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54: In a cartoon world

Uzra Shamal
Afghanistan Today cartoonist Uzra Shamal recalls her path into the world of cartoons, one pen stroke and knock-back at a time.
7.12.2013  |  Kabul
Cartoons lampooning prominent figures are still rare, not because of outrage or censorship, but because Afghan media,managers prefer to run adverts in the space. (Uzra Shamal)
Cartoons lampooning prominent figures are still rare, not because of outrage or censorship, but because Afghan media,managers prefer to run adverts in the space. (Uzra Shamal)
In a cartoon world
I was still at elementary school when I first started drawing chalk caricatures of actors and actresses on the blackboard. I also loved to render my classmates, and as I grew up I would go through magazines looking for cartoons and caricatures to learn more of this new world of images rendered with bold and delicate black pen strokes.
I went on the study at Kabul’s School of Journalism, embraced the world of coloured cartoons and began to earnestly develop my art. It was mainly through  the work of Afghan cartoonist Hazhabr Shinwari that I began to appreciate innovation and how deeper meanings can be conveyed by cartoons. His work helped me become more goal-oriented and taught me that the colour pencil as a medium has a long life indeed, and may even be immortal..
While most of my classmates at university found media work parallel to their studies, I still did not believe I could make a career of drawing. Occasionally I would do satirical pieces for our university newspaper, or friends passed me small commissions on the side. But I continued to draw because I love this genre, and because I noticed a small niche for cartoons gradually open in some local media. 
The first proper commissioned cartoon I dis was for Arozoy Mardom Weekly, at a time when the government was especially embattled over some issues: President Karzai and his cabinet ministers sit round a conference table, and the president assuring them “Don’t worry! I will take care of you and even get your jobs back!”
A day later I got a call from Shakeela, a classmate who worked at the weekly: “BBC radio referred to this cartoon in an analysis of the print media in Kabul, thank you soooo much.”
This gave me the confidence I needed in my abilities and the prospects for the wider genre. I began to more closely follow current events to better transpose them into cartoon form, and at the same time I saw how some media cottoned on to the possibilities to use political cartoons to have a dig at high-ranking officials. It’s an aspect of the work that also spurs me on, since accountability is desperately needed and any healthy society, and is a neat means of engaging the public outside the realm of dense news stories and analysis pieces.
Gradually the work took off as more classmates told their employers about me, or their editors came across my work. With the publication of my work in dailies and weeklies, I became hungrier for more instruction in my art. I scoured books and the internet for everything related to cartoons and cartoonists, deepened my understanding of techniques, and learned to appreciate the power of cartoons in the development of media and society. I also realized that cartoonists have been persecuted and even executed for their work, most recently the Syrian artist Akram Raslan, whose body is thought to be among those of other artists and intellectuals found in a mass grave this year.
At the same time, I realized that Afghan media’s dalliance with the art form was casual at best, and that cartoons were regarded as ‘filler’ material, rather than being accorded  space by merit
Breaking into this field naturally encounters further obstacles as a woman. Sometimes I peruse Afghan websites for work by female cartoonists, but as far as I am aware, the only other example is the poet and writer Parween Pazhwaak, the trailblazer and creator of the first animated Afghan cartoons. We can only wonder at the numbers of female cartoonists abroad, artists’ associations, competitions  and festivals of cartoons where female cartoonists meet and display their works.
In my final year of studies I chose the role of cartoons in the media as the topic of my dissertation. During my research I met Mr Shinwari, tentatively showed him my work and asked him if he thought I could make it. He urged me to never give up, or I would never know! 
Several months later, I got a text message from one of my friends saying “Wow, Miss Cartoonist!” and that she had heard the artist  speak about me and my work in a BBC interview. There was certainly no turning back for me now, even if there were times when I wanted to give up completely.
It remains an uphill struggle, and commissions are scarce. I still submit cartoons to newspapers or magazines on spec, and have learned to take the rejections or get no reply at all. And while any artist might occasionally consign work to the trash can in frustration, I always remind myself of what my classmate Shakeela once told me, “Keep your cartoons, keep a copy of everything you do for anyone – this is your work!” 
My enthusiasm was also renewed when I started to work with Afghanistan Today, and my art folders are growing accordingly. And hope remains that editors might choose a cartoon over an  advert, that this art form will blossom in Afghanistan, and the country’s sleeping bands of male and female cartoonists will have their day yet!

