Arifur. In particular, the award-winning work of Joe Sacco and Art Spiegelman successfully extended the graphic novel format into a glorious tool of graphic journalism, he points out.
“We all tell our stories in different ways,” reasons Arifur. “A poet or writer expresses their thoughts
in words, a singer does the same with songs, a filmmaker through films, and cartoonists visualise thoughts by sharp lines mixed with humour.”
Forums follow purpose
In the process, there are always lessons to be learned, insists Arifur, citing the ascent of Donald Trump as President of the United States. “Which way the political winds will blow, no one knows,” he says, adding, “This is a historical example that people will remember for a long time.”
“Before Trump won, people were making fun of him, and even after he won also, people are still doing the same,” notes Arifur. He published a fair number of cartoons lampooning Trump too, to the point where tOOnsMaG was labelled as “anti-Trump media”. “I told them, we are not anti anyone or anything, and that if they had something to say on behalf of Donald Trump, they could simply draw a cartoon and send it to me — I will gladly publish them,” says Arifur.
As for the future, global peace is likely to remain our most relevant and compelling concern, he admits. Cartoons, thereby, might help open people up to different ways of thinking. “We can unite people in thought with cartoons — that makes it a powerful tool,” he affirms. “This is a way for us to derive purpose, and pleasure, from our lives.”
Freedom of Expression is on at The Indian Institute of Cartoonists, Bengaluru, until May 20. The show is simultaneously being held at The Norwegian Cartoonist Gallery, Drøbak, until May 21. The show will also be hosted at The Norwegian Festival of Literature at Lillehammer, Norway,
from May 31 to June 4. Visit toonsmag.com