First-ever comic book festival shines light on Lebanon’s resilience

Despite the multiple devastating crises that have plagued Lebanon since 2019, its vibrant cultural scene continues to grow. Historically, Lebanon has been a cultural beacon in the Arab world, a place of refuge for various artists from the MENA region, and a source of inspiration for its religious and cultural pluralism and the beauty of its landscapes.

Today, Lebanon is again at the forefront of an artistic field that is evolving in the Arab world: comics and cartoons. This art was honored at the recent “Beirut BD Festival” (BD stands for comic strip or Bande Dessinée, in French). Organized by the French Institute in Lebanon, the festival brought together more than 40 artists with no less than ten exhibitions, six animated concerts, and a dozen meetings and conferences around comics in the Arab world.

Lebanon is once again at the forefront of an artistic field that is evolving in the Arab world: comics and cartoons.

According to Marie Buscail, director of the French Institute in Lebanon, the festival carries a “modern, lively and committed vision of comics”, an art form which “has taken on a particular international dimension for 15 years in the Arab world. . ”

The Concert Dessiné at the Sursock Palace which opened the Festival. Photo credit: Eszter Szep

Lead organizer Mathieu Diez said “the festival shows the wealth and talents of this small country”.

The land of the Cedars is indeed an important center for the production of comics and cartoons in the Arab world, with authors such as Mazen Kerbaj (“Politics”, “Beirut July-August 2006”), and the Art of Boo (“Anatomy of a Bowl of Hummus”). They illustrate with irony and humor all the contrasts of Lebanese society, as well as its past and present tragedies. Other efforts include the collective Samandal, a quarterly magazine launched in 2007 , and the publishing house Alifbata, founded to bring Arab comics to international audiences by Barack Rima and Léna Merhej.

The festival presented a mosaic of Arab and French cartoons and discussed art history, recent developments, the relationship between art and politics and the challenges faced by cartoonists.

The “New Arab Comics” festival has witnessed the spectacular growth of Arab comics since the Arab Spring. Indeed, a real artistic ecosystem is emerging across Arab countries, with networks of artists and publishing houses producing diversified content that appeals to the sensitivities of audiences of all ages.

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While Egypt was the forerunner of comics before the Levant and Maghreb countries, innovative forms of comics are emerging throughout the MENA region. They evoke the suffocating daily life of big cities, the questioning of intimate relationships, politics, violence and the culture of “haram” which is rampant in the Arab world. The exhibition presented several dozen magazines classified by country, from Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Syrian cartoonists documented the Syrian revolution, denouncing repression and the horrors of war, before being forced into exile a few years later.

The festival also featured lively concerts blending music and drawing, bringing the sound of instruments to life through stunning illustrations. Six of these concerts, accompanied by live drawings, showed how comics can be an extraordinary platform for self-expression.

No fewer than 30 events were spread across the city of Beirut, each featuring a different neighborhood

No fewer than 30 events were spread across the city of Beirut, each featuring a different neighborhood. Exhibitions, conferences and workshops were held at the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, the Dar el Nimeh Institute, the French Institute and the National Museum of Beirut.

The festival has also been decentralized with performances and exhibitions throughout the country. Tripoli, for example, hosted an exhibition called “In the port of Tripoli there are bubbles”. Saida saw workshops and an exhibition examining the relationship between comics and manga, the graphic novel/comic book art form originating in Japan. Other events took place in Zahlé, Jounieh and Deir el Qamar, offering a great way to salute the cultural and artistic richness of Lebanon, a country where attention has for too long been focused around Beirut, to the detriment of artists. other regions.

Artists from 14 nationalities participated in the festival, highlighting their common Arab identity, language, and personal and political challenges. The guest authors evoke the emergence of an “Arab scene” in comics, an art that has long remained concentrated in the West. They see comics not only as a means of self-expression, but also as a way to claim their space and identity.

Artists from 14 nationalities took part in the festival, highlighting their common Arab identity.

While artists are struggling to make a living from their work, due to the lack of local funding and the interest of a large audience, they are seeking with this festival to give more visibility to an art form that is still little recognized in the world. Arab World. Censorship and political threats continue to hamper this art form marked by its insolence and total freedom of expression.

French Ambassador Anne Grillo said in her opening remarks that the festival has created “bridges between French and Arab artists”. Indeed, the Institute has been involved for years in supporting Lebanese artists, in particular through financial subsidies, but also through the “Nafas” program which brings 100 Lebanese artists to France each year and accompanies them in the development of research and creation projects.

The festival was a new opportunity for the French to discover the Arab cultural scene and to create lasting links with Arab professionals. It also served as a bridge between Arab artists themselves.

A photo from the Thawra Revolution exhibition.

A photo from the “Thawra” (Revolution) exhibition. Photo credit: Eszter Szep

Little by little, the popular perception of Arab comics is changing. Once considered childish entertainment, it is now seen as committed art, an illustrated documentary that can denounce the embezzlement of state actors and raise awareness on hot topics. In a country plunged into political turmoil, the drawing was used as a tool of protest, conveying an idea in a nanosecond.

In a country plunged into political turmoil, drawing was used as a tool of protest and revolution.

The exhibition “Drawings of the Thawra” (Revolution) featured the work of artists and art students from the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts. He highlighted the creativity of a youth deprived of political expression for years and stuck in a society trapped in sectarianism and authoritarianism.

During a session on comics and journalism, Kamal Hakim and Nicolas Wild presented their works as vivid illustrations of the mass protest movement that rocked Lebanon in October 2019. They discussed how to draw the revolution, who to represent, what decor to display, whether it was an autobiographical story or a traveling report. The design is intended to be revolutionary, to give voice to the oppressed.

Lebanon has regained its historic place as an intermediary between peoples and a meeting place within various Arab countries. Fortunately, Lebanon remains a safe space for artists from the region. The crisis and the difficulties of daily life have not disturbed their work as they show the world how the Arab cultural scene is a space of innovation and creation, deeply connected to international cultural developments.

Daniel K. Denny