Humor and Subversion

During the recent uprisings, artists have used witty forms of commentary, including satire and subversion. Lighthearted forms of comic relief offer visual riffs for a good laugh, acting as a powerful form of political commentary. On the other hand, aggressive humor (such as biting satire) is intended to mimic warfare since it provides a weapon to diminish or destroy an opponent. Indeed, to speak colloquially of a “killer” joke shows the extent to which humor can act as a form of symbolic assassination. Humor thus provides relief from tension while also aiding various social groups to communicate and cohere by means of oppositional sentiment and imagery. 

From Tunis to Sana‘a, humorous imagery has been a staple of the recent Arab World uprisings. For example, the cartoon cat “Willis” offers wry commentary on the inanities and setbacks of the Tunisian revolution. Within Syria, artists based in Kafrnabl also are well known for their razor-sharp spoofs of Syrian president Bashar al-Asad, while in Libya the cartoons and murals of Qays al-Hilali and Ibrahim Hamid represent Gaddafi as a rat or monkey, using beast allegories to mock the leader as a sub-human species. In these many visual lampoons and subversions, laughter can alleviate the pain of death or else heighten hostilities between two opposing camps, in the process taking on both merry and malicious forms.