“Cartooning Is the Art of Danger”

Exiled Iranian cartoonist Kianoush Ramezani took to the TED stage to not only talk about his work as an activist for free speech, but the explicit dangers cartoonists face when they do choose to speak out.

Working in exile in Paris, France, since 2009, Ramezani has fought censorship since his earliest days as a professional artist. From maintaining his status as an independent cartoonist to finding alternative methods and mainstream places like the art galleries of Tehran to creatively display his work outside the view of the Iranian government, Ramezani has always been cognizant of the dangers posed by being cartoonist in the Middle East. In his special TED session, “Secure Societies,” done in collaboration with the Hague Academy Salon, Ramezani calls cartooning “the art of danger.”

That danger is what, in many ways, informs Ramezani’s art and the activist work that he continues to do. “I see my job as an observer of society,” notes Ramezani, adding:

The one who explains or expresses opinion freely and independently. And this act has some impact — very good impact, some effects, and influence on people. I see my job as an activist of society… I don’t just like to illustrate the world through the news.

Despite his strong feelings that the citizens of Iran should have free access to information about their country and also be able to freely express themselves within the socio-economic and political boundaries of Iran, Ramezani has been threatened not only by Iranian officials, but also by fellow Iranian cartoonists. “[During the Islamic Revolution], in order to be a cartoonist, it was necessary to work under their authority and accept all conditions and limitations of censorship,” says Ramezani. In 1997 when he established the first independent cartoonist association, other cartoonists called and warned him that “if he didn’t stop, he would be in prison.”

Faced with blacklisting in his home country and ultimately outright exile, Ramezani now utilizes the freedom that comes with social media and the internet to stay connected and share his artwork about situations in Iran with the world. Social media “empowers communication” Ramezani says, and in recent years the increase in young people using digital spaces to spread their messages is a true testament to the power of the communication method. “[Social media is the] only way to be connected to Iranians and receive essential news [and is the] only way to stay connected to my home country.”

Although the Iranian government has actively taken steps to become cyber police, banning social media or specific website access, Ramezani and a new generation of cartoonists won’t easily be silenced. No matter how much the Iranian government attempts to censor the internet, there is always a way to get the word out — another way to freely express oneself.

Ramezani concludes his TED session by pointing out the importance that the internet has played in freedom of expression in Iran and the necessity of cartoonists and citizens to continue using the mode of communication to have their voices heard:

Secure society has free internet for all without any surveillance, censorship, and limitation. Secure society needs activists. And activists need to be promoted in the social networks… Promoting and supporting activists, makes a society more secure.

Check out the full TED session here or below:

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!