I was at elementary school when I started drawing chalk caricatures of actors and actresses on the blackboard. I also loved to sketch my classmates, and as I grew up I would scour magazines for cartoons and caricatures to explore this exciting new world of images rendered with bold and delicate black pen strokes.

I went on to study at Kabul’s School of Journalism, embraced the world of coloured cartoons and began to earnestly develop my art. It was mainly through the work of Afghan cartoonist Hazhabr Shinwari that I began to appreciate innovation and how deeper meanings can be conveyed by cartoons.

His work helped me become more goal-oriented and taught me that the artist's pen as a medium has a long life indeed, and may even be immortal..

Drawing is believing

While most classmates at university found media work parallel to their studies, I would still do occasional satirical pieces for our university newspaper, or friends passed me small commissions on the side. I still did not believe I could make a career of drawing, but rather continued to draw because I love this genre.

I also noticed a small niche for cartoons gradually open in some local media. The first proper commissioned cartoon I dd was for Arozoy Mardom Weekly, at a time when the government was especially embattled over some issues:

It showed President Karzai and his cabinet ministers sitting round a conference table, the president assuring them “Don’t worry! I will take care of you and even get your jobs back!”

A day later I got a call from Shakeela, a classmate who worked at the weekly: “BBC radio referred to this cartoon in an analysis of the print media in Kabul, thank you soooo much,” she said.

First steps   

This gave me the confidence I needed in my abilities and in the prospects for the wider genre. I began to more closely follow current events to better transpose them into cartoon form. At the same time I saw how some media had cottoned on to the possibilities to use political cartoons to have a dig at high-ranking officials.

It’s an aspect of the work that also spurs me on, since accountability is desperately needed in Afghanistan and any healthy society, and it is a neat means of engaging the public outside the realm of dense news stories and analysis pieces.

The Afghan media’s dalliance with the art form is casual at best. Cartoons are regarded as ‘filler’ material rather than being accorded space by merit.

Gradually the work took off as more classmates told their employers about me, or their editors came across my work. With every publication, I also yearned for more instruction in my art.

I scoured books and the internet for everything related to cartoons and cartoonists, improved my understanding of techniques and learned to appreciate the power of cartoons in the development of media and society.

But I also realized that the Afghan media’s dalliance with the art form was casual at best, and that cartoons were regarded as ‘filler’ material, rather than being accorded space by merit.

And there was the knowledge that cartoonists have been persecuted and even executed for their work, most recently the Syrian artist Akram Raslan, whose body is thought to be among those of other artists and intellectuals found in a mass grave this year.

Meeting a local hero

As for the public's reaction, most people are simply unaware of the genre. When I say I am cartoonist they laugh and say "How nice, you make cartoon films!" 

I never received any negative feedback from any readers for my satirical work. But sometimes editors rejected cartoons because they were worried they might earn them a slapped wrist from the authorities.

Breaking into this field naturally encounters further obstacles as a woman. Sometimes I peruse Afghan websites for work by female cartoonists, but as far as I am aware, the only other example is the poet and writer Parween Pazhwaak, the trailblazer and creator of the first animated Afghan cartoons.

"If there is life in your head, there are lots of hats" - Afghan proverb (Uzra Shamal)

Meanwhile, we can only look on in wonder at the numbers of female cartoonists abroad, the artists’ associations, competitions and festivals of cartoons where female cartoonists meet and display their works.

In my final year of studies I chose the role of cartoons in the media as the topic of my dissertation. During my research I met Mr Shinwari, tentatively showed him my work and asked him if he thought I could make it. He urged me to never give up, or I would never know! 

Several months later, I got a text message from one of my friends saying “Wow, Miss Cartoonist!” and that she had heard him speak about me and my work in a BBC interview.

There was certainly no turning back for me now, even if there were times when I wanted to give up completely.It remains an uphill struggle, and commissions are scarce.

I still submit cartoons to newspapers or magazines on spec, and have learned to take the rejections or get no reply at all. And while any artist might occasionally consign work to the trash can in frustration, I still heed the words of my classmate Shakeela: “Keep your cartoons, keep a copy of everything you do for anyone – this is your work!” 

My enthusiasm was also renewed when I started to work with Afghanistan Today, and my art folders are growing accordingly.

And hope remains that local editors might choose a cartoon over an advert, that this art form will blossom in Afghanistan, and the country’s sleeping bands of male and female cartoonists will have their day yet!