• Main page
  • Project members
  • Blog
  • Comics
  • Participation
  • stickers
  • Contact info
  • Suomeksi

"This is my history": Interview with artist Hayfaa Chalabi.

Hayfaa Chalabi is an artist and illustrator based in Stockholm, Sweden. She is in the final stages of her studies for a master’s degree in Visual Communication at Konstfack University. As part of her exam she is working on a comic on refugees’ situation in her country of residence. Late in the month of May, Ralf Kauranen met online with Hayfaa Chalabi to discuss her work.

Ralf Kauranen: Hi, nice meeting you, who are you?

Hayfaa Chalabi: I’m Hayfaa, I’m an illustrator. I’m doing the last weeks of my master’s in visual communication at Konstfack University in Stockholm. My master’s project is a graphic novel about the situation of refugees in Sweden. My focus is on political emotions and what they do in relation to refugees. I have been exploring apathy, for example, I have been exploring feelings such as hate and empathy and fear as well, and how these elements are implemented in the politics and political discourse about refugees in Sweden. I have been studying the terminology used to talk about refugees in the political discourse, I have been looking at, as a refugee myself, how the immigration institution talks to us and how even artists and other institutions that claim to be on the side of the refugee, how they talk on our behalf, and how there is no room for an independent refugee narrative in Sweden. This narrative is even prohibited by the immigration institutions. So, I took these two years in order to study that discussion from an independent perspective, as an independent, non-institutional narrative, a narrative that comes from a refugee party and that hopefully also addresses cultural understanding.
Figure 1
Figure 1
RK : Are comics or graphic novels a common thing to do as part of an exam from the visual communication program at Konstfack University

HC: They are, but comics haven’t been a usual thing for me. This is the first time I explore the format of the graphic novel, which has been interesting. As I don’t have much knowledge about the format, I have dealt with every page and every spread in the book as a composition in itself, a composition that has its own needs, that calls for decisions about text in relation to images, choices about colours and choices about what to include and what not to, and how to communicate in the most effective way. For me it was a necessity to work in this format, so I did it even though comics are not something that I have been reading a lot in my life or that would have interested me specifically. But whatever the project needed, I just followed that.

RK: Why do you think it was a necessity to do a graphic novel?

HC: Because I worked with illustration and text in the beginning. I’m an illustrator, but my illustrations here needed a lot of text because this topic, as I said, this narrative is new, this perspective is new in Sweden, and so it needed much text, it needed a lot of argumentative text, it needed a lot of explanation to the target audience which consists of many who are not refugees. I started thinking about a visual essay first, but then the project got too big. I was interested in so many layers of the problem and so a book that combines illustration and text seemed to be the best format. From that point, I started seeing that the graphic novel provides a very good composition, a good balance between text and image to convey the topic. After that I just did my research about the format, and I started to produce.

RK: I was wondering about your background in comics and your possible role models in comics, or if reading some particular comics have inspired you in this project… but you say it’s more the topic itself that called for this format.

HC: As I was doing my research I found a lot of role models, and if we’re speaking about Sweden, I think one of the most important people who works with comics and who has brought a new era in comics being extremely research-based is Liv Strömqvist, who has shown how to combine heavy research with the comics format. I think she does an amazing job and she has been a big influence in my process and in my research. As I wasn’t that familiar with the format, that research was necessary. I’ve also been looking at Nora Krug, the German-American who did Heimat. I mention these two because both Strömqvist and Krug have done a great job at breaking the norm for what a comic is or looks like. As a reader I have had a hard time following a comic and reading it because they often were so heavy, so black-and-white, which was hard for me. Some readers, like me, like colour and spaces and playfulness, even though you’re dealing with dark and hard topics. Actually, I think it is because we are dealing with such topics that we need to be more creative and more stylistically welcoming, and so I have been inspired by these two in in my process.

RK: Having seen some pages from the comic that you are working on, I can understand both references: Liv Strömqvist more as someone working with research-based comics and the factual and Nora Krug as someone whose book is collage-like, breaking with the tradition of comics relying on panel grids, as she mixes pages consisting of panels with pages with only text, photographs or something else. It seems that you too work with something of a collage-like format, mixing pages that look very different.

