Comics and Revolutions: A Report from the Beirut Comic Art Festival

A Beirut Comic Art Festival poster on display in one of the areas directly impacted by the ammonium nitrate explosion of 2020. Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of Eszter Szép.

The gardens of the legendary Sursock Palace in Beirut are lit with colorful lights, cats are chasing the moving patterns, and in front of the beautiful building a huge canvas is staring at the gathering crowds blankly. Within 30 minutes, the garden fills up with guests – artists invited to the Beirut Comic Art Festival, students, and anyone interested – and the drawn concert beings. The French call it “concerts dessinés”, but I prefer calling it an “amazingly creative improvised co-performance of comics artists and musicians”. I admit, though, that drawn concert is shorter. In the first hour, artists Mohamed Kraytem and Alfred co-create a series of paintings: on the canvas we watch their hands at work and wonder where the improv might lead the artists while French DJ Romane Santarelli is playing dynamic electro pop. In the second hour, Raphaëlle Macaron is drawing over moving images, always reinterpreting what we see, accompanied by the music of Acid Arab.

This party and celebration of art opened the Beirut Comic Art Festival, the first major cultural festival in Lebanon since Covid hit, which took place between October 6th-10th, 2021. Sursock Palace was badly damaged on August 4th, 2020, when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut, killing 219 people died and injuring over 7000. Many buildings were damaged, particularly those in the streets of the artistic neighborhood near the port. The Beirut Comic Art Festival took place at various locations in the city, but everywhere I went, I saw and heard about the traumatizing experience of both the explosion and the living memory of the 2019 protests. Beirut is not only a multicultural, diverse, and creative city, it is also a place where art, politics, and painful personal experience are most intricately mixed up with a spirit of hospitality and passion. 

The "drawn concert" at Sursock Palace which opened the Festival.

Comics Ambassadors and a Proper Ambassador

The program for the show was all about dialogue: “What are the intersections between the experience of artists living here and artists living in Europe? […] The festival is a platform and a window for us to be visible regionally and internationally through the media and through the interactions of the artists who visit the festival. Feeling, listening, watching, learning – it is indeed our mission to promote comics in the region” – explained Lina Ghaibeh, head of the Mu’taz and Rada Sawwaf Arab Comics Initiative at the American University of Beirut in the interview she gave to TCJ before the Festival.

In this spirit, there was an abundance of roundtable discussions bringing together artists of various nationalities – Lebanese, Belgian, Egyptian, French, Iraqi, Jordanian, Swiss, Tunisian at all locations. As Ghaibeh explained in her interview, since the Arab Spring, digitally distributed comics featuring political and personal commentary allow artists and people of the region to see each other’s work and to see comics “as a platform for talking about the streets and the daily life.” The diversity of cultural backgrounds was also present in the language of the events: out of the trio of Arabic-English-French, most participants spoke two, though rarely the same two languages. 

The opening of the festival. From left to right: Anne Grillo, the French Ambassador to Lebanon. Lina Ghaibeh, the Festival's co-curator, is holding the microphone. To her right, Michèle Standjofski, the festival organizer on behalf of ALBA – the Lebanese Academy of Arts. Far right: Nicolas Piccato, the director of Lyon BD.

The Festival was co-organized by four institutions representing the diversity of cultural life in Beirut: The French Institute of Lebanon; ALBA – the Lebanese Academy of Arts; The American University of Beirut and the Mu’taz and Rada Sawwaf Arab Comics Initiative; and Lyon BD. Thanks to the diverse approaches of the co-organizing institutions, the festival took place at significant cultural locations, such as the gallery Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture in the Arab side of the city, the National Museum of Beirut, and the French Institute, among others. 

The festival itself and the major comics exhibition called “Arab Comics Today: The New Generation” opened on October 7th in Der El-Nimer. In their respective speeches, the representatives of each institution, including Anne Grillo, the French Ambassador to Lebanon, emphasized how unique and important this cooperation has been. Lina Ghaibeh read the opening speech on behalf of the curators of the “Arab Comics Today” exhibition. The curators, Lina Ghaibeh and George Khoury Jad called comics “one of the most influential mediums within the region’s young generation in the last decade” and said: 

Perhaps it is not a time for celebration while at a few hundred meters away the largest destructive and traumatic event in our modern history took place [the explosion of the port]. But if it is not a time of celebration, it is definitely a time of recollecting the pieces of resistance and remembrance of the simple equations in life; life against death, culture against ignorance, active witnessing against political amnesia.

