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How far is too far ... for a cartoon?

Summary: With its Comics and Censorship symposium Thursday evening, the Lebanese American University hopes to test the limits of graphic art and design.

BEIRUT: With its Comics and Censorship symposium Thursday evening, the Lebanese American University hopes to test the limits of graphic art and design. Illustrator Lena Merhej, the organizer of Thursday's event, is among the cofounders of Samandal Comics. The local publication is known for its willingness to cover sensitive themes such as sexuality, politics and religion.

"Our main objective is to discuss these subjects in an academic environment," Merhej said. "How far can we go without being censored?"

The issue is personal for Merhej and her colleagues at Samandal. In 2010 the publication was charged with a number of offenses including insulting religion and trying to instigate sectarian strife. After a five-year legal battle that attracted international attention, the Court of Publications found Samandal's editors guilty of denigrating the Christian religion.

"We were an easy target," Merhej recalls. She says the purpose of Comics and Censorship is to discuss and debate the limits to artistic freedom in Lebanon, which has a reputation of being a beacon of creative liberty in the region.

Recent events -- such as the controversy elicited when one of Asharq al-Awsat newspaper's caricaturists depicted Lebanon as an April Fool's joke -- has raised serious concerns among illustrators generally.

Yasmine Taan, chair of LAU's Department of Design, has taken particular interest in hosting this event.

"It's about activism," Taan said, "using art as social empowerment. I believe in the power of the people."

Taan says she too has experienced censorship in her work. The university, she explains, is becoming increasingly interested in visual storytelling, so faculty were eager to host an event such as this.

She is currently hosting an exhibition on Iranian poster art with pieces donated by Tehran's Azad Art Gallery. She sees a direct connection between her work and the work of graphic artists such as those of Samandal. "I'm very keen on having events that have an edge, that scratch the surface, the comfort zone," she said. "Today I'm not interested in attending an art exhibition.

"I think today there are many issues that need to be confronted and we can use art and design to do that. I think it's very important to foster a spirit of activism in any department that has to do with art and design."

Merhej said she'd share the podium with three other speakers.

In his lecture "Censorship of Comics as The Exercise of Social Control," Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, discusses the history of comics and the state's use of censorship as a means of social control. Irina Chiaburo's paper "Finding Censorship's Blind Spots: Late Soviet Experience" discusses her research on censorship and subversion in the Soviet Union. Rana Saghieh, who was a part of Samandal's legal team during its court case discusses the magazine's story in "Censorship on Artistic Freedom."

Merhej and Taan emphasize that this symposium is part of an ongoing debate and they hope to prompt debate on discussion on issues of press freedom.

Last year, LAU hosted a panel discussion called "Arab Comic Arts," which assembled illustrators from around the Arab world including Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. While this event focuses on censorship, organizers seek to establish continuity on the subject, including guidelines and workshops that will be useful to artists in the future.

"I hope this will be carried on," Merhej said. "These are subjects that we are living, that we encounter every day."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Apr 8, 2016
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