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For artist and organizer Leila Abdelrazaq, comics are a means of communication as much as a beautiful mode of self-expression. In her solo show, Drawing the Diaspora: Comic Art & Graphic Novels by Leila Abderazaq, at the Arab American National Museum (AANM), the Palestinian-American artist presents common narratives of the Palestinian refugee and immigrant experience. The goal, she has said, is to connect with and instruct a Western audience that may be less familiar with these stories.
On display at the AANM are selections from Baddawi, Abdelrazaq’s debut graphic novel, which interprets her father’s life experiences, growing up in the 1960s and ’70s amidst the civil war and the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon and Beirut. Other works on display include Mariposa Road, a short comic highlighting an intersectional fight for Palestinian and undocumented rights, through the true story of two men from Gaza who enter the United States undocumented via the US– Mexico border.
Her work promotes a sense of solidarity amongst marginalized voices, as with her #Arabs4BlackPower series, which is meant to highlight the tangible connections between the Palestinian struggle and the Black struggle in the United States, and features captions in both Arabic and English.
I spoke with Abdelrazaq over e-mail and asked her how she characterizes her own work, which defies easy interpretation as either art or activism. She elaborated on the themes she tackles, including the representation of the Palestinian diaspora, and the ability for comics to convey dense and complex issues in a more easily digestible format.
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Sarah Rose Sharp: It seems like your work is largely politically motivated. Was that a conscious decision on your part, to use comics as a platform for activism, or were you just drawn to this subject matter naturally?
Leila Abdelrazaq: Since I was a teenager and began developing a political awareness, I have always been making art to explore a variety of political themes. I actually studied theater in college and realized that for me, the most important thing is selecting the medium that will best communicate my message in any given project. So my commitment artistically is definitely more to my message than any particular medium necessarily.
SRS: Do you consider yourself a comic book artist? A political activist?
LA: I consider myself an artist and an organizer.
SRS: I know you reference Palestinian graphic artist Naji-al-Ali and his popular charcter Handala, a childlike character that symbolizes Palestinian refugees, in the exhibit. Can you say more about what you find inspiring about that character or approach?
LA: I admire artists who communicate their political messages in a clear and beautiful way, without necessarily hitting people over the head with the message, and while still creating beautiful works that are emotionally evocative. The thing I find incredible about Naji al-Ali’s work is his use of symbolism and how expressive his stark, black-and-white images are. In many ways I see my work drawing on traditions he established and strategies he utilized to create his images.
SRS: It strikes me that you have a strong mastery of both the narrative, graphic, and infographic aspects of your medium. How long have you been drawing? Do you work in other media, as well?
LA: I’ve been drawing since I was a kid, though I was never formally trained in it. My love for visual art got me into theater — I was drawn to set design and construction (I currently work part time in a wood shop). I also did a bit of directing in college, but lately I’ve really returned to my roots as a visual artist.
SRS: What inspires you to take on a subject? Are you drawn to the narrative elements, or the visual, or the political?
LA: Generally speaking, the political is the impetus for a lot of my work. It’s not that other things don’t inspire me. But the big projects that feel urgent and worthy of the most labor are the ones with a strong political grounding. Story and visuals come as I think about the work and the message I want to send with it.
SRS: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Art Spiegelman story Maus, but Baddawi reminded me very much of that.
LA: I’m of course very familiar with MAUS, it’s an incredible work.
SRS: In Maus, the victims of genocide and ethnic cleansing are Polish Jews, and in Baddawi, just 20 years later, these same atrocities are being perpetuated by the Israeli army and people. Do you think we are able to learn from the past? Do these stories help us to make different decisions? Or are they more a way for you and others to process or express themselves?
LA: I’m honestly so cynical, I really believe that humanity repeats its mistakes over and over and continually fails to learn from the past. I’ve been feeling that way especially as I see what the Syrian regime and its supporters have been allowed to get away with. And despair does warrant processing, and for that art can be useful. But for me it goes beyond that.
SRS: What are your hopes for your stories?
LA: Part of it is preserving our histories — ones that some don’t deem important enough to write down, or maybe too despicable, or not “reliable” or “balanced” enough to be valid. I think that’s a big value of this work — preserving history and memory, especially in the face of ethnic cleansing and erasure, is an act of political resistance. But I don’t think art alone can change the world or prevent atrocities. I think it can change the way people think though, and give them knowledge and courage to behave in different ways.
SRS: What would you like people to know about the Palestinian diaspora? What do you think people see, versus what you see? How has your international upbringing given you a different perspective on everyday life and geopolitics?
LA: People in the US, often subconsciously, see the country as the world. I feel there is a lack of awareness of other places, and how we impact one another in a global sense. I want people to know that Palestinians, as a diasporic people who continue to survive ethnic cleansing, live all over the world. I want people to know that there is no one way to be Palestinian — that Palestinians living in the West Bank lead radically different lives than ones living in the ’48 territories (“Israel”), or Gaza, or in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, or diaspora Palestinians living in the US or UK or Chile or anywhere else — that there are as many experiences of being Palestinian as there are Palestinians in the world, and none are more “real” or “legitimate” than others. I hope my work can give people a heightened awareness of the many faces and facets of the global Palestinian diaspora and an understanding of the ways and reasons that we resist ethnic cleansing and colonialism from our various vantage points.
Drawing the Diaspora: Comic Art & Graphic Novels by Leila Abderazaq continues at the Arab American National Museum (13624 Michigan Ave, Dearborn, Mich.) through April 19.