As recently as January 2016, Franck Bondoux, the director of the Angoulême Festival international de la bande dessinée in France, is on record saying there have been very few women illustrators or comic artists in history. The unwillingness to educate himself in the history of art, and at least the history of something that his job requires, is unsurprising.
This backdrop, of course, makes Comix Creatrix at the House of Illustration in Granary Square in the rapidly regenerating Kings Cross area an especially unmissable treat. The exhibition features a hundred women creatrixes and artists across generations (from the 1800s to the present times), genres (from comedy, to fantasy, to social commentary), and geographies (from North America to the Indian subcontinent), and is organised by themes. I went with a male friend, who, like me, grew up in India, and our childhoods featured many graphic novels and comics.
A video of the artists, discussing their processes and experiences, plays on loop in the room in the middle of the gallery. I watched the segment where Kripa Joshi, the Nepalese creatrix, talks about her process. Joshi draws the Miss Moti comic. “When spoken with a regular ‘T’, this Nepali word means a Plump Woman. But when spoken with a softer ‘T’ it means a Pearl.” I felt both a pang of pain and a giggle rising. These mixed feelings, I learnt, weren’t uncommon as one walked through the show.
Also in this space are many books including those by Marjane Satrapi and Amruta Patil, whose works are otherwise not on display in the exhibition.
The exhibition is a wall-to-wall herstory in comics. Much of the discourse is unmissably about oppression of some kind, whether sexual harassment, social norms, body shaming, stereotypical tropes, or other autobiographical experiences through history. It is hard to shake that thought as one walks through Revolution & Evolution, Personal Matters, Telling Stories, Laughter Lines, Living Histories, Flights of Fantasy, Strange Reflections, and Intimate Desires.
Early in the first room, themed History Vs Her Story, I learnt of Jackie Ormes, the first African American woman to create a syndicated comic strip. Her character, Torchy Brown, covered several social themes including racial inequality, pollution etc.
I saw women creatrixes, who used only their surnames or shortened names to avoid sexism.
I learnt that there are only two women political cartoonists working in the UK. Then I was reminded of something I tweeted a long time ago. Lorna Miller is spot-on about Tristram Hunt. I said to my friend that I used to feel sad for him that with a name like Tristram, he will never be a Labour leader. Then I remembered his star turn at Jaipur Lit Festival and stopped feeling bad for him.
I felt simultaneously sheepish and elated at discovering Audrey Niffenegger is also an illustrator. I laughed loudly at Corinne Pearlman’s “The Non-Jewish Jewess” and then caught myself. This kind of caution and self-censorship comes easy to my gender, I sometimes feel.
Of personal interest to me were the women from the Indian subcontinent — Kaveri Gopalakrishnan, Kripa Joshi, Reshu Singh, and, of course, Manjula Padmanabhan, who has recently revived Suki. In an essay in 2010, Padmanabhan wrote about Suki and her journey.
People often ask me why I stopped my comic strip Suki. A better question is: “How did it get published at all?” In a culture where the birth of a daughter is regarded as a calamity and young brides are routinely murdered, what place is there for an awkward, fuzzy-haired girl whose best friend is a frog and whose favourite activity is sleeping late? If she had been a model-actress-airhostess, a hard-working mother or a sizzling chiquette in hot pants, she may have found a market today. But Suki was stubborn about resisting pressure, and meanwhile, the culture of forthrightness into which she was born died away around her.
The credits mention Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan Books, an imprint of India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, and publisher of books on, for, by and about women in South Asia. Extracts from their publication, titled Drawing The Line — Indian Women Fight Back — feature in the exhibition. Kaveri Gopalakrishnan’s “Imagine, Women” will resonate with pretty much every woman in this world.
Thanks to the Sequential app, I was able to bookmark many books to buy. On my list are Annie Goetzinger “Girl in Dior”, Eleanor Davis’s “How to be happy” and Una’s “Becoming unbecoming”. I first read Alison Bechdel in a friend‘s house and I was reminded much more is to be read. I recently read Roz Chast while faced with an aging parent related medical emergency. I look forward to acquiring the works of the Indian comic creatrixes on one of my future trips to India.
In an expansive showcase such as this, it is hard to feel not-understood or misunderstood. There was pain, there were nods of sympathy, there were full-throated laughs, there was puzzlement, there was quiet joy, there were pauses for thought.
Go with a friend. Go before May the 15th, 2016. It will leave you wanting for more.
An additional delight at the House of Illustration was being able to see a small exhibition of Lauren Child’s works. To those with children or little niblings, Child is well-known as the artist behind Charlie and Lola. She specialises in using paper drawings and objet trouvés, and has a lifelong fascination with the miniature. I found her The Princess & The Pea mounts very affecting. It has to be said that both my friend and I spent quite some time in front of the doll house she has created. That alone is worth a trip.
(See Comix Creatrix in London before May the 15th, 2016 if you can. You can get the exhibition guide for free in the Sequential app, where you can also buy comics by many of the artists featured. No photos are allowed in Comix Creatrix. Photos seen in this post, other than the Doll House, are screenshots from the Sequential app guide to the show.)