HC: In Krug’s case, even though it’s a story about her or plays on two levels, a personal level and a more general level, just like my book plays on both the broad subject of refugees and me being a refugee – I am a character in the book –, I think she does a great job of making a comic about herself without having to draw herself in every spread or continually having to tell the reader who she is. She has done a great job in breaking that norm and that classical format and brought about another creative aspect. And she has reasons for why she made such a decision. I’ve watched some interviews with her talking about it and it’s been very inspiring because I did not want that self-centred approach in my book. I didn’t want it to be like “here is me, look at my story”. I think there is a really blurry line when it comes to the visibility of the artist in the work, whether I’m inviting you to my own world or I’m inviting you to the subject through my story. There are a lot of artists who dealt with depicting the refugee struggle and ended up inviting us to their personal world and not to the world of the topic itself, which is highly problematic as it doesn’t serve the refugee case in any way. It only serves the artist, bringing some heroism to their own depiction of such a storRK: Okay, so you are rather critical of the autobiographical mode of depiction?

HC: No, I’m not critical to that, I’m critical to how some artists work with visibility. I can be autobiographical and highly political, the personal is political. When it comes to covering a topic such as the situation of refugees, which touches upon one million people in Sweden, I cannot invite you to a very limited story or I cannot invite you to my world as Hayfaa. I must invite you to my world as a refugee if the story is about refugees. A lot of artists, when they depict themselves as the subject, end up putting the light on themselves and not on the subject that they deal with. An example of that is – it’s not in the comics format – Ai Weiwei, who made this work where he depicted himself as the child refugee Alan Kurdi. And the question here is, what does he add to the Alan Kurdi depiction, the picture that shook the world. Am I supposed to see Ai Weiwei and be even more moved? You know, he’s not a child, he’s not a refugee, he’s not vulnerable, he’s one of the most famous artists in the world, he’s a rich person and he has the tools, so, what that image makes visible is only him. It doesn’t make the refugee case visible in any way that adds to what we already have. And even when he was asked about it by the political artist Tania Bruguera, at a talk in Brooklyn, he tried to embarrass her and he started cursing, and people started clapping because when famous people start to curse, people think it’s funny. For me that’s problematic, to make a project about refugees, especially as a famous artist and then invite us to the heroism of dealing with such a topic, but not inviting us to the issue of the refugees. That work didn’t serve the refugees in any way, it didn’t communicate anything about refugees. It communicated something about the artist. When it comes to depicting myself, I still need to depict myself as part of the subject, not as the person Hayfaa, but more as the refugee figure.

Anyway, now I’m working on creating a flow of narration in my book, one that doesn’t make the viewer too confused. As the book deals with the subject on so many levels – it deals with it on a personal level, on a journalistic level, on a poetic level sometimes and sometimes on a political level, and then on that level of simple facts, like providing the reader with the UN definitions of a refugee and an economic migrant –, and this probably comes as a consequence of me working with this format for the first time, I’m now trying to connect everything in a narrative flow without me being present all the time. At the moment, my book is up at 120 pages, but I think it’s going to be a little bit more.

RK: You shed a light on a phenomenon from different perspectives. It seemed to me that your narration fluctuates between the more individual, Hayfaa the refugee and your personal reactions to certain situations, and the more general discussion on the situation of refugees in Sweden. Also, one thing that I was thinking, was that you really have a lot to say. The fact that you deal with the refugee situation from so many different perspectives gives the feeling of urgency in your comic too.

