Dessiner-vous! Valéria Aussibal hears the call comme artiste engagé

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“McCarthy’s ‘butt-plug’? They should have been very happy, those a-holes.” “Whimps!” Valéria Aussibal cartoon courtesy and copyright Valéria Aussibal. (NB: The actual French word for “Whimps” used, “Degonflés,” also means “uninflated.” The cartoon refers to a Paul McCarthy inflatable piece resembling a butt-plug, and which was ‘uninflated’ by  vandals after it was installed at the Place Vendome. That landmark has a history of controvery, the column which towers over it, a symbol of war, having been demolished during the Paris Commune at the instigation of Courbet who, once the revolt was reversed, had his paintings seized by the State to pay for its reconstruction.

“The opposite of death isn’t life — it’s creation.”

— Jonathan Larsen, “RENT.”

PRE SAINT-GERVAIS (Seine-St.-Denis), France — To say that these are somber times in France would be an understatement. Moves by a government running low in the polls to address one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe with a new labor law have rankled the unions and the young, particularly the chief of the once-powerful, enfeebled CGT  union, who has lead a series of strikes. Meanwhile, the violent strata of the anarchists that have always been an integral if contested part of the country’s social-politico strife has just about ruined things for peaceful demonstrators by virulent actions including, last week, damaging a hospital. And now the Socialist government has refused to grant permits for union-lead marches called for Thursday and next week, instead urging a ‘stationary’ demonstration. Bref, the outlets for peaceful debate are narrowing. And the maussade, depression-inducing temps haven’t helped.

If 2016 isn’t the first time artists have heard the call to step into the breach, the confluence of circumstances — dire economic times, real acts and future threats of terrorism, the increasingly precipitous fate of the Earth, and the growing disparity in income — mean that engagement is no longer simply admirable but almost obligatory. Art is (potentially) non-reductive. Art is (physically) non-violent. Art can transcend polemics. And visual artists, at least, show a refreshing lack of what a French friend described to me as the “moi, je” or self-interested complex which often poisons the possibility for compromise. Art at its best doesn’t try to lock you into a position; it simply reveals.

While not all the work I was privileged to be able to experience during the Portes Ouvertes des Ateliers d’Artistes du Pre Saint-Gervais the week-end of June 18-19 — in which a hundred artists in this frontier suburb of Eastern Paris opened their studios to the public — was politically engaged (there were also more than a few Sunday painters, and indeed some of the art, notably at a couple of community centers, was simply amateur), I came across at least one artist who, if far from the sole I’ve met this Spring in Paris who’s chosen to dedicate her considerable talents to societal issues, is certainly one of the most focused and determined.

If Valéria Aussibal’s characters, most recently deployed in a series she dubs Fool Sentimental (‘Fool’ being a play on ‘Foule,’ the French word for crowd) and another which spoofs the business world, “Les Decideurs,” recall vintage New Yorker cartoons, her themes and dialogues are more contemporary, treating ingrained sexism which refuses to go away, as the (theoretical) equal access of women to the workplace (and its hierarchy) brought about by feminism has not been accompanied by a concommitant freedom from timeless sexual stereotypes and a hyper-sexualized view of women, particularly by some male politicians (a Green Party leader was recently accused of sexual harassment by several female colleagues) and in the mainstream media; the encroaching liberalism (in the European sense of the term) of which many say the government’s proposed labor law is just the latest manifestation; and often featuring word-play which juxtaposes social issues including male-female relations with subverted argot. But what also distinguishes Aussibal’s perspective is that it is not just about gloom and doom but, in its very humour, offers a rayon of hope — or at least light.

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“You talk as if I ‘rule the home,’ as my wife puts it. The reality is that when I come home every night, I store the ruler in my tool-box.” (Men cry too.) Valéria Aussibal cartoon courtesy and copyright Valéria Aussibal.

Just to give you an idea of how the bright outlook in Aussibal’s cartoons counters the morose ambiance promoted by the mainstream media, here are the headlines in today’s edition of Le Figaro, in the order presented in the conservative-leaning newspaper’s newsletter:

“Terrorism: Does the (cop) killer of Magnanville have a link with Fabien Clain?”

“Pollution: 48,000 deaths every year in France.”

“The Champs-Elysees prepare their metamorphosis.” (With more luxury hotels, among other attractions.)

“After the attacks [of November 13], one French person in five says s/he’s ready to practice torture.” (This might also have been expressed as four in five refusing to practice torture under any circumstances.)

“Brexit: What consequences for France?”

After a story on rent-a-scooters, the gloom and doom resumes with: “A man attempts to steal a gun at a Trump meeting in order to kill him.”

“Fabienne Kabou, intelligence and contempt.” (Concerning a mother being tried for allegedly drowning her 15-month-old daughter.)

And this whopper, in which actually good news is seen as bad: “The thorny teaching of Arab in the schools, this unloved language,” a story concerning the education minister’s plans to improve the teaching of Arab in public schools, so that such instruction is more subject to state control, as opposed to that of private (and putatively secular) institutions. To which is added: “Often reserved for children of immigration, (and) an initiative which has inevitably provoked polemics, given that the Arab language is today inextricably associated with Islam.” Et alors? (It’s worth noting that one of the factors that impeded American anticipation of 9/11 was… the shortage of Arab speakers in the State Department and at the CIA… because it’s not taught in public schools.)

Wait! Le Figaro allows us one piece of good news:
“The Dates of the Summer Sales — to note on your agendas!”

In other words, the only ‘positive’ development we’re presented with is that despite the threats from terrorism, pollution, baby-killing mothers, prefects who don’t let us demonstrate, torture-loving adults and Arabic-speaking Islamically incubating children, at least we can still hop on our scooters and zoom down the Champs d’Elysees to shop.

