Historical significance of editorial cartoons

Knowledge Mushowe Art Zone
Editorial cartooning is not a recent phenomenon. Evidence has been found suggesting that the cartoon has been part of the human experience for centuries. What is believed to be the oldest existing caricature was discovered recently in Egypt and dates from about 1360 BC.

Since then editorial cartoons have established a special place within society and have become an essential part of any country’s culture and the various types of cartoon subjects seen in a society reflect the values and beliefs common to the culture at that time.

An editorial cartoon has a tripartite role as a culture-creating, culture-maintaining, culture-identifying artifact. Cartoonists succeed in this tripartite role by emotionally detaching themselves from society, commenting on issues as if they were neither involved in nor affected by the highlighted topics. However, the effectiveness of the cartoon is limited by the reader’s knowledge of the issues and contexts surrounding it. This means that the cartoonist must gauge the community’s familiarity with the topic of the day and choose images to express her or his opinion succinctly and appropriately.

The economy of the cartoon form ensures that the artist has a limited space in which to make his or her point; while, as several scholars have so far noted, this intensifies the immediate impact of the cartoon. It also limits the cartoonists’ control of the message, since it is the reader who must decode the cartoon’s visual metaphors within an economical, sometimes cryptic, frame. There is no guarantee that every reader gets the same meaning from an editorial cartoon but there is no denying the fact that most editorial cartoons are by nature an attack on the status quo, a diminutive but plucky rebellion against the order of things.

The point of cartooning is not to challenge the status quo though, but to reflect in visual commentary on the socio-political landscape around in a humorous, insightful or pragmatic fashion.

Editorial cartoons are in a way similar to history books in that they highlight topical issues of the day. They are just like the rock paintings found within primitive environments, they reflect the way of life and cultures of people in their geographical location. In Zimbabwe for example, during elections, the main topics, such as sanctions, empowerment, campaigning and main candidates’ profiles are extensively profiled in editorial cartoons.

By analysing editorial cartoons from a particular period and place, it may be possible for one to get a glimpse of what shaped events at that particular time. Though they lack detail and sufficient content to tell a whole story, they do hint on important social and political developments.

In a deeply polarised environment, as was the case in this country in the seventies during the liberation struggle, cartoons may be used as an extension of political ideology. However, even in such a scenario, they provide important information on the political landscape.

Viewing editorial cartoons from a specific time and place that have opposing perspectives may stimulate critical thinking and give a clearer understanding of political and social structures.

In the case of the liberation struggle era, both sides of the political divide were depicted as direct contrasts in opposing cartoons.

This was entirely true. The Rhodesian Front was, in terms of objectives and ideology, the opposite of the liberation fronts. But even in the cartoons that painted the illegal white settler regime as good, it was apparent that the native black population was treated as second class citizens.

The cartoons that showed the nationalists as barbaric terrorists also exhibited signs of racism and hatred by shading their skins with only pale thick lips and eyes punctuating the facial area.

The cartoons therefore showed that the oppressors did not like being challenged by people they considered to be inferior to their race. Cartoons published in the pro-democracy Moto magazine at the time sometimes showed the strained relations between the Rhodesian Front and the general public. They showed how the brutal regime alienated themselves from the people by showing no respect in their interactions with the public.

History books mirror this viewpoint. They show that though Ian Smith’s regime was vastly superior in almost every department they lost the war because they lacked the support of the people, some of whom they had relocated into infertile and restrictive settlements.

The greatest value of editorial cartoons is that they provide expectations concerning which events and issues are worthy of comment, and whatever they depict mirrors the main viewpoints or actions during that era.

Editorial cartoons, though often misleadingly simple in their artistic execution, reveal complex attitudes of certain people at a particular time through the use of complex visual and verbal symbolism. They are bookmarks that reveal important information about history and culture.

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