The untold story of editorial cartoonists

Visual artists discuss sensitivities emerging around images, political and otherwise


Safdar Abbas Zaidi January 16, 2021
YouTube screen grab

KARACHI:

It is always going to be easy for today’s globalised audiences to accuse artists of being insensitive with their cartoons having undertones of political and social commentary to a certain extent, said caricaturist Terry Anderson of Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) on Friday.

He was speaking during an online seminar titled the ‘Politics of Image’. The two-day seminar has been organised by Maati TV in collaboration with cartoonist Sabir Nazar, who also hosted the seminar, and the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit organsiation.

On the first day of the seminar, visual artists discussed challenges faced by cartoonists around the world and the role of political satire in the age of social media.

Issues pertaining to culture, freedom of expression, politics, racist depictions of cartoon characters, sexist and ageist portrayals, political rulers as well as the public consumption of such editorial cartoons in theocratic countries, democracies and authoritarian regimes were also discussed.

Editorial cartoonist at The Economist Kevin Kallaugher stressed that cartoons in this day and age should not be racist and sexist.

“You can see that here, in the United States, we are having trouble with our democracy and we, as an organised society, are trying to bring it back under control. However, as cartoonists, we need to visualise, support and create imagery that is real and true for the people,” he said.  

He then added, “Cartoons are so digestible for audiences that editorial cartoonists can get into trouble really fast. People will always try to misconstrue the message that cartoonists intends to send to their audiences.”

Kallaugher further stated that artists should never promote lies, especially when their works centres on sensitive issues. "There is an onus on the visual artist, especially around sensitive issues, to never promote lies in your art."

Giving an example from recent times, he said, “In the United States, we have seen anger growing around what’s happening with [former] president Donald Trump’s speeches. So it is a cartoonist’s job not to represent his opinions and biases as facts through [visual] commentary on political issues.”

There is an onus on the visual artist, especially around sensitive issues, to never promote lies in your art
Kevin Kallaugher of The Economist

Referring to an Australian artist’s ‘racist’ depiction of tennis player Serena Williams published in 2018, editorial cartoonist at Politico Matt Wuerker said, “We, as cartoonists, have observed that different cultures have different [levels of] tolerance for what we call rough humour…This Australian cartoonist was, of course, making his art to be seen by an Australian audience. Nevertheless, the controversy surfaced because there is a lot of sensitivity regarding the issue of race in the United States.”
Anderson commented that if one looked at the etymology of the word ‘caricature’, one would realise that portraits cartoonists made had to be exaggerated.

“Even in cartoons we saw during childhood, characters would have these exaggerations. The representation can be ludicrous. So as long as cartoons are produced, it is always going to be easy to accuse cartoonists of being insensitive, racist and sexist. This happens mostly because we [cartoonists] are seen people in positions of power and so, our work may often be taken as offence by certain audiences,” he explained.

Anderson added, “We need to have a greater degree of diversity of who is part of the cartoons we make, keeping in mind’s today’s global digital audience.”

Talking about the role of cartoonists in the digital age, Kallaugher stated, “When I set out to do my cartoon, I observe and weigh how effective a point I can get across through my work.” He added that people were going to react differently to cartoons on social media platforms based on which country the cartoon is being viewed in.
Wuerker stated the same, sharing an anecdote of him attending an annual convention of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC).

“During the convention 20 years ago, we had a delegation of Middle Eastern cartoonists who came and showed their cartoons. [A] Jewish cartoonist objected to what they saw as stereotypes in the work. The discussion by Jewish cartoonists led to a tense argument over cartoons that were seen as normal in a place like Cairo,” he narrated. “So it is often the case that when we share our work in multi-cultural settings, sensitivities develop among different audiences.”

Freedom of expression is the core of a cartoonist’s work and we would never want Scottish humour to conform to Chinese humour and Chinese humour to conform to New York’s humour, added.

“We will simply have to learn to live with tolerance in our global village,” said Wuerker.  
Discussing the shift towards online publication of cartoons, Weurker remarked that it is a new challenge for cartoonists amid the Covid-19 pandemic. “But I am optimistic as long as professional cartoonists, as well as aspiring ones, make effective imagery that resonates with the audiences.”

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