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Arab Comics: 90 Years of Popular Visual Culture

Carol Schlosberg Gallery

January 25, 2017 - March 17, 2017

Reception: February 15th, 5–8pm

Gallery Hours
M–F, 12–6pm
Sat., 12–5pm

“I don’t remember when exactly I read my first comic book, but I do remember exactly how liberated and subversive I felt as a result.”

— Edward W. Said, Palestine (Fantagraphics, 2001)


Comics are a universal medium with a rich history in the Middle East. For close to a century, Arab artists have created comics to reflect the socio‐political events of their times. In the panels of Arab comics we find illustrations and stories that creatively engage the British occupation of Egypt, the question of Palestine, the tide of pan‐Arabism, regional folklore, totalitarian Ba’th regimes in Iraq and Syria, the hyper commercialization of the Gulf, the Lebanese Civil War, the Arab uprisings, and more. During the past century, comics also act as a pithy visual medium through which multiple iterations of imagined Arab identities have been represented for mass audiences. This exhibit brings together a diverse set of viewpoints, contexts and styles in comic art to illustrate a deep history of original production and readership in the Middle East, and question what, if anything, is distinctly Arab about the popular art form.

Arab Comics: 90 Years of Popular Visual Culture is a traveling exhibition with a public mission to employ comics as a critical platform for learning about the rich histories and geographies of pop culture in the Middle East; and engage broad audiences in critical discussions of media stereotypes about Arabs and how they shape our world view. The exhibit was first made possible in 2015 thanks to the sponsorship of Brown University’s Middle East Studies Program and the support of the Sawwaf Arabic Comics Initiative at the American University of Beirut. Translations for the exhibit have been provided through the sponsorship of University of California Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. To highlight the diverse contributions of Arab comic makers the artwork selected for this exhibit is organized around three themes, spanning from 1920s Egypt until Lebanon today: Originals, Adaptations and Contemporary Comics.

The introduction of iconic characters and comics from Western Europe and the United States into Arabic language markets began as early as the 1940s. In the following decades, Arab publishers translated popular western comics for readers from the Maghreb to Iraq in the pages of magazines like Samir and Bissat Al-Rih. The Arabization of cultural icons like Mickey Mouse and Tintin resulted in a combination of linguistic adaptation, visual appropriation, and cultural invention. The archive of original covers and translated panels of popular comics shown here feature highlights from the vast visual world of cross‐over characters, such as Nabil Fawzi (the Lebanese Clark Kent) and Hammam (the first of many Arabic versions of Tintin). These works point to the nuanced approach as well as the hackneyed stereotypes that artists employed in  the production of this hybrid visual culture.

Since the early twentieth century, artists and publishing houses in Egypt, Lebanon and later the United Arab Emirates created comics featuring original characters that gained regional popularity. By the mid‐century, original comics magazines like Samir and Sindibâd united the imaginations of young audiences throughout Arab countries and shaped how political tropes of pan‐Arabism circulated in children’s media. Storylines of serial characters like Zouzou and Zakiyya ranged from whimsical to serious, sometimes directly engaging with critical events, like the Nakba, an annual day of commemoration for Palestinians marking the displacement caused by the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948. During this era, these representations of childhood did not necessarily invoke visual caricatures of Arab identity often assumed by contemporaneous efforts to “Arabize” characters from European and American comics.

Recent work by Arab comics illustrators among Lebanon’s post‐war generations has moved comics beyond the realm of childhood fantasy to engage mature audiences and themes. Since 2007, the anthology magazine Samandal has established Beirut as a new regional center for comics production. The trilingual “amphibious” comics periodical has created a platform for the latest generation of artists to establish new forms of visual expression that do not conform to, and at times explicitly challenge, any prescribed notions of an “Arab” identity. Contemporary artists, including Fouad Mezher, Lena Merhej, Omar Khouri, Zeina Bassil, and Mazen Kerbaj, are redrawing and rewriting the rules and expectations for comics about, by and for readers worldwide.

Mona Damluji and Nadim Damluji, Curators

Lena Sawyer, Assistant To The Curators

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SPECIAL THANKS to Barbara Oberkoetter, Sa’ed Atshan, Jo‐Anne Hart, Karie Fisher, Phil Lai, Kia Davis and IO Labs, Leah Niederstadt, Elizabeth Keithline, the Wheaton College Art/Art History Department, Kaoukab Chebaro and the Mu’taz and Rada Sawwaf Arabic Comics Initiative at the American University of Beirut, ArabComics.net, Lina Ghaibeh, Fouad Mezher, Omar Khouri, the FDZ, Hatem Imam, Zeina Bassil, Jana Traboulsi, Lena Merhej, Jorj A. Mhayya, Mazen Kerbaj, Shams Al Din Al Hajjaji, Levi Thompson, Jia Ching Chen, Gina Damluji, and Namir Damluji

Lena Merhej (Lebanese, b. 1977)
Cover, Issue #12, 2012
Pub. Samandal NGO, Lebanon