The huge representative exhibition focused on comics collectives, such as Comic 4 Syria, Ganzeen (Jordan), Garage (Egypt), Habka, Halal, Lab 619 (Tunisia), Masaha (Iraq), Samandal (Lebanon), Skefkef (Morocco), Toktok (Egypt), Zeez (Lebanon) as well as a great number of independent artists. 

One of the walls of the exhibition features a gigantic timeline in which the audience could follow the spread of comics from the 1980s to the present: having started in isolation in Lebanon by George Khoury Jad, alternative comics that build on the personal and the political crossed boundaries and provided opportunities for artists from the region to meet and work together. That comics are being used in the region as a means to tell stories reflecting the everyday experience is apparent, while comics used as political commentary were even more prominent in the Mahmoud Kahil Award 2021 exhibition hosted upstairs in Dar El-Nimer.

The Egyptian artistic duo known as Twins Cartoon in conversation. Behind them, some of their work and the work of the Garage comics collective is displayed.

This comprehensive “Arab Comics Today” exhibition was a festival highlight for the Egyptian artists Twins Cartoon, as it “was really well curated and brought all Arab comics together in one space. It combined old Arab magazine collectives and new collectives.” The Twins explained that within the past ten years so much has changed in comics: “we have more comics artists now than ever before.” They added, “we need more exposure. I do not mean our collective, Garage, but Arab comics in general. We need to speak about our identity more than we do now: we don’t have to be Western, we do not have to follow Western comics. We need real Arab topics, we should export our thought, our life, our social issues, our political issues to the Globe – that’s what we need.” The latest, combined issue of Garage Magazine #3-4 was launched on October 17th in a gallery in Cairo, just after the Festival, but lucky attendees could get copies of the mental issue focused issue. Twins Cartoon are also the co-founders of the Cairo Comics festival, which will take place for the sixth time between November 5th-7th2021. Their aim is to have a global festival that builds on local independent artists, and which is in dialogue with foreign comics traditions.

Comics Masters and a Masters in Comics

On October 7th the American University of Beirut (AUB) served as the main location of events: here, French artists Hélène Becquelin and Mathieu Sapin held masterclasses about their work. The topics addressed by the artists – feminism, irony, the relationship to power – resonated well with the audience, mostly comics artists and the students of AUB. Sapin showed details of his comics made while he was shadowing French presidential candidate (and later president) François Hollande in 2012. Sapin investigates the nature of power in most of his BDs, and this topic was promptly picked up by the students (mostly from Lebanon but also from other Arab states). Though the discussion was brief, it was truly interesting to hear a French cartoonist who made a career in a democracy considering free speech as a core principle exchange ideas with students who took part in the 2019 protests and who have experience with control, censorship, and limited democratic institutions. 

On October 8th, ALBA, the Lebanese Academy of Arts, was the main venue of events: workshops, roundtable discussions, and drawn concerts (a party, actually) in the evening. Lewis Trondheim, Brigitte Findakly and Frank Pé talked about their work in detail, providing technical details to their audience of students. There was great interest in the programs, Michèle Standjofski, the co-ordinator of all events organized by ALBA told TCJ that "It was so rewarding to see so many people interested, participating, having fun and … feeling alive.” 

Some of the student work on display at the Festival.

It is worth noting at this point that ALBA runs a Masters program in Comics and Illustration that received the 2021 Comics Guardian Award of the Mu’taz & Rada Sawwaf Arab Comics Initiative. When asked to comment on the award, Standjofski explained that "ALBA is the only institution in the [Middle East & North Africa] MENA region to offer a full program in illustration and comics, including a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. We created it in 2000 and have been developing it constantly. We follow the European credits system (ECTS) and have established partnerships with several schools in Europe. Some of the students are passionate from the start, the others quickly become so.” She proudly added that “the majority of the new generation of Lebanese cartoonists come from ALBA. We tried from the start to get the students to stay in touch after their studies, to collaborate with each other and with other cartoonists, to form a community. We are in a very small country, very divided, we need to support each other not to fight.”

