It’s not uncommon to find comics in the classroom these days, whether as the subject of academic exploration or as the medium for teaching new ideas. However, a new exhibition hosted in Providence, RI, by Brown University’s Middle East Studies and Art at Watson programs is shifting the lens from the Western canon that has largely occupied studies up until now.
“Arab Comics: 90 Years of Popular Visual Culture”, running until March 15, is a comprehensive look at over 90 years of comic art “from Maghreb to the Arabian Peninsula” – and one of the first things it makes clear is just how much there is to discover. Broken Frontier reached out to the organizers of the exhibition to learn more about its beginnings, its highlights, and its future.
The project is a collaboration between Nadim and Mona Damluji, a brother and sister with an extensive breadth of academic credentials in various disciplines. The show’s beginnings came when Nadim received a grant from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation to research postcolonial comic-book cultures in the Middle East and Asia. Mona, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Asian & Islamic Art History and Visual Culture at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, saw the opportunity in her brother’s work to raise important questions about how visual culture, Islam, and the Arab world inform one another in today’s climate.
“The exhibition is based on his research and the extensive collection of covers and issues that he and his colleagues at the American University of Beirut Sawwaf Comics Initiative have assembled”, Mona told Broken Frontier. The project took shape with the support of Beshara Doumani, director of Middle East Studies programming at Brown University.
As Mona soon discovered, comics as an art form are hardly a new medium for Arab audiences. “What surprised me most was the fact that the first original comic made for Arab audiences, Al Awlad, was published in 1923!” said Mona. “This was not only early for comic production in the region, but the world! It points to the long history of visual art and traditions of illustration in the region and among Arab artists. For this reason we highlighted the 90 years of the tradition in the title of the exhibit, as we wanted to make that point evident and emphasized to our visitors.”
Al Awlad is the earliest title featured in the exhibition, which consists of 34 covers and panels, each showcasing a different aspect of a rich comics culture. Mona explains that the exhibition is designed to highlight three aspects of Arab comics: original works, adapted titles, and contemporary comics.
Western audiences will probably be surprised to recognize not only Tintin as a crossover hit, but also a certain bespectacled reporter with a secret identity – although it may not be the one they think. In this case, the story of how Clark Kent became Lebanese reporter Nabil Fawzi is just as fascinating as the works on display (as related here by Nadim).
There’s a wealth of discussion to be had about what the crossover success of such characters says about the universal appeal of their archetypes, but these sorts of adaptations are just the beginning of what the show has to offer. Some of the most recent pieces in the exhibition come from Samandal, a Beirut-based contemporary online comics magazine.
Driven by a new wave of artists and creators in the region, experimental projects like Samandal fit neatly with the Middle East Studies Program’s theme of “Art and Social Change”. However, Mona notes that the exhibition will surprise visitors who are expecting an emphasis on political cartoons.
“It’s important that we challenge those expectations and offer an experience of viewing that is surprisingly familiar to people who approach Arabs and the region as an ‘other’”, she says. “Comics by Arab artists have not only been political; often they have been playful, whimsical, and fun. In other examples that we’ve chosen to include, comics for children are deliberately direct in their political message.”
Even if a flight to Rhode Island isn’t on the cards, there’s still a chance to take in one of the project’s most exciting elements. On February 26, comics scholars and artists will come together for a half-day symposium that will be webcast live, starting at 1:30 pm ET. The first half of the event will include a look back at Arab comics history, while the second half will focus on “Comics Practices” in the context of today’s Arab comics scene.
“For the symposium we wanted to select participants who unpack the social, cultural, and political worlds that inform, surround, challenge, and support the production of comics in Arab countries”, Mona says. “As a result, we included scholars, artists, editors and lovers of comics in the conversation. Half of our participants are coming from Beirut – a hub for independent comics in the region today, where trilingual writing has subverted any assumptions about what Arab comics are about. Ultimately, we hope that the exhibit and symposium together will show that in fact there is not any one way to describe or characterize ‘Arab Comics'”.
After the exhibition’s run at Brown, Mona and Nadim plan to take the show on tour to universities, colleges, and other institutions across the United States: “There are many directions that the work can go and we are both committed and open to seeing how far it will lead.”
For more information about the symposium, visit the Facebook event page.