Can Art Get You in Trouble?

March 16, 2018

You are probably familiar with comic books. They’re usually funny and artistic, and they can tell amazing stories. Now what if cartoons did a little more than that? Political cartoons, for example, are supposed to reflect funny but important views of the world. President Benjamin Franklin is said to have drawn a political cartoon titled Join, or Die to encourage states to unite against the British (Can you tell from the picture what each section of the snake represents?).

By Benjamin Franklin via United States Library of Congress Public Domain

Today, cartoonists are storytelling many aspects of the news … and sometimes getting into trouble for it. Recently, cartoonist Ramón Esono Ebalé from Equatorial Guinea (near West Africa) was arrested because his art critiqued the country’s leader, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Esono’s art shows the inequality that exists in Equatorial Guinea. He published a book of drawings, Obi’s Nightmare, that shows what would happen if the leader woke up one day as a common man.

Interestingly enough, cartoons can elicit both positive and negative reactions. Equatorial Guineans found that Esono’s book represents the reality they face every day, but the leader was not happy. For starters, the art itself exaggerates the leader looks and was thus considered offensive. Secondly, cartoons can sometimes seem like they are poking fun of or joking about things, and Mbasago thought his leadership, his way of working, and how he views his country’s people were being mocked. The more popular the book got, the more people started to use it as a way of critiquing the leader. So what did the leader do? Well, Mbasogo had Esono arrested and put into jail, citing a false charge of counterfeiting money. But on February 27th, all charges against the cartoonist were dropped, and he was allowed to go back to his family outside the country.

On one hand, poking fun at leaders and those in authority—even with art—can be considered offensive, and in some countries, the government can impose harsh punishment. Artists argue, on the other hand, that freedom of speech and expression should allow them to use art to share their views, even if they are political and not always agreeable.

If you are a budding cartoonist, we would love to see which news topics you think could be transformed into a cartoon!