On Being a Cartoonist in Iran

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The Iranian illustrator and cartoonist Elham Atayi has been drawing “since I could hold a pencil in my hands!” When she was in elementary school she used to start her homework with some drawings. She was born into a large family as the fourth child of six children. Her father passed away when she was only six years old, and it has been a big loss for the family but also brought family members together.

“My maternal side has a good taste in arts … My uncles were well-known painters in my hometown Tabriz in their youth, and [it’s] no wonder my mother is my major encourager in my artistic life.”

She had chosen to study physics in university because the whole educational system in Iran is organized in a way that discourages talented students to choose arts and social sciences for higher education. That means regardless of artistic talent, only students with poor academic performances would choose the arts. The rest would seek engineering and medical sciences. Most of the successful visual artists do not have academic background in their disciplines, and Atayi was not an exception.

Despite studying physics in the most competitive university in Iran (Sharif University of Technology), she never lost her connection to the art world. “I took advantage of living in a capital city and established a strong connection with Iranian capital base art practitioners and kept collaborating with emerging print and digital outlets for the past ten years as an illustrator and cartoonist.”

I am fascinated by Atayi’s tenacity, so I spoke frankly about working in Iran and her successes and tribulations.

Moderate religious
Lovely old couple

Who are your illustration influences and how would you define your style?

I always was fascinated by works of great cartoonists such as Sempe, Mordillo, Kazanovsky. Also there are cartoon magazines in Iran like GolAqa, Tanz-o-Caricature and so forth, which I [was] influence[d] by. But regarding my illustrations I will say that in terms of content, I always have tried to develop my own sense of style by adding humor due to my background in cartoon. But when it comes to form, I think most of Iranian contemporary illustrators are affected by Spanish, Italian and Eastern Europe[an] countries’ illustrators like Javier Zabala, Pakovska, Gabriel Pacheco.

In general I do [the] majority of my works with digital pen in Photoshop, Corel painter and Illustrator, and I believe diversity in style is the main feature of my work. I don’t know whether it should be considered as an advantage or weakness though. Some of my illustrator colleagues criticize me for not working only in one style, and I say to them I still feel I need to experience more and I don’t think I am ready to commit one style!

What are these illustrated stories about?

Most of my illustrations are for children’s fiction books. I also have some works done for non-fiction books.

ekhtelaf qad

[In regards to] the collection of “Iranian Couples”: As a sequel to my previous character series, “Men Banned from Entrance” (2011), satirizing women riding on the metro in women-only cars, in this series, “Iranian Couples” (2014), I have had a shift of focus from appearance and apparel of the individuals toward couples and familial dynamics. I have chosen the simple setting of the photography atelier as a location where all the characters are presented. The lack of diversity in the location helps drawing more attention toward the characters themselves. Furthermore, the atelier functions as a narrative device where the characters posing for a picture could reveal some aspects of their personality, which may not be visible otherwise.

The gestures taken in the picture as well as the facial expressions reveal inside feelings and the nature of communication that stands between the two. The possession of the chair as a symbol of authority, the relative position of the man vis-a-vis the woman, the physical characteristics, and the body language involved are all further hints at the hidden self-image and power dynamics that exist between Iranian couples.

Mizabasse1 - Copy

“MizaZOBeza,” “MizaBasseZa” and “MizaTajer”: The story of a kind but lonely monster done in three volumes as “children[‘s] fiction books.” The whole story is about the adventures of this monster with his magical table that would fill with [a] variety of delicious foods any time he says the magical word: “MizaZoBeza.” He lived on top of a mountain
and had no friends. One day he decided to visit people down in the village. But they [were] terrified as they saw him. Eventually people realized that he is not going to eat them and became his friend. Then [the] monster [launched] a teahouse in [the] village, and the story ends here in this volume.

In the second book, [the] king realized that [the] monster is making a lot of money out of his magical table in [the] teahouse. So he gave [the] order to arrest the monster and bring the magical table to his castle. But the table didn’t work well when the king asked [for] soup for his guests, and the pot kept overflowing so much that all courtiers drown [in] the soup. This book ends up where [the] monster stopped [the] table from overflowing and left the village with sorrow.

In [the] last edition, a crippled merchant showed up around the mountain where [the] monster used to live, and all of a sudden he found out that the stream resulting from [the] monster’s tears of sorrow has medical benefits. He decided to construct a mineral water factory near the stream and became wealthy by selling them. Finally the monster that had fallen asleep for years suddenly woke up by [the] opening ringtone of the factory and stop[ped] them from ruining the plain and polluting the water.

Can you illustrate what you want in Iran?

I wish I could. But artists in my country suffer from severe political and religious red lines dictated by the Islamic government. Some examples include the prohibition of displaying pictures of unveiled women in public places, not allowing teaching of anatomy courses in art schools and forbidding the caricatures of key government figures.

As a character designer, I once worked out thirty pieces of characters depicting different archetypes of Iranian women on the subway—“Men Banned from Entrance.” Although the characters wore Hijab, I did not get permission to exhibit in any galleries and finally had to let go of some of my characters from the collection. Fortunately it happened to be a very successful exhibition and admired greatly by online society. So much so that, the works [were] shared over and over on websites and got more than 2000 likes in only two days on [Facebook].

As a career I always loved to have a fixed cartoon column in a newspaper like the one I used to maintain when I was 18. But in the last years it turned to be a hard job since cartoonists are kind of considered as a threat for [the] particularly intellectual media outlet’s lifetime.

In fact it seems to me that one of the reasons that makes not only me but also many cartoonists here cut down their cartoon works and seek a related field like animation and illustration is because of these tense situation[s] for cartoonists, especially in the last 8 years.


As a cartoonist, what is the focus of your humor?

As a woman who lives in a country [where] the difference between men and women is always emboldening by existing culture and government, I see myself [as] a woman in the first place, [then] a cartoonist, and for sure this is affecting my whole career as a cartoonist and illustrator as well. In my works, I try to challenge discriminatory traditions and notions against women in my country by depicting the funny part about that culture or practice in an ironic way.

I believe people in Iran are under pressures resulting from current financial instability and lack of civil liberties. So, they are unlikely to confrontationally face up [to] the reality. Therefore I try to make my points through laughter. Actually, first I trap my audience by joyful and colorful outward appearance of my works and then [lead] them to go through this work deeply. Moreover I think in this way I’ll get more attention from [a] various range of audience than directly revealing the dark side of what we are struggling [with] daily. I think I somehow achieved my goal in the character collection named “Men Banned from Entrance.”


What is next for you as an artist?

Iran has many talented award-winning cartoonists and illustrators. Admittedly this has made their market more competitive, especially in the last decades. But it is not like you can make fairly regular money [from] your illustrations. You have to have a side job to secure your life financially. In my case, fortunately I had been able to find my place in this market, and that is why nowadays I am engaged in professional assignments mostly from children’s book publications. (I think I explained why I am no longer working [in] cartoon.) After over ten years of professional working experience, now I feel like I need to expand my area of knowledge and give sort of a fine art direction to my art works. So, I have decided to pursue a MFA degree in fine art in overseas countries, and I already have admitted to [a] couple of NYC art colleges and at present, my main struggle is coming up with a solution for my financial problem with studying there.

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