Award-winning Iranian cartoonist Ali Jahanshahi reviews the history of the satirical cartoon in Iran and takes a rueful look at his own experience of censorship both at home and abroad.
In Iran, satirical cartoons generally come into their own during revolutions, when they blossom into broadsheets and political newspapers, only to be stifled once again when the new government takes power and closes down the nascent free press. Hamid Saher, the author of “The Evolution of Seventy Years of Caricature in Iran”, dates the emergence of satirical cartoons to 1906 – to the time of the Mashrooteh constitutional revolution which saw the publication of the first social-political journal Suresrafil. Between 1906-1951 a number of newspapers specializing in satirical articles and cartoons came and went including Mola-Nasredin, Tofigh, Baba Shamal and Chalangar.
However, the advent of satirical journals Punch (Great Britain) and Le Charivari (France) really marked the turning point for editorial caricature. Cartoons no longer simply provided support or embellishment for written political or social critique but became an end unto themselves. Ardeshir Mohasses, Mohsen Davaloo and Kambiz Dram Bakhsh can be considered the first generation of the intellectual editorial cartoonist in Iran. Their art works, enriched by allusions to Persian miniatures, Western artists and chapters in Iranian history, portrayed life in Iran before, during and after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
The Second Generation of Iranian Cartoonists
After 1979, a second generation of Iranian cartoonists had more opportunities to develop, not in terms of expressing their ideas, but by having the chance to learn about new techniques and methods. Kassni the first official cartoonist club or group, was set up in 1989 by graduate students from various faculties of Tehran University: industrial design, painting and graphic design. One thing we all had in common was the desire to hold a cartoon exhibition for the first time ever in Iran.
Our first exhibition was held in 1990. It proved to be a springboard which launched the careers of many of our group. The number of journals and magazines hiring cartoonists or using their art work began to add up and some newspapers even started to have an editorial cartoonist on their staff. The Kassni exhibition also led eventually to the institution of the International Cartoon Biennial in Tehran (first held in 1993), the most famous in this field. There was a demand for such exhibitions and we had an enthusiastic audience.
My career also took off. I held a few solo and group exhibitions on social themes, which brought jobs on newspapers and magazines and later led to work as an illustrator for children’s books. I also designed cartoon characters used in advertising various products. My work won some awards from abroad. Keyhan Caricature the first Iranian magazine specializing in cartoons and caricatures was launched and our group helped set up the Tehran Cartoon House – a teaching centre and meeting place for artists.
However in the late 90s things began to get a little tight in Iran. The government started banning newspapers and magazines one after another, and journalists and even some cartoonists were arrested. Extensive self censorship and severe editorial vetting of all cartoons prior to publication was obviously not protection enough – it seemed that people in my profession were in physical danger if they continued to exercise their trade.
Most of the “second generation” are now living outside Iran. Some are unemployed or have taken up other jobs. Others are working as online editorial cartoonists for exiled Iranian political parties and organizations. I chose not to go for that option when I emigrated to Canada in 2002 because it precludes any idea of ever returning home to Iran.
The Canadian Experience
However in my adopted land I found the perception of the role of the cartoonist differs from Iran. Most cartoonists’ art work here relates solely to political circumstances and events. You have to be very lucky, or very Canadian, to get work as an illustrator or cartoonist on newspapers and magazines in Canada. I did manage to get the occasional bit of freelance illustration work from an agency in Edmonton, however in general they tend to prefer the famous local cartoonist rather than the outsider. There is term used for immigrants when it comes to finding a job; Having Canadian Experience! Unfortunately I didn’t pack this item when I came to Canada and still can’t buy it from anywhere in the country!
There is also a dearth of humourous magazines – with the honourable exception of MAD Magazine (published in the United States). You can buy hundreds of journals on everything from Home, Cars and Your Body to Watering your Backyard but there is no demand for cartoons or caricature. On the other hand there is a huge market for comic books and comic strips – heroic computer-generated characters, which is not what I was looking for.
Even attempts to hold a solo cartoon exhibition proved fruitless. I prepared different proposals with related social themes and presented them to various galleries. Universal rejection! One gallery owner even laughed when I said a cartoon exhibition! It is extremely rare for a gallery to hold an exhibition for a cartoonist or an illustrator here.
So after eight years in the “land of peace and freedom”, I am preparing to go back to an unpredictable life in Iran. I doubt that I will find work as an editorial cartoonist, but hopefully I will be able to have exhibitions of my art. In the end, the choice has come down to being strangled in a political straightjacket or stifled by neglect and unemployment. I must say the former looks like the speedier option!
Ali Jahanshahi is a self-trained illustrator /cartoonist whose works have appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, books, competitions and exhibitions in Iran, Italy, Japan and Turkey.