Exhibitions: Revolution, Manga, Female versions

ALBA hosted two very interesting comics exhibitions: the first, in which contemporary French, Belgian, and Swiss artists reflected on how classics of BD have influenced their work. This reflection was present in images as well as in personal explanatory text. It was interesting to see the reactions of the audience and this way see the influence of Franco-Belgian comics on the region. Twins Cartoon even called Belgian comics their favorite school of comics.

Images from the "Thawra" exhibit, depicting popular characters from pop culture.

The second exhibition, called "Thawra" [Revolution], mapped comics and other artwork on the revolution starting on October 17th, 2019 onto a map of Beirut. The images mobilize pop culture references such as Batman and Star Wars as well as iconic images of the revolution (the fist, eyes, social media, or furniture brought to the protest) that we can also see in the graffiti in the streets. One of the walls was devoted to a class of students of the American University of Beirut who documented the revolution in comics as their coursework. We see the will to end corruption, a crowd protesting for accountability, excitement, the forming of a community in the streets and reclaimed buildings, as well as images of police brutality.

French BD takes on manga's speed lines. The results are explosive.

In the French Institute, the exhibitions continue the framing of comics as a political medium, though the content is more peaceful. Artists were asked to reimagine iconic comics heroes such as Conan or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, among others, as heroines. This exhibition is a great favorite with schoolchildren, who attend the Saturday programs with great enthusiasm. The other exhibition in the French Institute contrasts the aesthetics of BD with the aesthetics of manga: each big board features a topic and shows how they are represented in the two traditions. The results are funny comics showing a form of rivalry in hairstyles (the hair of Tintin versus the hair of Son Goku), speed lines in BD and in manga, or in the way fights are represented in these two traditions. Nicolas Piccato, the director of Lyon BD told me that they want these two exhibitions to travel – I imagine comics readers of all traditions would enjoy looking at the creative details they display.

Another image of the "Thawra" exhibit.

Drawing in the Museum

Apart from the drawn concerts, where I could see art born in a fun way, another informal program dear to me was the public drawing on Saturday October 9th, in the National Museum of Beirut. After a quick but informative guided tour, artists were asked to find a nice spot in the museum, choose one or more artworks, and draw them, possibly with ideas for comics in mind. The history of the National Museum is fascinating in itself: its collection containing ancient Phoenician artifacts preserving the rare instances of text written in the Phoenician alphabet, the predecessor of the Latin script used in this very article, was preserved with great difficulty during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Director Mir Maurice Chehab and his wife coordinated the preservation of the precious artifacts: they hid them and walled them up or covered them in concrete in order to save them from looting. 

And the Exchange of Ideas Continues

The French Institute hosted a great number of panel discussions over the weekend. I would like to highlight one: the one on gender. Here, the three participants spoke from very different positions, and explored the intricacies and importance of gender-related questions in various cultural and political settings. Joseph Kai grew up in Lebanon and is part of the collective Samandal. His comics talk about being gay in Lebanon along with other LGBTQ+ issues, and he explained that the community and understanding provided by the collective greatly helped him articulate his art. Fatma Mansour from Egypt, published a feminist comics magazine sponsored by an NGO in order to raise awareness of gender-related issues and problems, particularly rape. The NGO chose comics as a creative and accessible medium to address this tension at the heart of Egyptian society. The third participant, Hélène Becquelin of Switzerland represented an older generation with a different experience: in her Angry Mum series, Becquelin started out with making comics about her experiences as a mother. Her ironic online comics quickly found their audience and people recognized themselves in her stories. Now Becquelin is involved in diverse projects: she works with a young feminist collective that provides a support system for her, she knits genitals in all forms and colors, and she draws her experiences of concerts and festivals --- she has already started drawing her Beirut experience on her Instagram!

The cartoonist Hélène Becquelin at work.