Cartoonists suddenly find themselves at the forefront of international interest although it is a trying time to poke fun at certain subjects. THEO PANAYIDES caught up with one of France’s leading examples during his recent visit to Cyprus
CARTOON #1: A funeral, the coffin being carried down a crowded street. The mood is sombre – but a hand jabs out defiantly from a hole in the coffin, and the hand is holding a pencil. In the crowd, one of the mourners cries out: “Ils étaient de grands dessinateurs”. They were great cartoonists.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. On the morning of January 7, I called the French Institute and arranged a meeting with Jean Plantu (known to the world as simply ‘Plantu’), the political cartoonist whose work has graced the front page of Le Monde – one of France’s most authoritative newspapers – every day for the past 30 years. Plantu was due in Cyprus for an exhibition titled ‘Cartooning for Peace’, and he seemed like a good profile subject. A few hours later, on the afternoon of January 7, came the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris – and suddenly an interview with a French cartoonist was no longer a pleasant chat about funny pictures, but a serious debate touching on the great civilisational clash of our time.
For a while, it seemed doubtful that Plantu would come at all – but in fact he arrived as promised, giving a packed lecture in Nicosia followed by a roundtable with local cartoonists from both communities, though his schedule was now too full for one-on-one interviews; everyone wanted a piece of him. Needless to say, he’d known the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre (the world of political cartoonists in Paris is small, and 63-year-old Plantu is one of its elder statesmen) – especially Tignous, whom he counted as a close friend.
“Last month we were together with Tignous to make cartoons together,” he recalls in a press conference, speaking fast but imperfect English; the two of them stood there in public, at the Forum des Halles, sketching passers-by and signing autographs. Cabu, another of the victims, was a friend too – and indeed Plantu devoted one of his front-page slots in 2007 to a case where a Cabu cartoon (a sobbing Mohammed with his head in his hands, saying “It’s hard to be loved by idiots”) had led to a lawsuit by Islamic organisations. He’d have been forgiven for hanging up his pencil for a few days, the equivalent of a minute’s silence in memory of his friends – but in fact he did the opposite. He’d posted a cartoon about Charlie Hebdo on Facebook 45 minutes after the attack, and hasn’t stopped since; he drew the hand coming out of the coffin in Athens, the night before he arrived in Cyprus.
CARTOON #2: Our setting is the Vatican, the bishops in conclave to anoint a new Pope. Two cleaners eavesdrop outside a closed door, trying to find out more: “They think it’s going to be a man!” one says to the other unhelpfully. Meanwhile, in a corner of the room, a mouse is watching – and the mouse (being a Vatican mouse) wears a small, mouse-sized halo.
Cartooning needs an idiosyncratic worldview as much as actual jokes. The punchline to that cartoon isn’t so hilarious, in my humble opinion – but that mouse in a corner of the frame makes up for a lot. It’s precisely the fact that it’s a throwaway, tucked away in a corner, that makes it subversive – and Plantu seems to have been the subversive type from way back, the kind of schoolboy who sat in the back row scribbling stick figures in his exercise book while the teacher droned on.
“I was a poor pupil when I was in school,” he admits. “I didn’t understand nothing. I was a good guy, smiling, but” – he gives a very Gallic ‘pffft’ – “I didn’t understand”. He’s a gaunt, birdlike man; talkative, fidgety, light on his feet. He wanted to study Medicine, trying to become a doctor, but two years of failure ended with him being kicked out altogether – so instead he went to Brussels, enrolled in drawing courses, and found his true calling as a dessinateur.
CARTOON #3: Two zebras in the wild. Says the first zebra: “I have a black father and a white mother”. Says the second zebra: “I’m the opposite”.
That’s not a cartoon by Plantu, it’s by an Israeli called Kichka – but it does express much of what Plantu stands for, having seemingly channelled his old ambition of becoming a doctor into another kind of medicine, his ‘patients’ being persecuted cartoonists and the troubled countries they represent. ‘Cartooning for Peace’ isn’t just the title of an exhibition – it’s a movement founded in 2006 by Plantu and others (including UN chief Kofi Annan), its aim being to “unlearn intolerance” by using cartoons to build bridges. “We make bridges between beliefs, between opinions, between countries,” he says in his press conference – and in fact he says it five times in 20 minutes, with a couple of variations. His message is determinedly positive, stressing our common humanity. Difference is a matter of perspective, like those foolish zebras.
“When I was in Tehran recently, to help free an Iranian cartoonist…” goes one of the stories he tells in his lecture – and he is indeed a kind of cartoon ambassador, roaming the world, and the Middle East in particular, to meet local hacks and support them as they try to say the unsayable (his Iranian colleague had spent two years in jail for depicting the Ayatollah Khomeini as a footballer). Again and again at his meeting with Cypriot cartoonists, he pulls out a camera and takes a snap of this or that drawing – a man weighed down by a big symbolic Euro sign, for instance, or a Turkish Cypriot’s depiction of the occupied north as one big casino – presumably to add to his huge global archive. He’s a man on a mission.
