In her comic books published with the independent collectives Zeez and Samandal, the Lebanese illustrator Karen Keyrouz describes a country eroded by violence and suppression. A line that’s both harsh and poetic, that she refines through new experiments around the motive of pareidolia.
You are currently in Paris, for a residency of the Institut français at the Cité internationale des arts. Why did you want to benefit from this programme?
In my life, I’ve never had the time to ask questions about myself or my work. But, after the economic crisis, the emotions that surged forth during the revolution, then the explosion in the port of Beirut, I felt a need to leave Lebanon to focus again. It’s not necessarily a unique experience, because I think that most young Lebanese people have never had the time to think about their life in this country. Paradoxically, since I’ve been here, I’ve unleashed a huge amount of creativity and things linked to Lebanon.
“Pareidolia” features at the centre of your residency project – a sort of optical illusion that consists of identifying a known form in a landscape, a rock or even smoke. Where does your interest in this motive come from?
Probably from my childhood. For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen forms that didn't exist. Still today, I give another meaning to what I see. There’s something organic in this practice that I’d never really thought about before this project. I see a sort of questioning, a game with the idea of control. Like a dance that aims to decide when a task stops being just a task to become something else. Such a practice leaves a large element to what our unconscious expresses. This conflict between controlling the work and the element of improvisation that I want to include in it is the focal point of my work.
You’d also like to mix comic strip, music and visual arts. To what point is your drawing influenced by other arts?
The illustrated concert, which I’ve been doing since 2017, is a good example for answering your question. In this practice, I do not see the relationship between the work of the musician and that of the illustrator under the prism of influence. That would mean one has power over the other. However, what I think is that it’s two parallel paths where each person answers. This magic that is created is no doubt the most beautiful fruit of mixing the arts. One of the organisers of these events in Lebanon, my friend Ghadi Ghosn, a beautiful metaphor to explain the process, he says that it is a dance between the music and the drawing. Sometimes, it doesn't work, but this failure is part of the performance, it is always beautiful to watch. Sometimes it’s so strong that you could believe that it’s been prepared before, whereas it’s only improvised.
In the illustrated concert, the spectator also plays an important role. Does their presence change your practice?
The audience is really a key element. At the end of an illustrated concert, my adrenalin is really pumping! Having this eye just next to you, seeing it shine or wonder is a real gift. The creative process also becomes much more intense. When I create a comic book in a workshop, I’m in the time of the work, reflection. During an illustrated concert, all that is concentrated in how long the performance lasts.
In Lebanon, you take part in the Zeez and Samandal collectives. What is it that interests you in this group dynamic?
What collectives create is often based on artistic proximity. Those who start this type of project know that all the members speak the same language, are going in the same direction. There is also the idea that our voice travels further if we all yell together. That’s what led me to start Zeez, then to join Samandal. Somehow, it seems that the Lebanese comic book scene would not be the same without Samandal. We opening a free space to print comic books, to help any author to publish what they were feeling. At a given moment, this kind of initiative is the promise of better days for artists.
In your comic books, like Urine or Rear view, violence is highly present. What is it telling us?
We often tend to use the word “violence” indiscriminately. Obviously there is something visually brutal in what I draw, but I see that more as a scream of anguish. Violence is like a veil that masks other emotions. It says a lot of things about Lebanon because the Lebanese are kings of suppressing things. In Urine, for example, there is a scene where two men fight. This sudden violence is connected to the obsession of the main character, a caretaker who is in love with the other resident in the building. As he cannot express this forbidden feeling, he looks to provoke violence because when fighting, he has the opportunity to touch the object of their affection. I find it’s a very romantic moment.
Alongside that, you also break with comic book codes. What constitutes a limit to the imagination in this format?
Two of my works, Are you still reading the news? and Le 8e dormeur (The 8th sleeper), concur with this preoccupation. They use a technique that consists of creasing papers, then scanning them for use as a base for the visual narrative. That allows me to integrate a bit more improvisation in the narration, an aspect I often don't have in this format. This also produces a form of pareidolia that obliges me to be effective. In my life like in drawing, I often try to save something. Here, I randomly create a fuse, a non-controlled start, to better take over again.
Is this an approach that you want to go into more as part of this residency?
Generally graphic work is fairly dynamic. A comic book illustrator changes a lot, just because it is difficult to maintain the same line, the same aesthetic direction on a 100-page comic book. The same constraints always create a different drawing, and as an illustrator, I remain open to any development. Now, I know that this time is particularly important, much more that I thought at the beginning. I’m experiencing things that I wasn't aware of and that will no doubt nourish my work in the future.
Karen Keyrouz is currently in residency in Paris, at the Cité internationale des arts.
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