Michal Boncza Ozdowski is a cartoonist with a difference. In a freewheeling chat with him PREMA MANMADHAN finds out that cartoons can be used on as diverse subjects like climate change
Say cartoons and what do you visualise? A politician occupying prime space with some text, maybe, or another hero of the moment/villain of the piece amidst a topical issue, full of satire. Full stop. That cartoons can be used for diverse other purposes like educating the masses on climate change, familiarising workers with their rights and policies, is news to us. That's what Michal Boncza Ozdowski, trustee, Ken Sprague Fund, UK, has been doing for the last many years.
This cartoon expert was here in the city for a workshop for cartoonists, cartoons on climate change, on the history of cartoons and caricature in Britain, where he is based now, and on the importance of the cartoon as a universal medium. Ken Sprague Fund, with the British Council had organised an international cartoon contest on climate change last year. An exhibition of the best entries is up on show at the Press Club till March 6.
“I am surprised at the number of women who are interested in cartooning in India. There are a few women among the prize-winners,” says Michal, during a break at the Bharat Hotel, where the workshop took place.
Cartoons can have more lasting impressions than words in most issues, climate change included. Reason: simpler to comprehend, the wider the spread of the message. And when there is a contest, thoughts are exchanged; the message is clear and the reach wider. That is the aim. We may wonder how such a serious subject can be cartoon material. Here is how. A polar bear with its little one atop its back is balancing on a piece of ice, with a few other pieces of ice floating here and there with a placard that's been put up, saying, ‘Ballet classes, contact 9900000009! Is there a better way to paint a global warming scenario?
Michal's workshop introduced many political cartoons as well as climate change cartoons to the participants. In UK, not many cartoonists are attached to newspapers. Most of them are freelance cartoonists, he says. The era when high brow cartoons that nobody understood were published is gone. “Today, the language is that of the masses and unless the common man understands it, its purpose is lost,” says Michal, who has never worked in the commercial sector at all. A socialist at heart, his talents have so far put to use for union activities and the spread of awareness regarding climate change, which is close to his heart. He translates union policies into simple cartoon strips and graphic novels so that even the uneducated can understand it. Language is no bar. He has a group of people helping him. The figures are drawn and speech bubbles are there into which any language can be written. So, many people speaking different languages can understand the policies better. Wading through almost incomprehensible jargon is beyond common workers and usually they have to rely on others to know their rights.
The cartoon way of communication helps in such situations, says the man who has been into union education in the last 15 years. Likewise, climate change facts. The common man will certainly not go through the reams and reams of paper that records meets like the one at Copenhagen. But if small cartoons that depict the far reaching consequences of global warming are done, people get the idea in a jiffy.
That a cartoonist cannot have a set political view is not right, for if he has no set of views, how can he criticise, reasons Michal. “That cartoonists are blessed with a great sense of humour is also wrong, you know, most of them are not,” he jokes. Though tolerance of criticism through cartoons has declined in many parts of the world, the power of cartoons was manifest in South Africa when Mandela came out of prison, says Michal. “In the elections the ANC brought in top German personnel and the opposition simply fought back with cartoon strips. They won”.
Michal, 62, who was born in Argentina, was for some time in Poland and came to the UK as a young man, finds satisfaction in using his talents both as a cartoonist and an organiser and teacher to further education and awareness among the lesser privileged.
The Kerala leg of the programme was held in partnership with the Kerala Cartoon Academy. “Our cartoonists stick to politics in their works. This programme was organised to popularise other subjects like environment,” says Sudheernath, Secretary. For the British Council, this is part of their Low Carbon Futures Project which focuses on mitigating the effects of climate change in an urban environment, says A J Solomon, Manager Projects, South India. In the evening, there was an open forum organised by these bodies in association with Nanappa Art Gallery, Kerala Kalapeetom, and Ernakulam Press Club.
The cartoon exhibition at the Press Club Art Gallery is open to the public from 11 am to 6 p.m. till March 6.