By Patrice Worthy
Armed with a pencil, Michel Kichka has influenced political thought all over the world.
One of Israel’s most popular political cartoonists and caricaturists, Kichka has received the Chevalier Des Arts Et Des Lettres from the French Culture Ministry and serves as the head of the Israeli Cartoonists Guild. An editorial cartoonist for Israeli and French TV networks, Kichka crosses cultural barriers with his criticism to expose the humanity in political issues.
No one is immune from Kichka’s darts, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Catholic Church and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Kichka joined Cartooning for Peace, an organization of 140 press cartoonists dedicated to promoting freedom, tolerance, justice, and respect for people of different cultures and religions. His work is part of the Cartooning for Peace exhibit “The Art of Democracy,” in Atlanta during Elevate Atlanta from Oct. 13 to 21.
“The Art of Democracy” will be on free display at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Peachtree Street from 6 to 9 p.m. daily from Oct. 14 to 20 and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 21.
Elevate Atlanta is a public art festival launched by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. This year Elevate partnered with France-Atlanta: Together Towards Innovation to host several French artists on Broad Street downtown.
Kichka answered questions from the AJT.
AJT: You moved from Belgium to Israel in 1974. How has that experience influenced your work?
Kichka: I would not define this as an experience but as a personal, crucial choice in my life as a young adult to set my future in Israel forever. I could keep my Belgian nationality, but today, after 42 years in Israel, I feel 100 percent Israeli.
Anyhow, it has influenced every single detail in my life and even more my work. I’m lucky to have a double culture together with a deep understanding of both mentalities, the Western European and the Middle East Israeli. As a lover of my country, I have the legitimacy to criticize it strongly.
AJT: In your opinion, does cartooning give criticism or satire a level of power or expression that would otherwise be lost using other forms of media?
Kichka: Cartoon is a very powerful form of art because of its immediate visual impact on the eye of the reader/surfer. It has the ability to condense complex situations in one single, sophisticated frame. It has the courage to tease the so-called red lines, to overpass limits, to ignore political correctness, to express strong opinions, to make people react, smile, laugh, get angry and pissed off. For readers, cartooning is an important daily meeting since the birth of the press. Cartoonists are expected to go too far, or as far as they are able to.
AJT: Were you ever afraid to criticize the Israeli government and its leaders? Or any other leader?
Kichka: Never! I began my career as a cartoonist drawing live in a very popular morning TV show. I had no chief editor who could see my cartoons before they were shown on screen, and I learned to draw my limits by myself, which I can call “loving criticism.”
AJT: Tell me why Israel identifying as a democracy and a Jewish state is important to Israel and its citizens — and why you chose to address this issue.
Kichka: Israel has been conceived and created as a Jewish state, the only country on Earth where Jews would be able to live freely as Jews, not persecuted, not exterminated, not suffering of anti-Semitism, not having to live as inferior citizens. Israel is an emigration land, as the States were at the beginning. A young country with big achievements and even bigger future when peace will come.
AJT: Did you ever think your honesty would get you as far as it has?
Kichka: No! Frankly, no. The experience of cartooning built me as someone who had to express freely his ideas, opinions, points of view, and the reactions around gave me the courage to put my truth on the paper with no fear.
AJT: Why did you decide to join Cartooning for Peace?
Kichka: I was invited by Plantu to take part in the first Cartooning for Peace seminar at the U.N. in New York (2006), and I became naturally a foot soldier armed with a pencil and a profound humanity. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I saw that as a mission.
AJT: How did Charlie Hebdo change your perspective or work as a political cartoonist? Did it give you more impetus to fight for justice and tolerance?
Kichka: Charlie Hebdo was a terrible personal shock to me. I knew four of the five cartoonists who were shot. My understanding is that their legacy and their message to us, cartoonists, is “Don’t give up! Don’t be afraid to express yourself!” I felt like I have an extra mission: not giving the terrorists, wherever they are, the feeling that they succeed to terrorize the free world. I say that not only as an independent cartoonist, but also as a member of Cartooning for Peace, whose moto is “Unlearning intolerance.”
AJT: Recently you’ve criticized American police brutality against black Americans. The scene was from the cover of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” What were you trying to convey?
Kichka: I did it several times when it was needed and when the media were putting these acts of violence in the heart of their news. Quoting the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” cover illustration in a cartoon where Obama himself was the slave was a way to oblige people to think of what has been achieved since the abolition of slavery in the U.S. and what is still to be done.
AJT: Your “Second Generation” graphic novel is now being adapted into an animated feature. How important was it to share the unique perspective on the Holocaust?
Kichka: “Second Generation” is a graphic novel that I planned in my head for years before I began to create it. I was deeply convinced that it was important to deliver my story to the world because I felt its message was universal. My family story is the story of a whole generation of children of Holocaust survivors, not only mine. Doing it with humor but also with some criticism toward my father was a real challenge, and I was glad and happy to see that it has touched so many people, including survivors — including my father himself (who is 90), who learned to appreciate and to love it.