American Univesity of Beirut

AUB Sawwaf comics initiative tells the world of Arab art and reality

Safa Jafari Safa, Office of Communications,​

The Mu’taz and Rada Sawwaf Arabic Comics Initiative at AUB organized an exhibition of Arab comics in the Musée de la Bande Dessinée D’Angoulême in France under the title “The new generation: Arab comics today.” Co-produced with the International City of Comics and Images (Cité internationale de la bande dessinée et de l’image) and the French Institute in Paris, in connection with the French Institute of the Arab World, the exhibition features the work of 48 comics artists and authors from ten Arab countries.
The exhibition was launched in the presence of French Minister of Culture Françoise Nyssen as an official part of the 45th edition of the Angoulême International Comics Festival 2018, which lasts until November 4, 2018, giving the exhibit wide exposure at an internationally revered location. The displayed artistic expressions by young Arab women and men caught the attention of key international media channels with their depiction of life in the Arab world.

The comics covered in the exhibit highlight work done during the past decade by young adults from Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Tunisia, Syria, Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and Bahrain, selected through a council of specialists who also helped conceptualize the exhibition.

The artists— described by the curators as bearing witness with strength, humour, perceptiveness, and sometimes rage about the situation in each of their countries—were selected as creators of today’s vibrant comics scene, providing a platform to publish and share graphic novels and comics publications. 

“Beyond defining the last decade as the point of reference, the artists chosen may be defined as the movers and shakers of Arab comics during this period; those who contributed to the local and regional movement, those who were among the founders of the collectives on which the ascent of the medium was built—and where many of the artists of today show their work,” said Dr. Lina Ghaibeh, co-curator of the exhibition, and ​director of the Sawwaf initiative. “They are also the artists who independently dug their own paths towards reaching their goals and publishing their comics; those who triggered the interest of publishers with no background in producing comics. They are the ones who dared to exist in a world where comics is ridiculed, silenced, and almost never paid.” 

During the first days of the exhibition, a number of conferences were organized on Arab comics, gathering creators, historians, and specialists, and offering knowledge about the new generation of creators, its influences, and its specificities. In addition, the initiative has published through Alifbata a 208-page French-English catalog that illustrates the work of these artists over the past ten years.  The book also features three critical essays that contextualize the production that is largely unknown in Europe: “From behind the doors onto the streets: Women and Arab comics” by Lina Ghaibeh, “A revived rebellion: The will of young people against history,” and “The city’s imprint in Enrique Klaus’s contemporary Arabic comic book.” 
“[The authors] are considered to be one of the outcomes of the famous ‘Arab spring,’” explained Jean-Pierre Mercier, co-curator of the exhibition and scientific advisor to the International City of Comics and Images, in his introduction to the book. “Doubtlessly true, even if some authors came before these changes and in some ways heralded them… Far removed from official circles and traditional commercial distribution (which is furthermore highly different from country to country), they evoke everyday life in large cities by using Arabic dialects rather than classical Arabic, in an implicitly political approach. They also explore tales of intimacy with an audacity that we could not imagine. To depict emotions, to reveal sensuality, is also to take risks.”

Ghaibeh explained that this exposure to artists promises publishing opportunities and not only lets the world know about the talents and art in the region but also offers a unique window to the Arab reality and perspective. 

“These are youth who are giving personal narratives of their daily lives; telling stories about their streets, locality, and architecture,” she told us. “They show were they live, what they do, their love stories, but also their incarceration in different countries.” 

The Sawwaf Arabic Comics Initiative aims to advance the interdisciplinary research of Arab comics. It promotes the production, scholarship, and teaching of comics; and develops and maintains a repository of Arab comics literature. 

“I am convinced that all cartoonists and comics artists will make an impression and will share an understanding of the Arab world, its worries and fears, what makes us cry, and what makes us also cry, but of laughter!” said Mu’taz Sawwaf, founder of the initiative and member of the AUB Board of Trustees. “We hope that all these efforts will establish the medium of comics and cartoons as another vehicle to express opinions, beliefs, and feelings in the Arab world and internationally.”

The Sawwaf initiative is on its seventh year of promoting, exhibiting, and publishing Arab cartoonists and comics. By the end of the Angoulême International Comics Festival in November 2018, the exhibition, which is built and designed to be mobile, will be touring worldwide to expand the viewership of comics from the Arab region.  ​

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