Black Shades

Lebanese illustrator and comic book artist Tracy Chahwan is a lover of Beirut. For over ten years, she dwelled in the city’s alternative scene, collaborating with other artists and creating socially and politically engaged work.

Perhaps her love for the city is best seen in her first graphic novel, Beirut Bloody Beirut, which explores the complex juxtaposition of realities in the densely populated capital. From crossing Hezbollah dominated areas to partying with the girls of local mafia lords, Tracy’s characters see it all in a one night saga.

She also portrays the city’s contrasts in the touching short comic My Heart Burns, a collaboration with Syrian-Canadian writer Yazan Al-Saadi. They tell the story of a Syrian refugee family that, facing abiding discrimination, finds no opportunities in Beirut and decides to flee to Europe in search of a better life. The story gains an infuriating character when the reader realizes that the family falls into an evil-minded trap.

Incendiary and humorous, Tracy’s art typically deals with injustice, violence, resistance, racism, and feminism. It also reflects her good old days in Beirut and her new life as she recently moved to the United States—a swift change amid a troubled year for Lebanon and the world.

Subtropical Asia talked to Tracy about what inspires her work, her perceptions of Beirut, and her new life in the United States.

Why did you want to become a comic book artist?

Tracy Chahwan: I just always enjoyed drawing and grew up reading a lot of Franco-Belgian comics. In art school, I naturally inclined towards cartooning. For many reasons, I felt more comfortable with the medium than with other art forms. It enabled me to work alone and to find a very personal expression.

How does it feel now that you do it professionally?

I love drawing and telling stories, and I feel empowered by doing it professionally. But there are downsides. Lebanon is also very capitalistic. People are obsessed with money and status. It’s strange to be a cartoonist here because people don’t even know it’s a thing you can do for a living. In fact, money is often pretty bad, almost abusive. Also, making a comic requires much more time and patience than people imagine. It can feel lonely. It’s not like being on a film set with a crew, you know? I mean, I say that, but I would go crazy if I had to work with a big group all the time. (laughs)


You do illustrations for underground music groups and venues. What’s your relationship with music?

I like fast-paced, high energy types of music. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of rap. There are a lot of great new artists doing rap in Arabic. There’s this Algerian singer that I liked a lot, Rachid Taha. Not just his music, but his position as someone in between genres and escaping from a fixed categorization and identity.

What was it like living and creating in Beirut?

I loved living in Beirut. I found it much more interesting to live there than anywhere else. It is a very dense city with a sense of adventure and intensity that I haven’t felt in other places. There are a tone of different cultures and communities through which you can fluidly pass, as if from one world to another. Beirut is also visually fascinating, full of textures and saturated places. There’s always something telling a story somewhere. But, of course, the city can be too oppressive and existentially troubling. There are unresolved issues and violence in the air.

The creative scene is magical and with a strong sense of community. Everyone knows each other. I could always find someone to collaborate with—musicians, visual artists, alternative-space managers. We were setting up events, like exhibitions, book launches, or live drawing concerts all the time. All very organically. Once, we even threw a live drawing concert on the street during the revolution. We gave some beers to a guy who had a truck there with some power, hooked in a projector, pulled out a camera, found some musicians, and just did the thing. And yes, there was a lot of partying too, mingled with all this creativity. (laughs)

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes. My work sometimes deals with feminist issues and themes. And, of course, I long for the destruction of patriarchy and toxic masculinity. Sometimes I even dream of matriarchy. At least for a few years (to set the balance). But I experience no issues for being a woman in the arts, and there are a lot of women in drawing right now that are doing great in their careers.

What’s Lebanon like for the LGBTQ+ communities?

That’s a big question, and maybe I’m not the best person to answer. I’m usually in safe and alternative spaces, bubbles where there are no issues with whatever your gender or identity is. Of course, it gets more complicated on the broader level of society. I think Lebanon is safer than it used to be and better than some of our neighboring countries. But it’s still nuanced. You can’t get arrested for being or looking queer anymore, but society is predominantly patriarchal and hetero-normative.


Beirut Explosion

What about religion? What’s your experience with it and does it reflect on your work?

I have a Christian background, but my family is barely religious. Lebanese Christians were historically very close to fascists, and a lot of them have a sense of superiority to other communities. That made me reject this “identity.”

Religion in Lebanon is more about identity than spirituality—and still very tied to politics. Sometimes I feel like people with similar religious expressions look like they belong to a sports team or something like that. But I like how it manifests itself through rituals and signs. To be in a space where you can witness all these different expressions is interesting. Religion doesn’t influence my work so much, but I like observing it or depicting it. You can’t ignore it. It’s all over the landscape.

We saw a drawing named ‘Beirut Explosion.’ Is it based on your experience?

I made it for an article where I testified on experiencing the Beirut explosion from abroad. So yes, it’s based on my experience. Beyond that, it’s the experience of everyone who was in that same situation: glued to a phone, trying to make sense of the overwhelming horror and damage. It was strange. Consciously you’re grieving, sad, horrified, feeling helpless. But you experience everything from a different time and space, completely disconnected from it. Eventually, I had to go to New York to be with friends and family from Lebanon. It helped. Still, it was very surreal not to hug my friends, grieve together, and comfort each other.



How’s life in the USA now? How do you find that your work reacts to the new environment?

It’s still very strange. I am away from everything I’ve ever known and the dynamics of my previous life. Here I feel more like a distant observer. I can’t fully be a part of this new environment yet.

In a series of drawings I did lately for the Beirut Art Center, I drew myself in these new surroundings, going through my small identity crisis and trying to have a bit of fun and discover all these new things. I’m also drawing what it’s like to observe the US with an amused newcomer’s outlook on things.

I can’t say that I’m viscerally linked to the issues here yet, nor do I grasp their nuances as much as I did in Lebanon. But it’s fascinating to be here and witness all the political events, riots, and changes that have been happening. To experience a very different society gives me perspective. It’ll be fun doing more work based on this sense of displacement.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Yes! I’m part of three collectives. Samandal is for the advancement of comic art in Lebanon, and we do outstanding work publishing anthologies, books, and open call magazines. Zeez revolves around the themes of revolution and protests. We aim to be a truthful alternative to mainstream media. Mechta is the most recent of them, a non-mixed collective of women, mostly based in France, created during confinement.



Like this post? Check Tracy Chehwan’s Website/Instagram

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