An Interview with Political Cartoonist Carlos Latuff

ALI MUSTAFA | May 22nd 2009

Brazilian political cartoonist Carlos Latuff is no stranger to controversy. His provocative and unapologetically graphic cartoons have been enjoyed, freely reproduced, and inviting debate internationally for years now. To those of us here in Canada, however, Latuff is probably better known over his recent poster design for ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ (IAW) which was deemed ‘hateful’ and subsequently banned by the administrations at the University of Ottawa, Concordia, and numerous other campuses across the country. I had the extreme privilege of meeting and speaking with him, some time before the latest controversy surrounding him and his work, this past summer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. We met inside a favela (Brazilian slum) called Nova Holanda on the city’s outskirts where I was visiting a local NGO. Abandoning his scheduled plans and taking a bus from downtown Rio to meet with me just one day before I was set to leave back to Canada, the impromptu setting would prove a fitting backdrop to the discussion that followed.

Ali: When did you first become involved in cartoon drawing and when did you begin to see your interest in cartooning as a platform for political activism and commentary?

Carlos Latuff: I started my career in 1989 in a small advertising office in downtown Rio. At the time, I didn’t see my art as a tool to bring awareness to people. I thought my art was just a way to make a living and I had dreams of becoming famous and working for the mainstream media. Over time, I realized that in order to reach the mainstream you had to have influential friends. I didn’t, so I started to realize that the reality on the ground was different from what I originally had in mind. In 1999, for a lack of opportunity, not for a matter of ideology, I started to work for leftist trade union papers, but always having in my mind that this was only business – a way to get paid and make a living. At that time, I had some leftist leanings, but I could not call myself a leftist.

One day, I saw a TV documentary about the Zapatistas in Mexico and the way they struggled for their needs, and the suffering, the oppression by the Mexican government and the army, and things started to make sense in my mind – thanks to the Zapatistas. It was in 1997, if I remember well. That moment, we could say that the ‘activist Latuff’ was born. So I started to make ‘copyleft’ cartoons to be distributed to Zapatista solidarity groups all around the world. At first, I sent the cartoons by fax to the Zapatistas. And then I had the idea to start a website and put the artwork there and allow the people to download and reproduce freely the artwork. And I found out that I could make artwork which could be used by people all around the world for political struggles.

In 1999, I made a cartoon, when a Jewish settler shot down a Palestinian and I put the headline: ‘Stop the hunting season, stop the killing of Palestinians.’ I made this artwork and sent it to an NGO in Ramallah. This NGO still exists today [The Palestinian Center for Peace & Democracy] and they enjoyed it a lot and told me ‘Latuff, we are going to make a lot of copies of this artwork and we are going to distribute it here in Ramallah.’ People tend to believe that the Internet is only virtual but when you download something from the Internet and make hard copies it’s no longer virtual, it’s concrete. So people can use it on t-shirts or coverbooks, or cds, or poster, or anything. This is my way to collaborate in the struggle.

They told me ‘Latuff, if you are able to pay your travel costs to Palestine, we are going to give you a tour around the [occupied] territories.’ So I saved up some money and I took a plane and went to Palestine. I spent 15 days in Ramallah, Jenin, Hebron…

Ali: That leads me to my second question. Among your entire catalogue, it is your artwork surrounding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that has received the most attention. Why this particular issue and what first attracted you to it?

CL: At first because it was a human rights issue, but I got involved because after a while it was no longer a matter of human rights, but because I really love the Palestinians! In Hebron, I had the finest experience in my whole trip to Palestine because I met an old man named Khaled Atris. When he told me about his life in Palestine, his speech broke my soul apart. And it was by accident – I was introduced to this guy by accident, just walking around. I was leaving Hebron at night and walking around the main street in the Jewish community. The street was completely deserted, and I met a Palestinian family walking in my direction and I stopped them and said ‘Excuse me, I’m a Brazilian tourist and this is the first time I am meeting a Palestinian here in Hebron. I have been to the Jewish community; I heard from the Jewish settlers, now I would like to hear from you.’ He told me that he didn’t speak English very well, but said he would introduce me to his family…

So we went to the home of this guy, Mr. Atris, and he was very receptive and welcomed me in his home. He introduced to his wife and kids. One of the first things he showed me was his wallet – he opened his wallet and broken teeth fell on the table. I asked ‘What the hell is that?’ He said, ‘These are my teeth broken by F-16 butts by IDF soldiers and settlers.’ He keeps his teeth in the wallet to remind him every minute about the occupation. So this was surprising, astonishing to see… he started to tell me the way the settlers harass the Palestinian civilians around the Jewish community and he brought his little daughter and he undressed her for me to see her scars, burning scars on her torso. And he told me ‘You see that? This is what is caused by Molotov cocktails thrown through the windows by settlers.’