CARTOON #4: A cartoon in five stages. A Western-looking woman sits on a bar stool, wearing a thong, her bum hanging out of her jeans – then, bit by bit, the exposed skin sprouts eyes, the back disappears, a head-scarf is added, and the thong and jeans turn into the head of a Muslim woman wearing hijab.
Plantu seems particularly fond of that gag – it appears on the back of his ‘Cartooning for Peace’ business card – yet it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it’s saying, which is part of the problem. One interpretation would be that within every oppressed Muslim woman there’s a fun-loving Western girl (so liberate the oppressed Muslim women, is the obvious corollary). Yet a different interpretation might be that the two are closer than we think: a thong becomes a hijab (and presumably vice versa) in five easy stages. Why impose one cultural norm on another? Besides – despite the current climate, inevitably fuelled by the events at Charlie Hebdo – it’s not just Islamists who want limits on freedom of speech. For example:
CARTOON #5: Jesus as a half-naked windsurfer, going so fast he leaves his halo behind – part of a cartoon book by Austrian artist Gerhard Haderer, depicting the Son of God as a pot-smoking beach bum and drinking buddy of Jimi Hendrix.
Haderer’s book angered the Orthodox Church in Greece, which got it withdrawn and tried to ban it altogether (they failed). That’s why Plantu presents it, to show that all religions have a censorious streak when it comes to cartoons – but it’s not just religions. Most Western societies (including France) now have laws against so-called ‘hate speech’; isn’t it true, I ask him, that a cartoonist who denied the Holocaust – to cite one example – would be prosecuted in France, just like a cartoonist who drew Mohammed in Pakistan? (Admittedly, the punishment might be far more lenient.) “Your question is excellent,” he enthuses – but doesn’t really answer it, except to affirm that this is why we must engage with the Muslim world (“We have to speak, to speak, to speak, to speak, to speak, to speak, to speak!”) to “understand what they have in the brain,” as he puts it.
Unsurprisingly, he’d rather avoid the grey areas. Another journalist mentions the Pope’s comment on Charlie Hebdo – to the effect that if you insult someone’s mother, you can expect to get punched – but he dances around it, saying he’d prefer to read it in context. Plantu may have set himself an impossible job, if it comes to defining what exactly constitutes ‘offensive’ art – which is why he prefers to view his job more narrowly, as a simple matter of fighting injustice. “When a girl is not allowed to go to school in Pakistan, it is my job,” he says hotly. “When a girl is stoned in Sudan because of Islamic law, it is not a problem of Islam, it is a problem of a girl being stoned. It is not a problem of religion – it is a problem of human rights.”
CARTOON #6: Dominique Strauss-Kahn sits on a tree branch. He’s sawing the very branch on which he sits, setting himself up for a fall. The branch is in the shape of a giant penis.
As a comment on DSK’s libido-fuelled self-destruction, that cartoon is just about perfect – but it proved too outrageous for Le Monde, which rejected it. Even Plantu’s own freedom of speech has its limits, it seems – though he’s at the top of his profession, having graduated to the status of national treasure after 30 years.
His working day isn’t like most people’s: it ends at 10.15am, which is when he must deliver the next day’s cartoon (“If I get inspired at 10.13, that’s too bad”). He wakes up very early, reads the daily papers – he’s already read Le Monde from the previous day – and decides what to draw. “I’ve drawn cartoons that were disturbing, impertinent,” he insists – but Le Monde isn’t Charlie Hebdo, and someone as established as Plantu is surely part of the Establishment by now. “When I draw, I want to enlighten the readers. I don’t want to dazzle them,” he says significantly; dazzling people tends to alienate them, and that’s not his style. At least he can draw Francois Hollande, the universally unpopular President, to his heart’s content, and duly presents a selection of Hollande cartoons. Hollande as Tintin. Hollande as Snoopy, asleep on the roof of his doghouse. Hollande as a Smurf. Hollande with a rain cloud permanently over his head. Hollande as Superman, with Obama in a corner saying “Pas credible”, not credible.
CARTOON #7: “Peut-on rire de tout?” asks the title (the cartoon is by the French artist Willem). Can we laugh at everything? “Yes!” cries one man. “No!” cries another, punching him in the face.
“I think all artists have every right to express themselves, and say what they want to share,” says Plantu carefully. “At the same time, that’s not enough. They must also know that, when they express themselves, there may be people watching who don’t understand images”. Education is the only answer, he concludes – explaining the concept of “red lines” to children (“What you say with your sister, would you say the same things to your grandma?” he offers by way of example), explaining the concept of humour to the humour-challenged, explaining to Muslims that a joke about Islamic fundamentalism mocks the fundamentalist part, not the Islamic. “I try,” he shrugs. “I try, I try. I only try, not more – but I try to express that, for my friends in the Middle East”.
And what of his other friends – the slain cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo? Will the tragedy affect his own work? “It is the same job as last month,” he replies firmly, but our video on the Cyprus Mail website shows him admitting that it’s going to take “courage” on the part of newspaper editors to feature cartoons from now on, especially when they risk being ‘offensive’. I wish I’d been able to interview him at length, to try and probe his feelings about the attack – all I really get is the activist persona, as implacably on-message as a politician’s – then again, the only way he’d have had time for an interview would be if the attack had never happened. One thing’s for sure: Il est Charlie.