Human rights art encompasses a variety of mediums, including paintings, poetry, and film. Many people might not think cartoons fall under this umbrella, but they have a unique place in human rights activism and advocacy. Cartoons present ideas, issues, and events in a way that an essay or article can’t. As art, cartoons can be purely visual and don’t need text to convey a message. They transcend language. When they do include text, it’s still more readable than traditional books or articles. Thanks to the internet, political and human rights-focused cartoons have an expansive reach. This allows cartoonists to connect with people across the world. Human rights can be a complex and emotionally-challenging subject. Here are five examples of human rights cartoons and artists:
Somalia experienced a civil war in 1991. It’s been three decades, but conflict still rages on. Millions of Somalis have left, while those who stay must bear the effects of violence. In this series from PositiveNegatives, produced for Peace Direct, artist Pat Masioni depicts the stories of three Somalis: Abdi, Lembaka, and Ayaan. Each story is three pages and available to view on the PositiveNegatives website.
Peace Direct is an international charity that supports local people in their efforts to end war and build peace. Their goal is to provide skills and resources. PositiveNegatives is a group that produces comics on international social issues and human rights. They are funded by media, charity, and philanthropic organizations that use the comics for outreach, advocacy, and education. Team members travel the world to hear stories and capture their context as accurately as possible.
When cartoonists are attacked for their art, their power is obvious. Ali Ferzat, an award-winning cartoonist from Syria, is familiar with danger. In 1989, he had an exhibition in France, which included a cartoon called The General and the Decorations. It depicted a general handing military decorations to an Arab citizen instead of food. The exhibit prompted Saddam Hussein to threaten Ferzat’s life, while Iraq, Jordan, and Libya banned the artist. Ferzat continued his work, becoming more direct in his criticism of the Syrian government during the Syrian Civil War. In 2011, masked men attacked him, breaking his hands. Ferzat left Syria and Time named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Many of his cartoons can be viewed on various websites. In the selection on the Guardian link, Ferzat includes a comic of a gun with a razor replacing the trigger. A severed finger lies beneath it. He drew the cartoon in 2002 to represent how violence hurts those who are targeted and those who perform the violence.
In 2018, the UN Human Rights Office collaborated with Cartoon Movement to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They held a cartoon contest where artists from over the world submitted comics representing the declaration’s 30 articles. One cartoon per article was selected by a public vote. There’s a variety of styles depicted and countries represented. These comics are a great resource for people interested in discussions about the UDHR.
Cartoon Movement is a web platform for professional editorial cartoonists around the world. Their network consists of more than 500 cartoonists. They also commission for clients. All cartoons are available for purchase and should not be used without permission.
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
Congressman John Lewis (1940-2020) tells his life story in this trilogy of graphic novels. There are a lot of ways to learn about Lewis. Anyone who loves comics and graphic novels will appreciate this form. While focusing on Lewis’ journey as a major figure in desegregation and the fight for civil rights, the cartoons also ruminate on the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. The final and third book in the series was released in 2016.
“March” was co-written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by New York Times best-selling artist Nate Powell. The trilogy has won multiple awards including the Eisner Award. It was the first graphic novel to win a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.
One of the most famous graphic novels of all time, Maus tells the story of the artist interviewing his father about the Holocaust. It is notable for depicting Jews as mice and Germans as cats, which has been a source of criticism. Alongside the story of his father’s survival, Spiegelman digs into the difficult relationship they share. Originally serialized between 1980-1991, Maus uses a distinct postmodern style and blends genres like fiction and memoir. In 1992, it won a Pulitzer Prize, becoming the first and only graphic novel to win the award. Alongside comics like Watchmen, Maus changed the public’s perception of what cartoons could be.
Art Spiegelman worked on comics magazines Arcade and Raw. He was also a contributing artist for The New Yorker for ten years. In 2004, he released In the Shadow of No Towers, which described his experiences on September 11th. He lived close to the towers at the time of the attack.