This was my first account of the brutality of the Israelis against the Palestinian population. It’s impossible for a human being not to feel touched, crushed by such a reality – and not to do anything, just to say ‘Oh I’m sorry, now I’m leaving to Brazil to have my comfortable life…’ No way, no fucking way! If I am an artist and I can make something with my art to bring awareness to certain situations, I will do it – no matter the price, I will do it! And I told him ‘Mr Atris, I am gonna give you my word. I promise you that I am going to do everything to promote the Palestinian struggle and to expose the crimes of the Israelis against the Palestinians – I give you my word.’ And everything I have made since then is to keep my word to Mr Atris.

Ali:We know how much criticism and suppression your artwork has received abroad, especially in the West, but I wanted to know how it’s been received in Brazil and in Latin America in general. Is there the same degree of opposition?

CL: Who really supports the Palestinians in Brazil are the Leftists because the average people will follow the opinion presented in the mass media. So, if the mass media says that the Palestinians are terrorists, there is no way to see the contrary because if you see it on TV then it’s reality. The average person thinks the same way. This is reflective of other situations in Brazil, not only about Palestinians. For example, have you heard of the landless movement [The Landless Rural Workers Movement or MST]? The landless movement are according to the media a bunch of terrorists, communists, motherfuckers – all the time, Chavez is a dictator – all the time. How are ordinary people to debate such allegations if they have no counter-opinion…we have the ‘official version’ only – about everything. The people who live in favelas are drug dealers or would-be drug dealers – all of them. If police kill someone inside the favelas it’s because this guy was a drug dealer. It’s always the same shit presented on TV and the same applies to Palestinians.

Ali: To follow up on that question, to me there seems to be a gap between history (the reality of the past) and memory (what people remember) that pervades your artwork. For example, you document the various massacres that have happened here in Brazil – peasants, prisoners, you evoke the memory of South African apartheid in order to draw a correlation with the current situation in Palestine… I wanted to know why you think there is this gap and what do you think your artwork does to change or confront that?

CL: I think the mainstream media plays an important role in this particular aspect because it has become the duty of the mainstream media not exactly to erase the memory but to convert it into another thing – to change the facts! That’s the point. Probably future generations won’t remember the massacre of Vigario Geral [a favela or slum in Rio de Janeiro]. There is a selective memory. The mainstream media is based on the principle of selective memory – ‘this is what you can remember, this is what you cannot’ – or ‘this is what you can, but we are going to change the facts so you remember it in a different way.’ You must remember this in a way we believe is suitable.

I’m going to give you another example – very important. In Brazil, we have a dilemma right now, the Lula government is facing pressures to open the archives of the military dictatorship and the Brazilian government is afraid to open them. They say a lot of things: ‘We must preserve democracy – the relatives of people who disappeared during the dictatorship are asking for revenge, not justice.’ But this is not the reality. This is an example of a past, a memory which the establishment is afraid of. It’s not erasing the memory, because you cannot simply erase the memory, but you can change the facts, you can corrupt the facts – and the media is the best way to convince people of these lies.

Ali: Your artwork tends to be very provocative, so I wanted to know if there is a line that you wouldn’t cross. In other words, do you think there are limitations to the freedom of expression?

CL: I try to keep my focus on what really matters. For example, regarding the Palestinian/Israeli question my problem is not about being Jewish or about religion – no. People try to attack me and label me an anti-Semite or racist, this kind of shit all the time – you know well what I mean – these kinds of allegations are always used by certain people interested in suppressing any kind of criticism towards Israel. My concern is about not getting into racial or religious issues because this is not my point. My point is called politics, imperialism, war for territory.

Ah there is something interesting I want to tell you. I participated in an Iranian contest about the Holocaust—and the same people who always call me an anti-Semite and a racist then say ‘ Latuff is a Holocaust denier! but if you see my artwork which won the second place prize you see a Palestinian wearing a concentration camp uniform and in the background the separation wall. So, this is not denying, I am affirming it: yes, there was a Holocaust and there is an ongoing Holocaust. The Israelis didn’t learn anything from the past lessons of the Nazi era. Of course, the Israelis are not the Nazis literally. There are no gas chambers in the West Bank, but there is no need for them. It’s not only about killing people, but trying to humiliate people – to put people on their knees. But as I told you before, it is easier to kill a Palestinian than to put them on their knees. I never saw a people as strong as the Palestinians. You can talk to a child in Palestine and even they are able to tell you about the political situation step by step in Palestine. You will never see such a thing in Brazil – unless you are dealing with the landless. The landless movement (MST) is different, it’s a different reality – even the children have full knowledge about the situation.

