Autobiographical Comics

Expressive Narrative – Birgit Weyhe

The strength of Birgit Weyhe’s stories and drawings lies in the reduced stylistic means and a highly condensed narrative mode.

What constitutes a person’s essence? What remains when that person dies? What do we know about our family, the longings and dreams of our grandmothers and grandfathers, and of our parents? Birgit Weyhe has followed the trail into her own past. For her graphic novel Im Himmel ist Jahrmarkt, she invested three years of research, interviewing relatives, reading letters, viewing photographs – and drawing these biographies.

Birgit Weyhe; © Birgit Weyhe

Her Grandmother Marianne, for example, an emancipated woman who became a milliner and who suffered her whole life long because of an abortion she had the first time she became pregnant. Then there’s Herta, who abandoned the love of her youth in favour of a career in her father’s business and later got caught between the fronts in the Second World War. There’s also Carl Friedrich, who was beaten by his father because he liked to play with dolls. Birgit Weyhe has created an overwhelming family biography with intense figures driven by a sense of duty, by longings, but also by hatred. In this synopsis they present a multifaceted portrayal of the last century.

Associative elements and a strong typography

The stories draw their force from greatly reduced stylistic means: Weyhe divides the sheets into simple rectangular panels, filling the planes with high-contrast black pen-and-ink drawings. Avoiding unusual perspectives and complicated arrangements, she prefers to work with associative elements and a strong typography. She also uses the fact that a significant discrepancy between text and image can give rise to a certain irritation: deliberately childlike drawings contrast with the great seriousness of the situation, or else feelings are symbolised by an object that says more than any facial expression.

Copyright: Birgit Weyhe

The strength of these stories also lies in a very condensed form of narrative: “In my case, every story starts with words,” Weyhe says when explaining her approach. She has to have everything written down first before she can start drawing. Then comes a multi-stage creative process: “The first pencil drawings for the panels are crude, solely for the purposes of orientation. The real work is done with ink and a brush,” says Weyhe. One outcome of this way of working is that the stories change considerably over time; more than a third of the drawings for Im Himmel ist Jahrmarkt were finally removed.

What is important for Birgit Weyhe is to understand the past and to locate herself – possibly because she has experienced so many relocations and only turned to drawing late in life. She was born in Munich in 1969 and at the age of three moved to Uganda with her mother. As the only white child in the kindergarten there, she knows what is means to be different. She returned to Munich as an 18-year-old with a portfolio of watercolours and landscape motifs under her arm. Her intention was to apply to the Munich Art Academy, “but video art and installations were trendy at that time. I felt completely out of place and left without handing in my portfolio,” she says.

Trailer for Reigen; © Birgit Weyhe

A roundabout way to drawing

She studied German and history instead, first in Munich, then in Hamburg – a “stop-gap”, as Weyhe puts it. Shortly after her daughter Paula was born in 1997 she completed her studies – with works on Death as an Identity Matrix and the Politics of Independence in Tanzania. She continued to have a longing to draw, however. “As I didn’t want to abandon that dream, I applied to the Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften in Hamburg and was accepted. I was 33 years old at the time, pregnant, and felt completely out of my depth. But I simply gave it a try,” says Weyhe.

She did a course on the theme of Autobiographical Narrative with the professor of Illustration, Anke Feuchtenberger. The strict guidelines given included concentrating on the illustrations and drawing in black-and-white. That was when she felt she had made it: “I had finally found the formal idiom in which I wanted to tell my stories.” In 2007 Weyhe took part in the competition organised by the Fumetto Festival in Lucerne and won 2nd place. In her first book, published by Mami Verlag in 2008, she deals with her past in Africa. The newspaper culture sections acknowledged her as “a great talent”. At the Next Comicfestival in Linz in 2009, her contribution Zukunft Europas won first prize. Other stories followed – like Caméléon (2009) or Feinste Reiseextrakte (2010). In 2011 she published Reigen and was nominated for the famous French Prix Artemisiana.

Drawing is meantime part of Birgit Weyhe’s daily routine. She works as a lecturer and as an illustrator for magazines and newspapers. And every two or three years she publishes another graphic novel. In 2014 she will do research for a book about guest workers from Mozambique who lived in the GDR between 1979 and 1989. The project is a real challenge, thematically and artistically: “It’s difficult to depict black people with my current drawing technique, so I’m working for the first time with an additional colour.”

Rieke C. Harmsen
is an art historian and editor of the Evangelische Pressedienst (epd) in Munich.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
February 2014

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