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Even as satirical talk-show hosts such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have redefined the genre of biting social commentary, traditional newspaper cartooning continues to be a powerful communication tool.
In her documentary, Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy, shown this week at the Reel Artists Film Festival in Toronto, French director Stéphanie Valloatto travels the world to discuss the craft with 12 of its leading practitioners.
Perhaps first among the film's many insights is the spirit that infuses the work of all these artists: a shared instinctive desire to identify and satirize injustice and tyranny, and to express the desire of all citizens to be free from oppression.
Their styles may vary – from highly trained draftsmanship to street-inspired, graffiti-like work – but the goal of critiquing abuses of power is shared.
Cartoonists, which was screened in France as a tribute after the Charlie Hebdo attack, also shows that being a foot soldier is not without risk. Russia's Mikhail Zlatkovsky, for example, has had to drive taxis to supplement his income because his work has been banned. Even if he could publish in his homeland, he would have to cope with laws that prohibit caricatures of President Vladimir Putin, the police and the army.
Rayma Suprani faced a similar legal hurdle when Venezuela banned the publication of unflattering images of Hugo Chavez when he was president.
She responded by creating a stand-in – a banana wearing a crown – and readers understood perfectly.
In countries that restrict freedom of expression, symbols, innuendo and clever allusions become necessary tools. In more open societies, the problem can be the growing imposition of political correctness, and the self-censorship that often results.
What makes Cartoonists truly fascinating is the variety of styles and personalities featured in the film. Although the world is still separated, to a degree, by differences in language and visual tradition, a well-drawn cartoon can leap any communication barrier and deliver a powerful message.
To illustrate this power to resonate, The Globe and Mail invited six of the cartoonists featured in the film to work on a single subject – women's access to political power – and to explain what they drew and why. The variety of approaches and styles shown here underscores the impact of the universal, shared message.
Brian Gable is The Globe and Mail's editorial cartoonist and a six-time National Newspaper Award winner. Last week he received his 15th nomination.
Belgian-Israeli artist Michel Kichka
“The iconic drawing of evolution according to Darwin shows the line from ape to man. By replacing the man with a business woman, I force people to look at it differently. I’m personally sure that if the world was led by more women, we would all have a better life!”
Nadia Khiari of Tunisia
The text reads: When a male politician speaks: “This is demagoguery!” When a female politician speaks: “What a horrible dress! And she’s put on weight!”
“I did this drawing,” Nadia Khiari explains, “while looking at the way people watch television and comment during televised political debates. Sadly, machismo is a subconscious thing. No one will fault a male politician for being fat or ugly. However, that’s often the case with female politicians. For decades we’ve reduced women to objects, to their looks, their decorative traits – so we no longer really listen to their words. But imposing quotas at all costs is no solution, really. We would promote women not on their merit or skills, but just for the fact they are women.”
Cuban-Mexican cartoonist Angel Boligan
“I think of the topic I’m about to tackle, which in this case, was ‘how much access to political power do women have?’ I form an opinion around this and decide what I want to say. I don’t use text in my cartoons, so I heavily rely strictly on visuals, composition, colours, and humour. In this particular image, I wanted to focus on how difficult it is for women to access political power. I used a combination of visual elements in grey and used colour only in places I wanted to highlight, in order to help the reader understand. My intention is to spark the reader’s imagination and invite them to interpret!”
Rayma Suprani of Venezuela
“For this cartoon, I tried to think of how to represent the diverse cultural backgrounds of women around the world (in this case, South Asian, Nordic, African, Muslim and Latin American women), and then arranged them as if they were Greek columns of a powerful empire’s ‘palace of women.’ Unfortunately, in many countries, there is still a lot of work to be done before a woman can become president.”
Jeff Danziger of the United States
“This cartoon depicts the idea that, no matter how much men defer to women, they still think they are the ones with the ideas, that rights are something to be given to women. They can be equal as long as they get the rest of the housework done.”
Russia’s Mikhail Zlatkovsky
“In ancient Greece, caryatids – statues of female figures – served as architectural supports taking the place of a palace or temple column. Today, the role of the caryatid has been returned to the modern woman. Once they already support the building of statehood.”