HC: I’m still in the process of being a refugee. I still don’t have, I’m not Swedish, right, so while working on my master’s and this project, I still go through a lot of these processes, and every time I go through something I need to cover that, because we don’t have this kind of narrative in Sweden, independent narratives about these processes. One reason is that there isn’t room for that, because when you go to the immigration office, they ban you from documenting whatever happens inside. I got to know later that it’s because people have been recording their meetings and sharing the recordings on social media, and as a result there has been a lot of anger towards the migration board’s offices. So, the migration board forbids us to document the meetings. Another reason for the lack of narratives is that many refugees are so tired that they don’t want to deal with it. They don’t want to tell it anymore; you just want to move on in your life. But there is a need for this. I did an interview with the Swedish radio. It was in Arabic and the interviewer, the journalist told me “Hayfaa, don’t expect much from this, because it’s in Arabic and the people who are going to listen to it already are in the same boat as you so, you know, it’s not like you’re going to get feedback on it or something. This is already super familiar to them”, and I was like “yeah, I know, it’s ok, let’s just publish it”. And then it was published at six in the evening, and then at nine the next morning, the journalist wrote to me that “we got so many emails with illustrations and drawings on the subject after people listened to the interview”, and he showed me some of them. That’s because people felt like “okay, now we’re talking about this, we also want to take part in this discussion”. They felt some kind of representation and maybe that’s just the kind of start that is needed. And that’s why I feel the urge to cover everything, “let’s talk about this, let’s talk about that”, because there is nothing that would have been done from this perspective, and apparently there is a need for this discussion, even among people who are from a similar background. So, that’s where the urgency comes from.

RK: You apparently have got quite some feedback on your comic already before it’s been published.

HC: Yeah, I’ve got a lot. I got to talk about it in many places and I got some really nice feedback. And you never expect it. When you work on a project, you plan your target audience, “it’s going to be this person, this gender, this age, this height, they listen to this music”, and then it’s something totally different, and that’s fun and very, very interesting.

RK: So, who has been your ideal reader that you have had in mind when working on the…?

HC: Before starting the project, I thought of this ideal person as a young adult who’s about to have the right to vote and is interested in reading about a lot of societal issues and that this would be a narrative that’s important for them, because it’s not existing. Also, a lot of motivation for why people vote for certain parties is the migration issue and how the parties deal with that issue. My book covers a lot of election videos and how people and parties talk about refugees in elections. For example, the phrase “Sweden is collapsing” has been very present; there has been a shift from talking about the “refugee crisis” to the “integration crisis”. Now integration is framed as exclusively a problem in the political discourse. So, my ultimate target audience has always been this young person who’s about to get to vote and for whom this narrative is something eye-opening because it’s not available otherwise. But it has been amazing, for example, with this group of Arabic people, who listened to the radio program and could relate to it and wanted to talk about it. It’s amazing that it starts an even bigger discussion, it’s not a discussion that only Hayfaa is part of but that everyone is part of. I also presented my work for illustration students at another university and I thought that they would ask me about illustration afterwards because I presented it from a perspective on the working with illustration and comics, not particularly as a work on the refugee problem, and what happened was that all their comments were related to that. Some of them were trying to provide me with solutions to my problem, they were like “have you tried to contact the European Court, have you tried to contact this and that” and that’s amazing, because the book also tries to urge empathy and cover feelings like apathy and hate, and these people felt through this book that they wanted to be on the side of the refugee and they wanted to start looking for solutions, what they could do for this problem to end.

RK: What’s the schedule for the book, when will it be available for the reading audience?

HC: I’m trying to work on it this summer and hopefully it will be done in the summer, but now the pandemic situation affects the readers as well as everything, and because it’s still new we just want to read about the virus the whole time. We’re not interested in other things, we don’t see anything else as urgent, even though the refugee situation is a topic that is extremely urgent during the corona pandemic, which also affects it, as well as before and after the pandemic, and, actually, all the time. Publication is also about choosing the right time, but it’s not about when the pandemic ends as the refugee issue is topical all the time.

RK: Earlier you had some images published in the Swedish comics magazine Galago.

HC: Yeah, they published some of my illustrations in an issue. Some of them were about the Iraq War and some about consumption, but all political. They are on my web site as well.

RK: All political, yes, and these illustrations or paintings also seem to have a narrative idea, they are images in sequence, for instance, the series of images called “A Terrorist Diary?”.