Ali: What do you feel is the social role of the political cartoonist?

CL: I think that especially nowadays where we are facing, in my opinion, a backlash from reactionaries, the role of the political cartoonist, especially those on the left, is to show the other side of the coin because people only know one side of the story – the ‘official version’ presented by the media. The consonant cartoonist must present the other side, the other possibilities – especially to remind people that there is no way out in a political and economic system where capital has more value than the society at large. I think my cartoons have this role – to remind people and hit the conscious of ordinary people like a hammer and to bore the reactionary – to fuck the reactionary! That’s very important. The political cartoon must have these two tasks: to bring consciousness to people, remind them of some reality under their nose, and to fuck the patience of the reactionaries.

Ali: Do you have a favorite piece that you have drawn? If so, which one and why?

CL: Ah yes. The ‘We Are All Palestinian’ series, where I compare the suffering of the Palestinian with people throughout history. I spent exactly seven days to complete each one of those drawings – a Kabbalistic number! It’s amazing, but making those cartoons drained my energy. I felt tired after making them – it’s not it because it took too much work to make, but too much energy. Those cartoons are alive. Some artworks are alive; they don’t need my presence to be alive. This is one of my pictures against the reactionaries and imperialists, because people can kill me but my art cannot be shot down. That’s why the Zionists hate me so much – because my art is public domain and they cannot do anything about it. They are fucked and fucked again – fucked twice! You cannot reach the artwork, you cannot kill or destroy it. People are using the artwork everywhere. You are the live proof of this – you! Because if you are here today, it is because of my art – because you saw my art for the first time. So no matter if I am alive or killed it makes no difference – The artwork is alive and that’s what matters.

Ali: You told me the other day on the phone that your celebrity and the overwhelming response that you have received from your fans around the world surprises you. Why do you think that your artwork has been able to evoke such as powerful response with people?

CL: Let me tell you something which happened two days ago: I was in my room surfing the Internet calmly, expecting nothing to happen. Suddenly, someone popped up on my MSN. It was a girl, a Palestinian girl, I added some time ago. There are a lot of people on my MSN – I can’t remember them all – so the girl popped up and started to talk to me…after some moments she turned her webcam on, and it was a surprise to me because usually Palestinians don’t have webcams. I said ‘OK, I will turn my web cam on too.’ I saw a girl wearing a hijab, in the background her home, and she had throughout the whole chat a bright white smile. The whole time she waved to me and put her hands over her face as if to say ‘Unbelievable, I’m talking to Latuff’ as you did! Really! This is truly emotional to me because I cannot imagine the feeling I cause in people like you and her.

Listen, you live in Canada – Canada is a paradise compared to the Gaza strip! The Gaza strip is a hell on earth. I was able for a moment to bring a smile to that girl’s face and we talked about ordinary things, and I saw her home, a home like everyone’s home – a common girl, people with blood and flesh, the people not presented by the media because in the eyes of the Western media, she’s probably a terrorist, a suicide bomber, a Muslim fundamentalist, but I saw who she really was. And to cause happiness in a girl living in the Gaza strip is too much for me as a human being, activist, and artist. Tell me what I can expect more in my fucking life! It is the best payment I can have. That smile, that happiness was my payment for life. I’m not being sensationalist – it’s not about that – because when I talk to you about that, I feel that. It’s emotional to me. It’s very touching.

Can you imagine someone living in such a difficult situation happy only because they are talking to me! I’m nothing, man. What am I? I only make drawings. I’m not Che Guevara, I’m not Jesus Christ, I’m not anything special – I’m only an artist, that’s all. One time I asked to a friend of mine, Nizar Othman, a Syrian cartoonist living in Lebanon. I said, ‘Nizar, do you really think I’m making some difference for the Palestinians? Can the cartoons stop the bullets and the missiles? What’s the difference I’m making at all?’ and he gave some beautiful insight – he reminded me about Naji Al-Ali, the Palestinian cartoonist, do you know him? He’s a kind of Palestinian hero and he was a cartoonist, that’s all. So that’s what really matters to me – to assist the weak, to reinforce the struggle and even give them some moments of happiness, to give them a clue that there are people around the world who care about them for real – and I care about them a lot – I love them. That’s my best payment….I made a print screen of that MSN window to keep on my computer screen because I could probably live 1000 years and I will never forget that smile…that’s it.

Carlos Latuff is a Brazilian political cartoonist. He currently Resides in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Ali Mustafa is a freelance journalist, writer, and media activist. He is a member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA) and currently resides in Toronto, Canada

*A version of this article was originally published in the YU Free Press (volume I, issue IIII)