Comix Creatrix: Curators' Q&A

In conversation with co-curator Paul Gravett, Olivia Ahmad talks about the inspiration and processes behind Comix Creatrix

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  • Exhibitions

Paul Gravett: Why do women need to be given their own exhibition of comics art?

Olivia Ahmad: Women have been creating comics for centuries (since at least the 18th century in fact!), but for a long time their contributions haven’t been as thoroughly recognised as those by their male counterparts in research, books and exhibitions.

This is changing at an exciting pace: historians like underground comix pioneer Trina Robbins have been investigating and writing about forgotten work by women comic artists and cartoonists.

Then there's the Marie Duval archive by Simon Grennan, Roger Sabin and Julian White, which has rightly re-stated Duval as a 19th century groundbreaker.

Exhibitions like Sarah Lightman's Graphic Details have celebrated the work of women making comics today. Women are active stall holders and attendees of comics conventions and fairs around the world.

Despite all this, there is still a popular view that comics are made by men – and this misconception is even apparent in the comics industry itself. The Director of the Angoulême International comics festival recently said that there were “few women in the history of comics art”. These views need to be proactively challenged.

Female artists working in the past have certainly been unfairly forgotten and deserve to be recognised. I don’t think women working today need to be given an exhibition exactly (they are doing their thing with gusto!), but I think the work they have done and are doing commands one.

PG: What criteria helped you select who to exhibit?

OA: It has been incredibly difficult to come to 100 – there are and have been so many incredible creators that it would be difficult to narrow it down to 200 or more!

Because House of Illustration is based in the UK, we have work from many British creators. However of course comics don’t really have borders, and we have included influential and definitive international work – from early American superhero comics to some of the incredibly exciting work being published online by creators around the world.

As the 'Comix' of the title would suggest, we have mostly concentrated on comics aimed at an adult readership. We do feature some artists whose work was intended for girls' comics, such as Shirley Bellwood's 'Misty'. It felt important to recognise this type of work, as they have influenced many readers and creators.

Comix Creatrix is not a 'complete history' or definitive list of women comic artists – we want to continue the conversation beyond what we feature in the exhibition. We’d love to hear about your favourite creators, past and present – tell us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr.

PG: What range of work are you showing in terms of period, genre, nationality?

OA: Quite a broad one! The earliest piece is from the 1700s, and the most recent was made this year. Something that was really important to us was demonstrating that women dont make one particular type of comic – they work with all kinds of subject matter and take a massive range of aesthetic approaches. We're showing work by Fay Dalton for 2000AD, Kate Evans' recent biography of Rosa Luxemburg and Audrey Niffenegger's The Night Bookmobile – all very different from each other.

The creators are of many different nationalities, but most are/were based in the UK or have been published here.

PG: Who are the most surprising women whose work features and what makes them special?

OA: All are surprising and special of course! But here are a few:

The earliest work in the exhibition is by Mary Darly. In the mid 1700s, Mary ran a print shop in London and created caricatures of politicians and satirized fashionable ladies. It is thought that she drew the first 'how to' book on caricature – not too shabby!

Kripa Joshi is a creator from Nepal based in the UK. I love her heroine Miss Moti, whose realistic stature is a riposte to the hyper-sexualised female superheroes of old.

British creator Una's book Becoming Unbecoming is a personal account of violence experienced at the same time as the hunt for the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe. Its contrasting of the media sensationalism and personal experiences creates a powerful and damning description of the way that many women are made to feel blamed for the abusive actions of others.

Nadine Redlich is based in Germany. Her Ambient Comics are the opposite of some of the more high-octane comics that we're showing. They portray quiet minute moments, like a crack appearing in a wall. They are almost meditative, but then make you laugh!

PG: What effects do you hope Comix Creatrix will have?

OA: There are so many different types of work represented in the exhibition that I hope that there will be lots of different ripples!

Generally I hope that people will be inspired by the diversity of comics by women.

I hope that people who are comics experts and enthusiasts will enjoy seeing original works by artists they know well and discover some work that they haven't seen before, and that people who might know little about comics beyond Hollywood blockbusters will discover what a powerful and versatile form comics are and become hooked!

My big hope is that some future creators might be in attendance and come away inspired by the amazing range of work that is welcomed in the world of comics – particularly women!

Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics runs until 15 May. You can download a free digital guide to the exhibition courtesy of SEQUENTIAL, the iPad app for digital graphic novels.