HC: I think that’s where my interest in comics started, but I didn’t know it back then. I was not very familiar with the format of comics back then and I was not a fan of it, but this series, that is four numbered images, one, two, three, four, I always was fond of. The still image is sometimes problematic because some topics are about time, a lot of topics are about time, oppression is also about time. It’s about how much you live that oppression and in how many ways you live that oppression, in so many layers, so you cannot create a still image or one illustration about these topics, because they are layered. And I also wanted to give the audience some time to absorb what happens, and see the evolvement of oppression somehow, and I think that that short series of four images is very intense. It’s like a short story, short but very intense. Now with the comic I use all different means, sometimes I have a spread with just one intense illustration and then others only depict details. Now I’m interested in more ways of illustrating, but before I used to make those intense short stories. This is a page in the comic that I think is one of the intense ones (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2

There’s a lot happening: it’s the nudity, it’s your perspective as a viewer who looks up on those people, it’s how small they are, it’s this floor that you usually find in bathrooms and needs to be cleaned, it’s the waiting. The graphic novel is a great format because it allows me to use so many styles: very complicated images, big, clear illustrations and, for example, pages with some screenshots (Figure 3). It is a good way of using many layers of illustration.

Figure 3
Figure 3

RK : What do you think your stylistic roots are, where does the inspiration for your visual style come from, if it’s not, as you say, comics?

HC : It did come from painting in the beginning. When I was younger, when I was in high school, I used to paint. This is a style that’s very much alive in formats similar to comics in the Arab world. Look at illustrators like George Azmy (Egypt), Walid Taher (Egypt), Rawand Issa (Lebanon), Alaa Sharabi (Syria) and Sara Qaed (Bahrain). In my opinion we all share a theme of illustrating, a theme of visualising the dehumanisation that some oppressive patterns do to us. You might even notice some similarities in how we depict sorrow and loss either through facial expressions or in the body language of our characters. When we talk about the west, this kind of drawing is not very alive in comics, but I think it’s time to be friendly to new styles in the comics and I think that as long as a visual style communicates well with the format then there is really no rule of how to draw in a book. For me it’s about decisions, drawings are not about this looking cute or this looking beautiful, no, this nudity here has a message, it has a message of exposing vulnerability. And this facial expression has a message and a character which doesn’t have hair is a message of how you see these people without identity because of their exposure. But then in some images that person comes back with hair and company and a smile and friends. I made some illustrations where that person was just sitting and chilling with friends because it says, despite my choice of exposing this story to you, you don’t have access to my life. I exist beyond being a victim to this oppressive pattern (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4

So, for me it is not about a style that I think looks good. It’s always about decisions that must be made visually, it’s always about what look of the character, for example, serves the idea and I’ve been inspired by all possible things. I’ve been extremely inspired by poetry. Poetry really talks, really illustrates an image, really describes how an image should look. Now we talked about the inspiration that comes from comic books, but I think the sources of inspiration are unlimited. It can come from anywhere, it can come from politics, it can come from how a person talks to you. For example, one of the characters, when I was being told about my deportation notice, the person who was telling me was applying a lip moisturizer on their lips the whole time and while I was thinking about them my life is falling apart: I’m going back to a country where there is nothing waiting for me but despair and he was concerned about his dry lips (Figure 5).

Figure 5

Figure 5

Drawing that was more about how a child sees that. How does this character look in relation to that? So, I do all kinds of visual research from painting to surrealism to symbolism to all of it and try to make decisions about the visuality of what things look like.

RK: I think the depiction of the lip moisturizing in that situation was really powerful, because here you got the sense of a personal experience, in contrast to the more general descriptions in other parts of the comic.

HC: Yeah, exactly, I think those are the strongest illustrations because they come from very personal emotions of madness and of being angry and frustrated as a child. They also come from a child’s perspective, how the child sees this person, as non-human, as a monster, because as a child you saw that this is the monster who is making your life fall apart. And now I see that he’s just an officer who’s telling you about a decision that he probably didn’t even make. Now I have a more mature perception, but this was more like a child seeing the world oppressing them.

RK: Let’s talk a bit about your comic being documentary and factual and the research that you have had to do.

