Comics and Race in Latin America

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Arts Languages and Cultures

Abstract

From early caricatures to recent accusations of anti-Asianism, comics in Latin America have a troubled relationship to race. As comics use visual shorthands to communicate complex cultural histories quickly, they are susceptible to simplistic, stereotypical representations of cultural difference. But comics artists in Latin America have also produced more considered explorations of race, sometimes constructing anti-racist discourses. Such work is vital in a region with a long history of racial mixture, produced out of indigenous populations, Iberian colonialists, black slaves and (especially Asian and European) economic migrants. Despite legislative advances addressing structural inequalities and growing awareness that racism is a widespread social problem, Latin America is still shaped by long-standing racial hierarchies, often obscured by celebrations of the region's mestizaje (race mixture).

The relationship between comics and race demands attention both because of those racial tensions and also because Latin America is currently undergoing a comics renaissance. There are now more independent publishers dedicated to comics; festivals take place in both countries with established comics traditions (Mexico, Argentina and Brazil) and also in others (Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Peru); and, as well as growth in print and digital comics, artists are developing international links, not least as festivals abroad are seeking to work with the region's comics creators. This is the perfect moment to unpack how comics in the region have treated issues of blackness and indigeneity, and how the comics world, which remains predominantly white, might seek out ways to be less inscribed by racial inequalities.

We cannot speak of Latin American comics 'industries' but rather of precarious, often self-funded grassroots activities. Like most creators in cultural industries, comics artists are underpaid (if at all) and sometimes even discriminated against (in Colombia, for example, drawing comics is not an 'official' profession, which affects employment status). Artists complain about the lack of shared knowledge of working practices and employment conditions. That is compounded by the diffuse nature of Latin American comics networks and the absence of any information about the relationship between race and the professional working environment.

This project, therefore, responds to the need for: (a) better awareness of the history of race in Latin American comics by looking at works from the nineteenth century to the present in three different countries - Argentina, Colombia and Peru - that have different racial backgrounds and comics histories; and (b) better knowledge of how race inflects the work of contemporary artists and of the nature of working practices for such artists.

To achieve (a), the project will undertake archival research in Latin America, Europe and the US and will focus on four key periods in the history of Latin American comics: Early interventions (1890s-1930s); The Golden Age (1940s-1970s); Crisis and Early Activism (1970s-1990s); Recent Renaissances (2000s-2010s).

To achieve (b), we will work with six contemporary Latin American comics artists. During two retreats, we will hold interviews and discussions with these artists, before opening up those conversations for networking events with other local artists, publishing houses, archivists and festival organisers. These meetings will foment shared knowledge about comics production, especially in relation to race. Artists and researchers will collaborate on two fanzines and a curated online exhibition. The former will be circulated around libraries and archives in Latin America and the English-speaking world, to encourage racism awareness. The latter will be promoted via comics platforms, including the Colombian project partner Entreviñetas, and will incorporate space for viewers to submit their own comics as responses to issues raised by artists and researchers.

Planned Impact

This project will look at the relationship between one of Latin America's most cutting-edge popular cultural forms, comics, and one of its most pressing social issues: racial inequalities. We will produce in-depth, transhistorical and transregional analysis of race in the region's comics, and explore the relationship between race and comics both on the page and in the wider professional field.

Who Will Benefit?

Comics Artists: the project will work with six artists and invite others to participate in discussion workshops at the end of two retreat periods. Though the comics world in Latin America is predominantly white, we will create a racially diverse group of artists, some of whom self-identify as black/indigenous.

Comics Professionals: we will invite comics producers, publishers and festival organisers to participate in wider discussions about race, social inequalities and comics production in Latin America.

Entreviñetas Comics Platform (Project Partner): we will link one retreat period and one workshop to Entreviñetas, one of Latin America's most influential comics platforms (it annually invites around 30 artists from around 9 different countries to its festivals).

Comics Consumers: we will reach out to readers on the topic of race via the fanzines produced collaboratively by artists and researchers, and via the curated online exhibition, both available in Spanish and English.

How Will They Benefit?

Though frequently present race rarely takes centre stage in Latin American comics. Even though the predominantly white world of comics production in Latin America is increasingly aware of gender inequalities and - to a lesser degree - inequalities around sexual identities, race remains underexplored. The 2018 itinerant exhibit 'Taco de ojo' (hosted in Argentina, Peru and Mexico), a collection of works by 50 comics artists depicting originary peoples, indicates growing interest in and desire for explicit, in-depth research into race and comics.

Artists, producers, festival organisers and members of the general public will all benefit from having better access to analysis of historical and regional trends related to this particular issue. By making blackness and indigeneity explicit topics for discussion, and exploring the particularities of the form when depicting race, comics professionals will be better placed to reflect on how racism informs their working contexts. Likewise, consumers will be better informed about how comics can address racial inequalities. We hope that the latter group in particular will be inspired to explore how comics also address other forms of social inequalities.

The project will also help raise the international profile of the project's artists, not least as we will publicise their work in translation both in the two fanzines and via the curated online exhibition. Latin American comics artists are under-paid (if at all) and lack the resources to participate in networking activities. The retreats and workshops will give them a platform to develop professional networks with peers and producers alike. Moreover, by creating a briefing document out of the resulting conversations, we will respond directly to comments made in 2018 to the PI by artists in Bogotá, who lamented the absence of cross-regional networks and the lack of shared information about production costs, contracts, funding opportunities, technology, international links, etc. That document will provide essential information of lasting benefit to up-and-coming artists in Latin America and beyond and help them to confront professional constraints.

We want to stress that, in all these elements, the researchers will learn a great deal from artists, producers and consumers. The collaborative nature of the retreat discussions, the wider workshops, the two fanzines and the online exhibition will inform the development of the project's line of research and self-reflection about alternative modes of academic expression.

Publications

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