Friday, February 26, 2016

Zeina Abirached: Author, Illustrator, Artist

            Zeina Abirached was born in 1981 in Beirut, Lebanon in the heat of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Now an artist, illustrator, and author, Abirached began her life on what she describes as a “dead end street”, blocked on one end by sandbags, infested with snipers, and riddled by bullet holes. (Abirached, 2015). When the war that marked the first ten years of her life ended abruptly in 1990, Abirached was shocked by the lack of memorials and evidence that testified that the war had ever taken place (Lang 2016). After studying at both L’académie libanaise des beaux-arts in Beirut and L’École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs in Paris (Abirached, 2015), Zeina was inspired by her past to create a tangible memory of her childhood and the Beirut she once knew (Lang, 2016). Growing up reading Franco-Belgian graphic novels such as Tintin, Abirached naturally chose the medium of the graphic novel to create a beautiful representation of her country, her past, and her emotions (Abirached, 2015).

Above: Abirached shows a piece to the audience during a lecture

             Her drawings are characterized by their simple, geometric style and monochromatic color scheme. When asked about her choice in color, Abirached believes that more can be expressed through the simplicity of black and white; creating a dynamic environment in which the ideas of dark, light, nothingness, and space can be explored (Abirached 2, 2015). The blackness of her backgrounds do not signify the darkness of the war necessarily, but a known, traversable space. Growing up in a Beirut divided in half, the concept of possible and impossible spaces became a defining feature of Abirached’s life. Many illustrations explore the idea of space, often including simple maps and diagrams (Szép, E. 2014), using the simplicity of black and whiteness to simply represent nothingness and the unknown.

Above and below: Abirached's conception of the division of Beirut in Le Jeu Des Hirondelles

              Abirached’s illustrations also often utilize repetition, symmetry, and geometric concepts that force the reader to focus on minor differences in the characters’ positioning and body language (Szép, E., 2014). This helps to incorporate the reader in the visual experience of the novel and understand the importance of human figures in her work. This repetition also creates a sense of stillness and waiting that characterized much of her youth. Her wide panels often have multiple storylines and subplots developing simultaneously (Le Jeu des Hirondelles, 2008). This technique combined with the geometric layout of her pages creates a sense of each page becoming its own piece of art rather than a series of panels meant to convey a plotline. In this way, the illustration is equally as important as the textual content, pushing the definition of a graphic novel. 

Above: Example of Abirached's use of repetition in her novel Le Piano Oriental

             Abirached has also mastered the visualization of sound in her novels. Seldom using long speech bubbles within her illustrations, sound is an integral part of her novels that brings the black and white pages to life and helps to immerse the reader. In particular, in her latest novel Le Piano Oriental (2015), Abirached uses sound as a vehicle to describe the fusion of French and Lebanese through visualized sound, taking a traditional, Western instrument and making it capable of creating traditional Lebanese music (Abirached 2, 2015). She painstakingly finds ways to convey to the reader the cultural significance and difference between different types and origins of sounds, using visual sound to create worry, joy, discomfort, and a myriad of other emotions in all of her works. 

Above: Abrichad's visualization of sound in Le Piano Oriental

           Despite her growing success, Zeina Abirached remains humble and continues to develop as an artist and author. While a skilled artist, she notes that many times she struggles to draw specific concepts and that these struggles inspire creative ways of representing things differently (Abirached 2, 2015). To date, Abirached has published six novels in French including such works as Beyrouth Catharsis (2006) and Je Me Souviens (2009). Some have been translated to English, but many await translation. Her novels and art usually focus on the themes of childhood, war, personal and public narratives, and the evolution and revision of culture. Some of her numerous awards include the Middle East Book Award, the Notable Books for a Global Society Award, and the YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens award. Abirached has also released one short animation that was nominated for the fifth international film festival in Tehran, also inspired by her childhood. 

Above: Abrichad represents her conception of the mixing of Arabic and French language and sounds

Personal Notes

            As an artist, I am enthralled by how Abirached masterfully delivers complex concepts in simple techniques. Without shading, much line weight, or even realism, she manages to convey both the visual and emotional experience of her childhood beautifully. Her monochromatic style is one that I enjoy experimenting with, and her re-imagination of the form of the graphic novel in a contemporary setting is intriguing. Above all else, her representation of body language and facial features in her portraiture is formidable. She is able to capture multiple facets of expression and personality in simple representation; a skill I would like to acquire. After hearing her speak about her art during my first semester, I am excited to have the opportunity to explore her works further. 

Works Cited:

Abirached, Z. (2008). Mourir, partir, revenir: Le jeu des hirondelles. Paris: Editions Cambourakis.

Abirached, Z. (2015). Artist's Statement. European Comic Art Europ Comic Art,8(1), 69-86.

Abirached, Z (2016). Le Piano Oriental. Paris: Edition Cambourakis 

Lang, F. (2016). The Lebanese Post-Civil War Novel: Memory, Trauma, and Capital (Vol. 3). (141-168).

Szép, E. (2014). Graphic Narratives of Women in War: Identity Construction in the Works of Zeina Abirached, Miriam Katin, and Marjane Satrapi. International Studies. Interdisciplinary Political and Cultural Journal, 16(1)

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