HC: My book is very much based on research. It’s divided into three chapters and the second and third chapters are a lot about already existing stereotypes about refugees, which means that I had to make research about that. I divided the stereotypes into three. First, the refugee as a criminal, second, the refugee as an economic migrant, as someone who’s coming to take your money and, third, the refugee as a fetish, as a romanticized thing. And they’re all false. Usually when we talk about refugees, we’re saying “immigrants”, which is dishonest discourse because an immigrant could be someone like a Swedish middle-aged, married couple, who have decent jobs and good money and then they are bored and looking for a life adventure and they move to Spain; that’s an immigrant. A refugee is someone who is coming from death and has no choice of returning. So, I think I had to present that research, that material, those references that put the refugee into these three stereotypes, and then, from there I started analysing the refugee as the other, the other who is coming to harm the country, coming to disturb the stability, the economic comfort and the identity, this peaceful and beautiful identity of Sweden. This really is played upon in political discourse, especially in election videos that show the country as a war zone when talking about refugees, cars are burning, people are dying, people are homeless, people are killing each other in the streets, and Sweden is not like that, it’s a really nice place. But they really focus on that great fear between two groups of people. This led me to doing research about emotions, psychological research, and I’m mainly referring to Sara Ahmed, the feminist researcher who analyses political feelings, emotions in, for example, her book The Cultural Politics of Emotions. I started thinking about fear, how these two groups are created and how nationalist hate becomes love, love of the nation. “I love the nation; therefore, I’m going to hate you as a refugee”. “I love Sweden and that’s why I’m going to hate you.” Hate is presented as love and it’s justified under the umbrella of love. You create this fear of the other, and then, when we see us being feared, we start getting scared of you as well, so we end up with these two groups who are extremely scared of each other. It’s different types of fear, of course, as one group, the nationalist group, extends when it is scared. It takes more space, because they don’t want the other group to come to or they want it out of the country. So, they take up more space in the nation, their fear makes them extend. But the fear of the refugees makes them shrink. It makes them want to cancel the whole situation and they don’t want to exist in it anymore. This cycle of fear becomes integration issues, as two groups are fearing each other, and two groups are in different places in society. The group members just stay and go to the places that they already belong in, places where they aren’t feared and, so, we have this integration issue. And that’s what parties like the Sweden Democrats not only talk about but create through their work and terminology and the enforced stereotypes of the immigrant. I have had to do research on many levels, but I also have the pleasure and fun of drawing the research, to do the research and then make it into images, and it can be really simple like this depiction of the two groups fearing each other (Figure 6). I made it into a spread that does not have a lot of text. This whole discussion could be put as simply as that. You do a lot of research and then this whole integration problem is summarized in an image where this person is in that big bubble and this other person is in a small bubble and they never meet. The comics format is a great way of depicting and illustrating research in a simple and communicative way.

Figure 6

Figure 6

RK: You were saying that your research started with the stereotypes. That’s something you worked on in your bachelor’s thesis too, and many of your earlier illustrations also seem to be questioning stereotypes.

HC: Because our culture is a visual culture, a culture that is based on visual norms on what a person should look like, how a person should be talked about. It’s all built on stereotypes. I started realizing that now, because while my bachelor exam project was also about stereotypes, I think I fell into creating some stereotypes myself in that project and I think that’s very interesting. A lot of times when you start to fight norms and stereotypes, you fall into reproducing them. Even in this current project I have done that, but I am critical of it and I represent it in my comic. It’s about different positions in the power structures in society. Last year, when I started this project, I went to the waiting hotel where refugees wait, and it was the same hotel where I waited as a child. It was horrible, because I hated it, and then I still went to visit it and I felt that me visiting it was really bad, it was really ugly, it was reproducing all these stereotypes and objectifying these people in there. And I’m visiting them as if I’m visiting a zoo, you know, I’m coming to watch them and to document them. It was about me visiting, it wasn’t about them.

RK: And you are dealing with this visit in your comic too?

HC: Yeah, I made an illustration about the visit. I wrote that a lot of times, I reproduce all these stereotypes and we should be critical to ourselves. I think an aware study is a study that has room for self-criticism. In this illustration (Figure 7), it’s me feeling ashamed with this woman because I went and sat with her in the kitchen.