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“Performance, Mobility, Availability, Flexibility.” (“I get the feeling that the final years of my career are going to be one prolongued agony.”) Valéria Aussibal cartoon courtesy and copyright Valéria Aussibal.

In contrast to this dark (and typical; Le Figaro is not unique) prognostic, if she hardly ignores these problems — indeed, in  her cartoons she confronts the economic cleavages and political alienation head on, as well as ongoing misunderstandings between the sexes — Valéria Aussibal’s graphic line and her outlook have an airy touch which achieves the rare feat of making you smile while contemplating grave subjects. And the wordplay she employs, particularly around puns involving argot, is also a necessary reminder to a depressed France of its one asset which has never failed the country and which continues to assure its vaunted reputation abroad: Its rich language.

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“The European Union is imposing a quota on tuna fishers because it appears that tuna is fished out.” “They should come visit my family. There’s a bench-full!” (N.B.: Used in the context intended, the French word ‘thon,’ besides describing the fish, is also the equivalent of the American “dogs,” for women who  are less than appealing physically.  Valéria Aussibal cartoon courtesy and copyright Valéria Aussibal.

Before we turn you over to Aussibal’s cartoons themselves, a little context on the French universe of the “BD,” or Band Dessiné, as comics are called here, is in order. If the form itself garners as much respect as the field of painting — the leading auction house Artcurial recently sold a two-page original Tintin spread by Hergé belonging to the French singer Renaud for more than 1 million Euros, to give you just one, albeit crass, indicator — the metier of the BD is still decidedly a man’s, man’s world. (To quote a James Brown song which every French woman I’ve ever met is understandably crazy about.) At the last Angouleme BD festival — the country’s signature comics celebration — not a single female candidate was initially nominated by the festival’s jury of old farts (tr.: vieux canailles qui pete) for its annual prize. And if the political and religious content of the cartoons of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo have always been contentious, few have questioned the overtly sexual way women have been portrayed by most of the weekly’s male humorists (with the notable exception of Cabu, one of the murdered cartoonists). (I prefer the less libidinous and more sophisticated Canard Enchainée.) If this is not necessarily seen as sexist — Wolinski, the oldest of the massacre victims, included in his book “Letter to My Wife” a cartoon of he and spouse Maryse in bed, he with his tongue hanging out over a girlie magazine, she immersed in De Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” — the perspective  is clearly that of someone who, even if he respects women, still puts their sexuality first in his depictions.

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“I like you as you are, with your chronic incapacities, your appalling handicaps, and your culpable shortcomings.” Valéria Aussibal cartoon courtesy and copyright Valéria Aussibal.

Instead of offering a female version of this — for instance, making all the men look like doofuses — Aussibal’s depictions are simply neutral: Both men and women are drawn as human beings, of various types, ages, sizes, and races, and without any inordinate attention paid to their sexual features. I particularly like one of a middle-aged couple in bed, fully, even prudishly clothed, with the wife “assuring” her mate, “I like you as you are, with your chronic incapacities, your appalling handicaps, and your culpable shortcomings.” There’s also gender equinamity, as with two men relaxing on lawn chairs, one of whom comments, “All the same, it’s easier to stigmatize one sole woman who’s right than to put the backs up against the wall of ten others who are wrong!” Or this trade-off of marital consideration: A man in a tank top heading into the bathroom tells his wife: “I’m just going to do a quick scrub-up; I’ll only be five minutes,” to which she responds: “Does that mean you’re only going to wash one butt-cheek?” One might find similar humor from the macho Charlie cartoonists, but not with the figures so de-sexualized, the women particularly presented in human dimensions and not as super-nanas.

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“I’m just going to do a quick scrub-up; I’ll only be five minutes.” “Does that mean you’re only going to wash one butt-cheek?” Valéria Aussibal cartoon courtesy and copyright Valéria Aussibal.

Aussibal’s outlook is in part explained, or elucidated, by the influence Stephen Hessel — whose book “Indignez-Vous” inspired the movements of the indignés in Spain and elsewhere — has had on her, with his credo, “Resister, c’est creer. Creer, c’est resister.” (Resisting means creating; creating is resisting.)

“In his book — which is, all the same not my Bible!,” Aussibal explains, “he recalls a crucial point: that the direction artistic creation must take is that of offering hope — whence my love for comic cartoons. Making people laugh makes the walls come down.”

Hessel also writes, she notes: “Exasperation is a denial of hope. It’s understandable, I’d even go so far as to say  it’s natural, but it’s in no way acceptable. Because it doesn’t allow us to obtain the results which might produce hope.”

To read more about Valeria Aussibal and see more of her work, visit her website . To read more about an association of artists to which she belongs and which also promotes pleasure, Les anges du boulevard, click here.  — Paul Ben-Itzak

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“Yes my love, don’t worry your pretty little head: With me you’ll be able to do everything that I want.” Valéria Aussibal cartoon courtesy and copyright Valéria Aussibal.

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“Me, the only orgasms my wife has are of the numismatic and fiduciary variety.” Valéria Aussibal cartoon courtesy and copyright Valéria Aussibal.

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“They want to outlaw prostitution, or what? What are we going to do now?” Valéria Aussibal cartoon courtesy and copyright Valéria Aussibal.

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“It’s a circular magnetic installation with a multitude of aiments (magnets).” “… a circular erotic installation with a multitude of amants (lovers).” Valéria Aussibal cartoon courtesy and copyright Valéria Aussibal.

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“‘Ello, darling. (hic!) Don’t worry — I’ll be home in a little bit.” (NB: In French, ‘saoul peu’ is pronounced the same as ‘sous peu,’ in a little bit, but ‘saoul’ means drunk. Valéria Aussibal cartoon courtesy and copyright Valéria Aussibal.

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