GROWING UP INTO ALGERIAN COMICS AUTHOR
– Interview with Rym Mokhtari, Algeria –
In this detailed interview with Rym Mokhtari, we discussed the current Algerian comics art scene and its recent developments, as well as advantages and obstacles that an average artist is meeting while working in both local and global contexts.
RP: It seems to me that Algerian comics authors in general are developed under strong influence of French comics tradition. Of course, this has some advantages, but can you imagine, if this cultural contact never occurred, what would be the authentic Algerian comics style, how would that look like, what would it be about?
RM: This was certainly the case of the older generation, and I would rather say European influence, since French language comics are often Belgian comics. But I think the younger comic artists in Algeria are more influenced by Japanese manga, through the animated series we used to watch a lot on Algerian and French TV, and scanned and translated mangas on the internet. I don’t really believe in an “authentic” style in the “national” sense. I think it’s wrong to think in those terms. Style is something personal, acquired by personal tastes and experiences, influenced also by the authors one loves. Also, speaking of “national” styles often leads to stereotyping, always something to avoid… I also cannot imagine what things would be like if that “contact” never occurred. Our history with the French colonization, painful as it is, is as much a part of us now as our Arabic heritage and our Berber and African origins. It is something we have to accept and deal with, in order to get past it and on to new things. We live in a very connected world, we have access to very different influences from all over the world, and from early history, Algeria, North Africa and all the Mediterranean countries in general have been in a nexus of different cultures coming in contact with each other: East and West, North and South. So in a way, we are used to this coming to terms with differences and contradictions, even if sometimes this goes with a certain amount of friction, to put it nicely. All this is related to “identity” and “culture”, ever-present concepts nowadays. They are things I think about a lot, and I’m not sure what my position is on this subject: Like many people, I fear cultural differences tend to disappear because we are all kind of “fusing” together, and I sometimes feel nostalgic of the “old ways” (some of them I never really experienced), if only to preserve some variety in human experiences. At the same time, I think this kind of phenomenon always happened, and identities and cultures have never been “fixed” things, but always flowing from one state to another, losing some elements and gaining some, from contacts with others. I suspect humans have always more or less felt this bafflement and nostalgia, only today we are more conscious of it because we see it happen in other places and maybe it amplifies our fear of transformations.
RP: Is there such thing as “context of Algerian female comics authors”? If yes, how would you describe its characteristics? Which topics, styles, approaches are typical for this context?
RM: This is a question that is often asked to me, and I always have difficulties answering it. I acknowledge that being a woman is something that influences my work, but I’m not sure that it is so different from the fact that “being a man” influences the work of male artists. I don’t know if that makes me a feminist or an anti-feminist. The situation of women in Algeria is not entirely satisfying, it is not egalitarian, but it is far from being so bleak as I often see it represented in the medias. Women here are more educated than men, and often enjoy a good degree of financial independence. So, although we still have some religious and social barriers, women are actively working at overcoming them and winning this fight, I believe. To get back to female Algerian comic artists, I don’t really know if they stick to specific topics and styles. Myself, I don’t really think about this aspect when I draw comics, although I suspect that it shows in my work, but unconsciously. I don’t think myself as a “female” artist. If I’m an artist, then I’m just that, an artist. I don’t think artists should be put in categories according to sex or origins.
RP: Your comics are bringing quite universal and intimate stories about human relations. What is your opinion on Manga and corporate colourful comics for kids and adults, as something completely opposite to your work?
RM: I have been very influenced by manga, and still read and enjoy some of them very often. Of course, many mangas are very far from the stereotypes of the genre, I’m thinking of authors like Katsuhiro Otomo, Takita Yu and others, but even some of the most mainstream mangas like Dragon Ball and Naruto are very good in their own fields, and I admit that I am a fan. My personal sensibility doesn’t lean that way, and I won’t produce this kind of work, but I believe the world of comics needs comics of every type and for every kind of public.
RP: Could you ever imagine yourself doing commercial comics? Where is your soul, between "the author" and "the professional"?
RM: No I couldn’t. I have reached a moment in my life where I decided I would not draw comics for professional reasons. Fortunately, I can work in other fields, but I decided that comics would be my private garden, where I am free to express myself any way I like, without having to be subjected to professional imperatives. For the moment, my work seems oriented towards what you call the intimate ad universal, and that is fine with me, but I wish to make some more political stuff, since it is something that I’m interested in. But I don’t really control what I produce, and what inspires me artistically.
RP: You are having quite active communication with the rest of the comics world, as I noticed. For example, you were a guest-lecturer at Swarthmore University in USA some months ago. Can you tell us a bit about this experience, how did people react to your presentation, did this travel change you, and in which way?
RM: I was invited to make a presentation of my work at Swarthmore University, together with a historian, Daho Djerbal. He also publishes a social studies publication called “NAQD”. We were invited to do our joint presentation for students in comparative literature, and the title was: “A discussion of Algerian aesthetics and creative politics” and it was mainly about art and representation of self in a post-colonial context. My work doesn’t exactly fit in this context, but it does deal in power relationships, and how the unconscious representations sometimes escape from the control of the artist. The students were very responsive, curious and open-minded, so for me it was a very good experience.
RP: Can you tell us a bit about the experience of growing up in Algiers? If you were born and raised somewhere else, would your art and attitudes be much different?
RM: Of course I think it would be completely different. I grew up in Algeria in a very violent period. In the 90s, while I was growing out of childhood and into adolescence and adulthood, Algeria went through political unrest and terrorism. This changed us all, and still colors our lives. But along with the scars our society bears, I believe it taught us hard truths, about living together, dealing with different views, and the potential violence lurking in every human soul. It was a painful experience, but I hope we have learned something from it and maybe that can help us build a better society in the future. On a personal level, what I think I learned from that period is that violence and pain are not “inhuman” things that we can desperately hope to avoid. They are, on the contrary, very human, natural and unavoidable parts of us, even if they are unpleasant, and we should learn to confront them with wisdom rather than bury our heads under a blanket and pretend they’ll go away. I have also lived in Ivory Coast and Ireland for a while, and that has also influenced the person I am today. It is a precious experience to confront oneself to very different cultures, and it’s a pity people in the southern countries are being actively discouraged from travelling. Visas and borders have made the world a prison for some.
RP: What are you currently working on, what are you interested in at the moment?
RM: I am working on this: growing in Algiers during those troubled times. It is difficult, and I’m not sure how to go about it, but it is something that means a lot to me, and I hope to finish it some day. I am also working on a story about the Sahraoui refugee camps in the south of Algeria. It is a cause I am actively engaged in with other Algerian artists and I hope this will raise awareness of it throughout the world, because many people are still completely ignorant that there is a situation of colonization in Western Sahara. Also, these last few years, I grew more and more interested in traditional printing techniques, and it is a field that, for me, has a close relationship with comics. I want to mount a workshop, where other artists will be welcome to create and publish comics and other graphic productions.