Figure 6

Figure 7

She was from The Gambia and we didn’t talk the same language, but her eyes were so sad that I just needed to talk to her. Then, as I sat there, I was trying to study her or interview her or something and that was just not right, and so I needed to leave. I sat for a few seconds and then when I was leaving, as a natural thing, I just said “Okay bye, do you need anything?” and I felt horrible for saying “Do you need anything?”. What am I going to give her? I am the one who was in need. I was going there because I needed something. She didn’t need anything from me, I wasn’t able to give her anything. So, I realized that even though I’m a refugee and still in the process and still struggle a lot with immigration and with the parliament and with so many things, I have another position in the power structure, because once you leave that hotel you’re not the same anymore, you’re more privileged. So, yes, I’m interested in stereotypes and I’m interested in reflecting upon even me reproducing the stereotypes.

RK: Then again, we can’t completely avoid stereotypes, can we? We also need them to navigate in the world.

HC: And not all stereotypes are bad. There is this stereotype that Arabs are generous people. That’s not bad. But stereotypes are problematic when they are reproduced by a party that has the intention of creating negative association to a vulnerable group, and then we need to deal with them. Because our society is so embedded with a history of racism, homophobia and sexism, a lot of times, even when our intention is to break the stereotypes, we strengthen and enforce them and reproduce them. But as long as we are critical to ourselves and conscious about that, I think, we all help each other learn something. It’s a learning process. It’s also important to highlight that comic books and comics are not isolated. They are produced for people and people read them. And so, we should be very conscious, we should be accountable as comics artists to what we present and convey, and we should be critical, as I said, to us recreating certain patterns. We need to be conscious and critical of every word we use. For example, I can tell you that my thesis was called “Refugees Welcome: Structural Apathy against Refugees”, and I got the feedback that I’d want to change the word “against” to “towards” because “against” already is super-intense with emotions and through that word you make the reader feel not smart enough or welcome to your thesis, you make them feel like you made the conclusion already from the start, from the title. That was an amazing comment I think, and it should be “towards” not “against”, because as a lot of people are not willing to learn about this topic, I should be friendly in starting this discussion. You should be conscious of every word, every colour, every shape and form that you convey. That’s why I say that comics artists should remember that their work is not isolated. It’s something that takes a big place in society and effects lots of people so it should be very responsible work.

RK: That’s a very positive view of the importance of comics. Some might say, nobody reads comics anymore or that they aren’t very popular anymore, but, of course, some are and some are more narrow in their readership.

HC: I think a lot of people are trying to escape the digital world and go back to entertainment or material that is not as heavy as books of 400 pages, but also is not as smooth as a YouTube video, and so they find that balance in the comics. But I think comic books are also documentation of history. In my comic, I give the example of the Bamse comic book that was published in cooperation with the Swedish Migration Agency for children who were refused asylum and sent back to their “home countries”. The comic depicted refugee children threatened to go through deportation as overactive, and deportation as nothing dangerous but something warm and beautiful. This is unrealistic as the Iraq war alone left nearly one million orphans and, thus, many unaccompanied minors who are deported to their countries are threatened to be homeless. If we as refugees don’t speak up against this narrative, this will be our history. In the future, when we speak about refugee children, we will think that deportation was a positive outcome to their migration process. Meanwhile many refugee children who receive deportation notices commit suicide because they can’t imagine their future in their home countries. This is a documentation of history and if I, being part of that generation for whom that comic was made, if I, as a refugee don’t speak up, that would be my history. It would be the history told about me by an institution that oppresses me. The documentation, the archive in history about refugees in Sweden at that time would be that beautiful image reproduced in that comic, and so, even if a comic isn’t read by a million people, it should be thought of as something more than just a thing in the present, especially when dealing with topics that are political or that represent real people and their lives. Comics are a witnessing tool, a tool that says that, even though you alienate me and silence me, I’m here and I’m still loud. Illustrations and texts come as a resistance against the history that the migration agency and other oppressive institutions and artists like Ai Weiwei or others try to document on our behalf. This is my history, so, you listen to my side of it. My book doesn’t only serve a purpose while being published now, but it serves the purpose of the documentation of a history. This is my history and it should be published.

℅ Ralf Kauranen, Kotimainen kirjallisus, 20014 Turun yliopisto
℅ Ralf Kauranen Department of Finnish Literature, FI-20014 University of Turku, Finland
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.