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For Leila Abdelrazaq, comics are not just an expressive medium, but an instructive one. As is apparent from her solo show, Drawing the Diaspora: Comic Art & Graphic Novels by Leila Abdelrazaq in the Lower Level Gallery at the Arab American National Museum through April 19th, the young Palestinian-American artist consciously leverages the semiotics of comic art to present common narratives of Palestinian refugee and immigrant experiences to a Western audience that may be less familiar with them. 

“I've been drawing since I was a kid, though I was never formally trained in it,” said Abdelrazaq in an email interview with CultureSource. “My love for visual art got me into theater, and I was drawn to set design and construction—I currently work part-time in a wood shop. I also did a bit of directing in college, but lately I've really returned to my roots as a visual artist,” she describes.

LAR2Works by Leila Abdelrazaq, available for reading on siteThe Chicago-born first-generation American artist relocated with her family at the age of 11 to South Korea where she grew up, before eventually returning to Chicago for college. She graduated from DePaul University in 2015, the same year in which she published her debut graphic novel, Baddawi. The novel, which interprets her father’s life experiences growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s amidst the civil war and the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Beirut, received the Shortlist Award for the 2015 Palestine Book Awards. Selections are on display at the AANM.

For those new to Baddawi, the exhibition provides a reading area for visitors to experience Abdelrazaq’s work for themselves. Additionally, a series of framed sketches and originals offer a behind-the-scenes peek at her process as an artist. Certain page layouts have been redrawn several times, some studded with coffee stains or correctional liquid, others punctuated with editorial notes, perhaps from the artist to herself. The narrative nature of Baddawi is very much in the tradition of American cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s MAUS—it is perhaps ironic that the persecution experienced by Spiegelman’s Polish-Jewish protagonists in the German concentration camps during the 1930s and ‘40s is mirrored by Abdelrazaq’s Palestinian subjects at the hands of the Israeli Army in the 1960s and ‘70s. 

“I'm of course very familiar with MAUS,” Abdelrazaq said. “It's an incredible work. I'm honestly so cynical, I really believe that humanity repeats its mistakes over and over and continually fails to learn from the past. I've been feeling that way especially as I see what the Syrian regime and its supporters have been allowed to get away with. And despair does warrant processing, and for that art can be useful. But for me it goes beyond that.”

LAR7Original pages from BaddawiAbdelrazaq does not shy away from these—or any other—contentious politics, with other works on display like Mariposa Road, a short comic highlighting the intersections between the fights for Palestinian and undocumented rights, through the true story of two Gazan men who enter the United States without documentation via the U.S.-Mexico border. Unlike her father’s story, the fate of Mariposa’s protagonists, Hisham and Mounis, remains very much in the balance, and in choosing to interpret their story, Abdelrazaq continues to advocate on their behalf. Her work promotes a sense of solidarity amongst marginalized voices, as with her #Arabs4BlackPower series, which is meant to highlight the tangible connections between the Palestinian and the Black struggle in the United States, and features captions in both Arabic and English to make it accessible to a wider audience.

“Part of it is preserving our histories—ones that some don't deem important enough to write down, or maybe too despicable, or not ‘reliable’ or ‘balanced’ enough to be valid,” she said. “I think that's a big value of this work—preserving history and memory, especially in the face of ethnic cleansing and erasure, is an act of political resistance. But I don't think art alone can change the world or prevent atrocities. I think it can change the way people think, though, and give them knowledge and courage to behave in different ways.”

As the title of her exhibition suggests, Abdelrazaq is fascinated with the Palestinian diaspora, and a custom mural, “Drawing in the Diaspora” (2016) created for the installation, maps it out in beautifully graphic terms. In the mural, the cartoon character Handala, a well-known symbol for Palestinian refugees created by Naji-al-Ali—who Abdelrazaq cites as a major source of inspiration and pays homage to in using his character—stands before a world map. Handala is always portrayed with his back to the viewer, bearing witness to the scene before him. In this depiction, Abdelrazaq has rendered him holding a key behind his back in one hand, and in the other, holding a needle connected by a red thread to the world map, where countries with dense concentrations of Palestinians are indicated in red-painted motifs of traditional embroidery patterns. 

LAR4Abdelrazaq's mural, designed and hand-painted for the exhibition, "Drawing in the Diaspora" (2016)Like all of Abdelrazaq’s work, there is a clear desire to promote a political and social agenda—even in the work that deals with herself as a subject, such as the mini-comic Migraine Hell, there is a sense that Abdelrazaq is attempting to visualize an experience for the benefit of people who may not be able to understand it directly. In addition to her own work, she is also the founder of Bigmouth Press & Comix, a blog dedicated to uplifting the work of female and non-binary comix artists with roots in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.

For such a young artist, Abdelrazaq demonstrates a keen awareness of the power of her medium—the unique capacity of comic and serial art, with its combination of words and imagery, to convey both emotional and factual reality, compressing time and packing dense layers of information into small, digestible presentations.

Drawing the Diaspora: Comic Art & Graphic Novels by Leila Abdelrazaq at the Arab American National Museum is on view through April 19, 2017 and is free with museum admission.