Monday, 1 August 2011

The Salamander

Dalia Zaida: source
The salamander is an amphibian: it sits between land and water.  This, we are told, is the reason behind the naming of Samandal (Arabic for salamander) Comics, which sits between the word and the image - but also between the (children's) comic and Fine Art project - or between the "high brow" and the "raised brow" as they put it.  Salamanders are also capable of regenerating limbs, which is unique among vertebrates, making them a kind of super hero. 

Hatem Imam (co-founder of Samandal) gave a talk on the project at the Serpentine Gallery on Saturday 30 July.  The main part of the project involves a quarterly tri-lingual (Arabic, English and French) publication comprising of a wide range of contributors (writers and artists, and non-artists).  Their stated aims are to raise the profile of comics in the middle east and to have fun - Hatem tells us that the immediate response to the question "what do you think of comics in the Middle East" is ..."there aren't any".  Of course, this isn't true and much of Hatem's talk sought to educate his audience about Middle Eastern comic books and, also, what comics were available to him growing up.  However, is there another agenda? 

"All comics are political", Hatem tells us and goes on to cite examples from "innocent" children's comics.  One such example is particularly blunt, I'll paraphrase Hatem's translation here:

The chicken has a house.  The chicken's house is called a coupe.  
The horse has a house.  The horse's house is called the stable.  
etc, etc,...
The Palestinian HAD a house.  The Israelis took it.  The only way for the Palestinians to get their house back is to fight the Israelis. 

Of course, the political is all the more evident when looking at comics from the Middle East.  Samandal do not wish to publish anything as blunt as the children's story above, in fact they steer away from the political.  However, being based in Beirut, and in the midst of an Arab Revolution, means they will never be able to completely escape the political.  Hatem talked of his comic book heroes growing up and how he imagined them coming to save him from the Lebanese civil war.  He also talked about how these heroes were often foreign (American, French, Japanese) as there were no Lebanese or Arab comics readily available.  Perhaps most interestingly he spoke of how these foreign comics were translated, and the inherent politicisation of the choice of words - every choice is political.  It's only just dawning on me now, that his looking to foreign comicbook heroes for salvation might reflect a wider Arab cultural position, that of waiting for intervention.  Perhaps in the case of the Lebanese civil war, from France, Britain, and/or America (or maybe Syria?).  In the contemporary case of Libya we can see the US deliberately playing a back seat role to the UK and France.  In Tunisia and Egypt no intervention was necessary and we have seen initial domestic resolution, but must wait to see how this pans out.  In Bahrain and Syria we have seen no intervention and as I write there are reports of over 130 Syrian protesters killed by their government. 

Hatem's talk was set in the context of the Bidoun Library - a kind of residency at the Serpentine.  Bidoun has developed a resource of books periodicals and ephemera investigating the diverse histories of printed matter related to the Middle East.  For this "residency" Bidoun has indiscriminately collected, and displayed, printed matter on the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Revolution, most predominantly that of Egypt.  It is as part of this project that they found, and invited to talk, Samandal.  The similarity between the two projects is actually in their apolitical political stance.  Bidoun don't censor, they collect everything with no regard to quality.  Samandal, of course, do select.  They select in terms of quality, but not by theme or political agenda.  Know a comic book artist or writer in the Middle East (or not)?  Get them to submit and add to the diversity of opinion that is Samandal

Hatem Imam is a visual artist and designer whose work includes print media, installation, photography, video, and painting. In 2007, he co-founded Samandal comics magazine. He is board member of the 98weeks research project, the artistic director of the Annihaya record label, and a founding member of the art collective Atfal Ahdath. Since 2007, he has been teaching at the Department of Architecture and Design at the American University of Beirut.
Samandal Comics is a Beirut-based magazine dedicated to comics, with contributors from all over the world. The goal of Samandal is to provide a platform on which graphic artists may experiment and display their work, generating contemporary reading material for comics fans.

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