An exhibition on ‘Football and Comic Art in Germany’ at the Goethe Institut lays bare the foibles of football culture in a manner that only caricatures can

It was a gathering most unusual for an art show launch: rows of youngsters with their faces painted in Germany’s colours, a football freestyler spinning, dribbling and balancing the ball, the entire Tamil Nadu girls football team, and even former Indian FIFA referee, Pradeep Kumar stood waiting in the crowd. Ahead of Germany’s quarter-final game with France, Goethe Institut was launching its ‘Football and Comic Art in Germany’ exhibition, and fans had trooped in thick and fast far before the match began.

“Life is round; the ball is round, the world is round. And it’s all very serious business, but can easily be made fun of,” said Goethe Institut’s director Helmut Schipper, by way of introductions. Sport has often found its place in art through film or literature, but Germany has, for decades, represented it through caricatures too, explained Helmut. “And football is a caricaturist’s favourite topic because the game reflects our reality; the artistic work around football uses it best to satirise our society,” he said.

Curated in collaboration with Caricatura, an agency for German comic art that hosts over 12,000 caricatures, the exhibition takes humorous jibes at human pretentions through the 50 pieces on display at the Institut’s auditorium, corridors and reception area.

A common thread through several pieces is corruption in football. From the millions that allegedly shifted hands for Qatar to host FIFA’s 2022 World Cup, to red cards “brought to you by Coca Cola,” the exhibition lays bare FIFA’s haloed reputation in a manner only caricatures can. The artists play with gender tropes too: for example, a woman watches entire matches just to see Ronaldo take his shirt off, while in another piece, a woman sends her husband off to buy potatoes, and he pretends paralysis, for the match is just about to screen on television. There’s also a questioning of football and its one-dimensional notion of masculinity: for instance, one sketch wonders how welcome a homosexual footballer would be on the field.

Exaggerated player antics are also apt fodder for artists’ imagination. A man sits before a doctor who raps his knee to check reflexes, and the patient swoons to the floor half dead, referencing Netherlands’ Arjen Robben’s notorious dives. Helmut’s own favourite is a caricature of Afghan women playing football in identical black hijabs, the crowd clueless about whom to root for. While some of these pieces could border on offensive, Helmut says caricaturists aren't meant to be politically correct. On one canvas, an elderly lady sits in her wheelchair as goalkeeper, while her grandson shoots the ball in at an impressive angle, the caption reading “Unstoppable”. “The intention is never to discriminate, just to have a little fun that mirrors the relationship between life and sport,” says Helmut.

One of the challenges to curating a transnational exhibition of art is that culture-specific humour is often lost on, or misinterpreted, in the new context. When Helmut approached Caricatura in Kessel, Germany, for this exhibition, the organisation worked its massive network of artists and put together over 150 pieces in just a few days. Helmut then ran these by Indian football fans, and picked only the 50 whose themes were universal, and jokes accessible. With helpful translations appending each drawing, the pieces range from pencil sketches to paintings to simple hand-drawn or digitally-coloured cartoons, where the message unravels immediately at times, or only after repeated views at others. Most of the pieces are works by established caricaturists working with German newspapers or black humour magazines. The final selection also includes creations by first-timers and a few women as well. Helmut’s hope is to someday curate a similar exhibition of Indian caricaturists’ work for display in Germany.

‘Football and Comic Art in Germany’ is on till July 19, from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.