Although one picture may be worth a thousand words, there is something to be said about the value of speech-ballooned cartoon strips arranged side-by-side and printed on cheap paper. According to alternative comic writer and media personality Harvey Pekar, “Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.”
Acknowledging this simple but profound truth, the Goethe-Institut Indonesien kicked off its second Comiconnexions Festival last Friday, a multi-platform convention celebrating the medium of comics as a vehicle for cross-cultural expression and dialogue. The event, intended to act as a bridge between German comic artists and their Southeast Asian counterparts, provides the foundation for an assembly that perhaps might have never taken place.
For Christel Mahnke, regional head of information and library at the Goethe-Institut and organizer of Comiconnexions, comics reflect the cultural realities of the artists’ host countries and have the ability to facilitate meaningful exchanges for their readers, more so than many other art forms.
“Our mission is to show [Indonesians] how life is in Germany,” she said during the opening speeches.
She added that Germany and Indonesia know little about each other’s comic art and that this shared ignorance was the incentive to launch Comiconnexions.
“The work of Goethe with this exhibition that travels around the world is very important for German comics,” said Sascha Hommer, a German comic artist who was at the event. “I think that the fact that the institute covers German comics for cultural activities around the world changes a lot in Germany.”
Comiconnexions exists in the cyber realm and in the real world. The website is meant to serve as a platform to connect Indonesian and German comic artists by encouraging networking and idea swapping. Blogs such as Goethe’s “City Tales” highlight a range of comic book artists from around the world, including those featured in the actual exhibition, and provide a forum for artists to illustrate their own personal version of a given theme, sharing their cultural heritage alongside somebody else’s.
Despite the infinite possibilities for interchange through the Internet, it’s the genuine, in-person interaction between artists from different backgrounds that makes Comiconnexions a standout event.
The exhibition is currently featuring the work of five Indonesian artists — Vbi Djenggotten, Galang Tirtakusuma, Azisa Noor, Ariela Kristantina and Is Yuniarto — as well as a slew of German artists, including Mawil, Henning Wagenbreth, Martin Tom Dieck, Ulf K., Flix, Line Hoven and Anke Feuchtenberger.
When asked how he thought his work would translate to an Indonesian audience, Mawil said, “I think my teenage years were similar to others around the world. The feelings might be the same [across cultures].
“Although it may be hard to find the right words or to translate something such as Berlin slang, I think it is possible [to find a connection].”
Mawil grew up in East Berlin during the end of the Cold War, and many of his comics deal with his childhood spent on the east side of the Berlin wall.
Indonesian comic artist Vbi Djengotten, famous for his “33 Pesan Nabi” series, was impressed with his German counterparts’ blunt honesty.
“Their style is very expressive, in the way they make their thoughts, their feelings visible in every scribble … what I have learned from the German artists is that they have more freedom to express themselves,” he said.
Yuniarto, an Indonesian artist famous for his neo-Wayang inspired works, spoke about his prior experience exhibiting in Germany. “I saw a lot of different styles in Germany, things we Indonesians have never seen before. We mostly see US superhero comic books or Hong Kong kung-fu comics, but in Germany we were exposed to the serious, realist style. That’s the most interesting thing for me,” he said.
Sascha’s comic style is sometimes shocking for Indonesians.
“One question that keeps on coming up is, ‘How are you able to tell such personal and autobiographical stories?’ For audiences and artists here, it seems unnatural to be so personal.”
In his speech, Hommer elaborated on his autobiographical comic “Vier Augen” (“Four Eyes”) which deals with growing up in the Black Forest region of Germany and falling into a cycle of drug abuse.
“[At] one exhibition we had about Indonesian comics in Germany, they gave a short text about the history of Indonesian comics. In the original version, the Indonesian curator wrote that the exhibition should help make a better image of Indonesia in Germany. When I read the text, I wrote him an e-mail saying there is no negative view of Indonesia in Germany. There is very little knowledge of Indonesia, so there is no positive or negative judgment of Indonesia.”
Besides merely showcasing different comic styles and highlighting the stark differences between the hyper-realist Germans and the more manga-influenced and fantastical Indonesian works, Comiconnexions tries to make the two worlds collide in a constructive way. Goethe is sending two of the participating German artists to Yogyakarta for a four-day workshop with local artists.
“It’s good to have the Goethe-Institut sponsoring this, because without an institution like it, something like this would not be possible,” added Mawil.
After the opening round of speeches given in the “Pecha Kucha” style (every speaker gives a presentation of 20 images at 20 seconds each) and the initial opening of the comic bazaar, the second day featured a “Comic Jam,” a collective drawing wall, and panel discussions by artists and others involved in the comic world, including French comic expert Sylvain Coissard and Popcon Asia organizers Marlin Sugama and Sunny Gho.
Vbi launched his new book, “101% Cinta Indonesia,” a comic dealing with Indonesian society and corruption, and film screenings of French, Indonesian and German animation were featured.
“The festival was a big success with more than 250 visitors at the opening, and more than 500 at the all-day event on Saturday,” said Mahnke. “We are glad to have speakers from Germany, France, Singapore, Australia and, of course, Indonesia.”
Given the growing popularity of Comiconnexions, there is always a desire to expand the festival to include more nationalities and more artists.
Plus, as Mahnke noted, “Comics are still very much a male type of thing,” exemplified by the fact that men made up the majority of featured comic artists.
Comiconnexions serves to link cultures while simultaneously highlighting what makes them unique and special.
“Indonesia can only be represented in this unity in diversity,” Christel Mahnke said.