Comics That Photograph Stories: An Interview With Takoua Ben Mohamed
by Alessandra Rosabianca
Takoua Ben Mohamed arrived in Italy at the age of eight to reunite with her father, a political refugee who escaped the dictatorship of Ben Ali. With a natural talent for drawing and a keen sensitivity to social and political issues, Takoua created the online project Fumetto Intercultura at the young age of 14.
When the revolution overthrew the dictatorship in Tunisia, Takoua returned to her native country to reassemble the pieces of her family history and make La rivoluzione dei gelsomini (The Jasmine Revolution) (BeccoGiallo, 2018), one of her most appreciated works. On October 10, 2020 at the Terra di Tutti Film Festival in Bologna, she presented her latest work Un’altra via per la Cambogia (Another way to Cambodia) a "logbook" in the form of a graphic novel, about her journey to the heart of southeast Asia together with the operators of the NGO WeWorld. Takoua has been awarded the Muslim International Book Award 2017 and the Moneygram Award 2016 and that of the Tunisian community in Italy, just to name a few.
It doesn’t matter whether or not she wears a veil. It doesn't matter if she is Muslim, Christian or atheist. It makes no difference if she is Tunisian, Italian or a citizen of the world. We are interested in Takoua, the woman, the professional, a determined and generous person. The dreamer who made her talent and her life experiences an art form, using it to raise and promote awareness.
In your interviews you often talk about how from an early age you started to use drawing as a means of communication. This was particularly useful to you as soon as you arrived in Italy when you still didn't know the language. How important are images to communicate?
«An image carries most of the information transmitted, not only in the drawing, but also from a journalistic and cinematographic point of view. It is a very powerful means of communication because it manages to transmit information even to those who cannot read, as there are still so many illiterate people in the world. Furthermore, an image has the great power to reach even those who, despite knowing how to read and write, speak another language and those who, thanks to the image, are still able to grasp the message. For example, I realized that I have a lot of followers on Instagram from the Arab world and in America and Asia who don’t speak Italian yet are able to understand my comics. That's where I really grasped the importance of the image; whether it is photographed or drawn, the image is the key, the most important part of communication. This is particularly true today, in the age of social networks.»
In your comics you talk a lot about yourself and your personal and family history, as in The Jasmine Revolution. In a way, your comics are snapshots of real life, in this case yours and your family members. What prompted you to talk about yourself and your story, to make it public and to share such personal experiences?
«I arrived in Italy at the age of 8 and throughout my adolescence I never returned to Tunisia. At that time, I knew very little about my country or my origins. Despite this, my teachers and classmates kept reminding me that I was "Tunisian". How did they see me that way if I didn't even know what it meant to be Tunisian? They didn’t care, for them I was simply "the other". I felt that it would always be this way, that I could never become like them. For me this represented a very strong push to discover who I was, to reconstruct my identity and give meaning to that "other" being, filling it with a deeper meaning. The revolution then made this desire possible (the Tunisian Revolution of 2010-2011, known as the Jasmine Revolution [author’s note]). In fact, the revolution created the desire and possibility to talk about it. Until that moment I had many unanswered questions, experiences lived without total consciousness, and secrets that I could not talk about. I had a weight I had been carrying around for many years. For me, the book was an opportunity to go and look for answers and share a past that has been censored for a long time. So I decided to go to Tunisia to get to know its history and people better. I spoke to ex-inmates and had access to many historical and photographic archives. I was able to talk to my cousins and family members, and I found out things about myself that I didn't even know. In this sense, the book represented a very intimate personal journey. But I also felt the need to share part of my story and, through it, reveal many things about Tunisia that have been kept silent for a long time. It was time to break that silence.»
Drawing has always been your natural talent. You have cultivated it through study and determination, finding graphic journalism as the style that best suits you. You have made drawing a tool for information, denunciation and social transformation. How did you arrive at this point?
«I always knew what I wanted to do in life, only at first I wasn't taken seriously. Over time, seeing me so determined, my family gave me all the support I needed. I was very lucky because my parents and my brothers have always believed in me. Unfortunately this is not the case for everyone, beyond culture and religion. Then, when I started publishing my first works, I had to face the difficulty of being recognized as a professional. I remember that in the first articles that came out about me, they didn't even call me by name, but "the girl with the veil who makes comics". Once again I was not seen for who I was, but rather as a phenomenon. For me, however, it is important to be recognized as Takoua the artist, regardless of the fact that I wear a veil or that I am second generation. During that period, I was the first female graphic journalist to publish works, and it was not easy to carve out my space in a world dominated by men. At first I had to compromise, but slowly, I began to increase my personal power and to assert my point of view and my interests. Now I work periodically on social and political topics, and I have a permanent space in some magazines where I deal with these topics, in particular in Il Piccolo Missionario and Confronti. It was a lot of hard work but today I'm finally doing what I've always dreamed of since I was a child!»
You have always been a very involved person on a political level, and your works also express this commitment. How important do you think civic participation is and what social transformation do you wish to see?
«With my comics I try above all to promote awareness. It is from here that one then decides whether to change and in which direction. A comic cannot go into depth of a certain topic, but it can arouse curiosity. That's what I try to do, with the hope that people will deepen their knowledge on the topics I deal with. Take for example my latest work Un altra via per la Cambogia (Another way to Cambodia) , a comic reportage published by BeccoGiallo, in which I detail the work of the NGO WeWorld engaged in Cambodia and the story of many Cambodians who fall victim to human trafficking. With this book, I am not looking for change, I would rather make people aware of what is happening in that part of the world and shine a light on those people who risk being forgotten. I like to address myself above all to young people; they are my privileged audience. It is essential to raise awareness from an early age, because the more we are aware of what is happening in the world as children, the greater the chances are of building a better future.»
Yours is certainly a story of resilience, although it would probably be more correct to speak of « development activated by adversity » (R.K. Papadoupolus, 2008). In other words, growth that is stimulated precisely by the fact one has gone through difficulties in life. How did you do it and what advice would you give to those having difficult times?
«It depends a lot on a person’s character and life experiences. As I said, I was lucky because I always had the support of my family. I also have the ability to recognize similarities rather than differences in whatever situation or part of the world I am in. I focus on what unites and what I share with others rather than dwelling on what divides us. For me this has always been a strength. I feel I have the ability, as a human being and a journalist, to put myself in the shoes of others and to foster a climate that encourages communication. I try to promote reciprocity and overcome ethnocentric vision, restore equality between parties, and shorten social and cultural distances. I get requests for advice on Instagram, especially from girls who are going through tough times. My advice is don’t give up! Even if the problems sometimes seem huge, if you look closely at them, they aren't really that big. There's nothing that can’t be overcome. Relativize! In the same way, we can only start to build something big by first taking small steps.»
Takoua on Instagram