Cartoons against intolerance

Jean Plantureux’s invitation to present an exhibition of his work in the capital a week after the brutal attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s Satirical Magazine consequently defended freedom of expression of artists but also highlighted the ‘colossal educational battle’ that is now imperative in order to better understand image and withstand the ‘beginning of a war against fundamentalists’.

As a French cartoonist (Jean Plantureux known as ‘Plantu’) specialising in political satire and having illustrated the front page of French Newspaper ‘Le Monde’ since 1985, he stands tribute to the work of cartoonists around the world.

He has been defending editorial cartoonists’ freedom of expression through the creation of the Cartooning for Peace Organisation which he founded along with Kofi Annan (Secretary-General of the UN and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2001) in 2006. Cartoonist Tignous, one of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, was one of the members of Cartooning for Peace.

Naturally, Plantu’s response to the Paris attacks was defined as tragic, burying a colleague and friend cannot be taken lightly, yet his stance on the aftermath is concrete and positive.

“I don’t want to answer on behalf of other cartoonists, but for me, my job is the same job as last month… I continue my job against the attack on human rights… but maybe with bigger energy because it was a big tragedy, and I will never forget my friends,” said Plantu.

Although Plantu refrained from recognising the strain current events may have placed on cartoonists’ freedom of expression and self-censorship, and dismissed this notion as ‘not his problem’, his strive to build bridges between beliefs, opinions and countries, since the attack on Danish cartoonists 10 years ago remains in full force.

Questioned whether Charlie Hebdo was drawing in a way that was indeed breaking walls or in contrast building them, he remained categorical. “I think that all artists have many rights and have all the rights to express themselves and talk about what they want to share.”

Having said that, he added: “It’s not enough. We need to know that when one expresses themselves, there can be people that, behind a door or at the corner of a street, understand nothing about images…
“On a national, European, international level we have a pedagogical job to do with the first infantrymen of democracy at the moment which are going to be professors, teachers… we have a colossal job to do in schools, in universities… we have to have this pedagogical conversation in order to better understand images and make people understand images better.

“This is why I must continue to go and see Palestinian cartoonists, Israeli and Egyptians cartoonists and go in difficult areas in France and in Europe in order to say: ‘you didn’t understand this image?’
“We will explain it to you and we will tell you that these cartoonists did not want to humiliate this or that religion.

“They just wanted to make jokes through cartoons; but even so, it is important that you are able to understand that or this image,” he concluded.

In Plantu’s eyes, we are at the very beginning ‘of an immense pedagogical war’; a war ‘against fundamentalists’, a pedagogical battle which has to be built with educators.

“There is an international pedagogy to do with everyone; with children, with adults,” said Plantu.
“When you see an advert for buying a brand, you understand it because everything has been made in order for you to understand it in three seconds… When we propose ideas and opinions, we pass from the politically correct, the politically correct of advertising for example, where everything is really formatted, to something that escapes everything… where red lines are surpassed…
“We have to continue explaining what these red lines are to youth…”

Assuming that there is a noticeable rise in Islamophobia through the attacks, Plantu was asked whether cartoonists and further along Cartooning for Peace also had a responsibility in guiding the public towards being less critical of Islam, foreigners and generally xenophobia.

“When, for example, as cartoonists, we make a cartoon against Jihadists cutting heads off, I present a very strong view and opinion against the barbarity and the terror in my cartoons. But in the same cartoon I also present another guy of Muslim belief and he’s not (represented) the same, and his wife isn’t the same either… in each of my cartoons, there are two representations, the fundamentalist guy and the other. We make a distinction between these people,” explained Plantu.

Admittedly, this was the purpose of creating Cartooning for Peace which is made with Jewish, Muslim, Christian and agnostic cartoonists who attempt to create bridges between beliefs, opinions and countries. “We are sometimes doing a diplomatic job,” admits Plantu.

Indeed, it is primordial for their approach to current issues to be deciphered as intended.

Plantu’s response to Charlie Hebdo’s front page after the attacks which has been reported as depicting Prophet Mohammad holding a sign reading ‘Je suis Charlie’, with the headline ‘Tout est pardonné’ (everything is forgiven) is compliant.

“For me, it is a man who has a turban and a beard and says everything is forgiven… As a cartoonist, I want to make drawings, where in the end, I don’t say sorry. I want to think about my editorial drawing, I want to make drawings that are deranging, impertinent.

“I don’t want to hold back on anything. I want to continue doing the job I have been doing for the past 42 years, and in the end, I don’t want to make drawings for which I have to say sorry.”

Despite all that has happened, Plantu remains optimist.

“I am now sure that we have a huge job to begin with teachers in schools and universities and maybe we will be able to make bridges between opinions and converse between countries. I think we are able to speak with our friends of all beliefs.”

“When I draw I want to enlighten readers, I don’t want to blind them… Making a drawing is enlightening readers, if we blind them, they are blinded and they cannot see anymore, I want to talk with them.

“I hope readers understand that when we draw cartoons at Cartooning for Peace, it is not against the beliefs…If we draw something on fundamentalists, yes, it’s our job.

“If I draw something against the Pope, yes, it’s our job, if I draw something against orthodox in Jerusalem, yes, it’s our job. But it’s not against the Jewish, the agnostic, the Muslims, it’s not against the Christians, it’s very different.”

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About Melissa Hekkers

I am freelance journalist and author, who has frequently been featured in mainstream news outlets and other publications in Cyprus. Recently, I've been focusing on developing my writing, promoting my own books and teaching creative writing to children and adults. My most recent publication (2020) - Amir's Blue Elephant- pushes the boundaries of creative non-fiction, and recreates the moments that marked me the most, whilst volunteering in refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, and during her ongoing involvement with the refugee community in Cyprus. In 2018 I published My Capre Greco Mandala which is the third in a series, an interactive colouring book about the biodiversity of the Cape Greco peninsula in Cyprus. My Akamas Mandala, the second in the series, is a colouring book inspired by the variety of endemic plants found on the Akamas Peninsula. In 2016, I published My Nicosia Mandala, the first of the above series, an innovative, interactive colouring book about the historic fortifications of the old town of Nicosia. I also focuses on silenced communities in Cyprus: I writes about migrants and refugees, both as a reporter and a features writer; I profile them and teach them creative writing skills. In 2007, soon after graduating with a Communications degree, I published my first children’s book in both English and Greek entitled Crocodile, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. In 2012, I launched my second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (in English and Greek), using an experimental approach to literature, for which I was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. My third, similarly well-received children’s book was Pupa (Greek and English), published in 2014. In between the last two books, I published my first free-verse poetry book entitled Come-forth. In 2019 she was contributing author to the anthology Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City, published by Saqi Books, London