Interview with Gihan de Chickera

Though political cartoons are a symptom of an older era of print journalism, their enduring relevance today could be attributed to the distinct niche they hold within the genre. Political cartoons have the simultaneous ability to critique and amuse, and thus balance comic tones with arresting poignancy. It is an ability reminiscent of the courtly position of a jester, whose unique role is inescapably political, allowing him to question the nature of courtier society and provoke thoughtful criticism through the guise of humour. Similarly, political cartoonists wield satire and wit to critique the power structures inherent in society, harnessing comedy as a medium to convey political sentiments in a condensed and articulate manner to the public.

In unravelling the nuances of Gihan’s cartoon works for ARTRA’s Comics & Caricatures Edition, we had the opportunity to converse with him as he delved into his journey as a cartoonist. He pertinently reflected upon the changing space political cartoons occupy within the overarching landscape of modern media, and the impact of digital content on the consumption of its medium.

Q | What inspired you to be a cartoonist? Please share your journey.

 Like all kids, I loved drawing. In the 1980s and ‘90s, my schoolbooks were full of random doodles. I used old exercise books to draw up characters and situations, both real and imagined. I loved the comic pages in the newspapers and of course Wijesoma’s political cartoons. The cartoon characters I saw in books and on TV intrigued me—especially the likes of Asterix, Tintin, and Calvin and Hobbes. When I realized I was quite good at drawing big noses and funny faces, I kept doing it more and more and enjoyed it more and more. Many years later in 2004 when I interviewed for the post of journalist at Daily Mirror I showed the then Editor Mr Lalith Alahakoon some of my illustrations, and was thrilled when he allowed me one cartoon a week. That was my big break, and I’ve been drawing political cartoons ever since.

Q | How do you approach your cartoon drawings? Please share your artistic process whereby you find a balance between the visual & critique, alongside symbols, parodies etc.

Using visual metaphors, or symbols, to convey a message is almost like learning a new language. We’re essentially conditioned to think in words. To recondition ourselves to think visually is quite challenging. But we also must be mindful not to overuse symbols. That can be disastrous to a cartoon. Cartoonists must also stay informed to respond better to the world of politics. As you mature you learn to notice trends and patterns rather than see events in isolation. We cartoonists spend a lot of time staring into space, seemingly doing nothing; but a lot is going on in our heads. Time-wise, there are days I spend hours on a cartoon and it flops, and then there are days I scribble something quickly, and it’s a hit. The bottom line is, once a cartoon is out there—especially with social media being what it is—it takes a life of its own.  

Q | Your works are seeped in anthropomorphism, how does this contribute to your meaning-making?

Attributing human characteristics to non-human objects or animals is integral to cartooning. It’s what makes a cartoon distinct from other art forms. Such personifications can add to the humour, or poignancy of a cartoon. It’s also a way of reminding ourselves that humans don’t always have to be the centre of attention. And sometimes it’s as simple as drawing the pot calling the kettle black. 

Q | In your opinion, is there still a place for cartoon drawings to create a strong impact, or have more modern forms overshadowed them? If so, what forms are they, and please share your thoughts on its evolution across the years, from how you see it.

Memes and short satirical video clips are definitely healthy competition for cartoons. I often see a good meme and wonder why I didn’t think of that. But political cartoons still do create a strong impact. Maybe not on the newspaper page itself, but on social media, definitely. I think that’s a reflection of how new media functions. The platforms where cartoons are shared are evolving rather than the art form itself. This of course isn’t something unique to cartoons—it’s happening across the board. I’ve also seen cartoons and caricatures used a lot in protests—especially youth-led ones.

Q | You have been engaged in the performance arts alongside the visual, has it/to what extent has your participation in the former contributed to your practice, and how?

Although I know that at some level each art form has influenced the other—I cannot quite pinpoint precise examples of how or when it happens. Certainly, when I draw characters in a situation I think about their feeling and expressions, and my experience as a stage actor has helped in this. Likewise, when I act I’m able to notice and respond to moments of humour and satire—which could be due to my work as a cartoonist.

Gihan de Chickera is a political cartoonist and journalist with an illustrious career behind him. He has held a distinguished tenure at the Daily Mirror newspaper for nearly two decades and has won numerous local and international accolades such as ‘Cartoonist of the Year’ at the Journalism Awards for Excellence in 2012, the merit for the same in 2015, and was selected to participate in the United States International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) for political cartoonists from South Asia and the Middle East in 2011.

In a curated collection of over 60 caricature and cartoon drawings from Aubrey Collette, and Bevis Bawa, the works of Gihan de Chickera are featured in ARTRA Magazine’s latest Comics & Caricatures Edition, consisting of works published and exhibited from 1946 to September 2023. Each work was selected on its importance in addressing a critical question of the time in expert draughtsmanship and creative prowess, alongside exclusive literary articles by venerated writers dissecting the nuances and potency of these works, including The Potency of Satire in Comics and Caricatures, The Bawa of Brief, among others.

2nd December, 2023 Visual Art | Paintings