International Comic Salon Comics as protest

Comic Salon Erlangen
Comic Salon Erlangen | Photo: © Bernd Böhner

Today’s comics are political and feminine – this trend showed up at the International Comic Salon in Erlangen, Germany, which took place in May, 2016. The six female German and Indian illustrators, who were invited to the festival by the Goethe Institute, also took sociopolitical stances. In the magazine, SPRING “The Elephant in the Room,” they critically questioned women’s roles. 

Grandfather flushes grandma’s silk scarf down the toilet. He whips her with a belt. He cheats on her. Priya Kuriyan illustrated her grandfather in these acts. “I never met him personally. I also never thought that I would draw him this way,” Priya Kuriyan says. The comic artist lives and works in New Delhi. She contributed to the SPRING magazine, The Elephant in the Room. She travelled to Erlangen for the presentation of the issue at the Comic Salon there, after being invited by the Goethe Institute. The event is the most important comic festival in the German-speaking world. The festival, which takes place every two years, has an average of 500 artists and 25,000 visitors.

Smart man or brutal alcoholic?

Illustrations from The Elephant in the Room are hung on a display wall. One illustration portrays Priya Kuriyan’s grandfather as a smart, young man, smoking a pipe. “I always assumed he was an amazing person. A person, who knew about the nicer things in life. A person everyone looked up to.” Priya Kuriyan realized that this wasn’t the case from her grandmother. Shortly before her death, her grandmother started telling horrible stories about her late husband. “He was the devil.” A brutal, abusive alcoholic. Her grandmother lived in constant fear that he would not only hit her, but also their children.
Priya’s story isn’t an isolated case. Women are treated disrespectfully in many Indian households and also face violence. In recent years, you can read these kinds of stories in media reports and on blogs. There are protest movements against rapists forming on India’s streets. SPRING’s The Elephant in the Room also takes up the subject of violence against women. The German magazine has been published each year since 2004 by a group of female, German illustrators. The first bi-national issue of the magazine was released in May, 2016. It contains comic stories, collages and drawings by eight German and eight Indian illustrators. They recount what living as a woman is like in different cultures in India and Germany. It’s about family, partnership, career and cats.

Speaking to people with drawings

“Comics are a modern and uncomplicated means of communication,” explains Ute Reimer of the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi, who also helped initiate The Elephant in the Room. “You reach people better with the images than with objective texts,” she sats. Reimer organized a workshop for female, Indian illustrators in 2014. After a series of rapes that gained wide publicity, the participants posed the question: “How do women see their lives in Indian society?” They answered in the comic collection, Drawing the Line. Indian Women Fight Back. “The collaboration and what came out of it was fantastic back then. We wanted to do something again, just something more free, without the character of a workshop,” Reimer says.
For The Elephant in the Room, illustrators Larissa Bertonasco, Ludmilla Nartsch and Priya Kuriyan sought out suitable colleagues. They also made contact with SPRING. The Goethe Institute in New Delhi and themaecenia foundation financially supported the project.

Things that nobody wants to talk about

In February, 2016, the realized the project. Sixteen artists gathered in the writer’s residence, Nrityagram, close to Bangalore in Southern India. “We worked intensively for ten days,” Priya Kuriyan remembers. The participants presented their ideas, discussed then and critiqued them. The working title for the collaboration was “role models.” Over the course of their discussions, the artists realized that many of their role models also had dark sides. That’s why they decided to change the title to The Elephant in the Room, the phrase which describes things that are uncomfortable to talk about.
In Priya’s family, the elephant in the room was her grandfather. Almost everyone knew that he was a monster, but nobody managed to explain this to the granddaughter. One of the other illustrators found it hard to say out loud that she never wanted a baby. And another of the participants admitted – quite unusual for a woman, that she likes killing spiders.
As different as the stories by the sixteen illustrators may be, they all have something delightful in common: They all get told. And, in doing so, the discourse surrounding questions of gender roles no longer gets swept under the rug, but rather gets published.