Brussels, Belgium artist-activist Ben Heine makes powerful criticism through cartoons and illustrations. His work protesting imperialism and other human rights violations has an international following. The prolific and timely drawings range from dark and tough to sweet and tender. Artists in at least a half dozen countries have now dra wn cartoons of him.
Heine’s work, particularly that relating to the crisis in Gaza, came under the notice of thousands of U.S. bloggers last year after his diaries, along with a handful of others, were banned from Daily Kos for their pro-Palestinian slant. In a reaction that’s become familiar, site members equated sympathy for Palestinians with being anti-Israel, or even anti-Jew, and Heine and others were given the boot.
On the bright side, the flap gave him a wider U.S. audience and solidified the radical artist’s resolve. He is part of a fascinating brotherhood and sisterhood of journalists and artists that are networking all over the globe and fighting wars and imperialsm their way.
Interviewed recently by phone, Heine talked about why he chose to get involved in the Palestinian struggle and who inspires him.
Are you a full-time artist?
Yeah, I try. I do that as a free lancer. I do work for some Belgian publications, the Le Monde Diplomatique, and some other magazines.
One of the great things with the Internet is that it allows you to be published everywhere around the world.
A lot of your illustrations depict what is going on in Gaza. What led you to get involved in the Israel–Palestine issue?
Illustrations are a great way for activists to communicate information and help complete the purpose of an article. It’s the way I choose to make people think and maybe change their behavior. Sometimes it works.
I focus especially on Palestine and Israel because I think it’s one of the most important issues nowadays. I mean, several people die every week there, mostly Palestinians. I was really shocked by this a long time ago and decided to do something with my art.
Each time Israel attacks Palestine, I try to bring out a new drawing. I try to be fair and to bring the truth to people’s eyes and also respect the ideas of writers who also want to convey the facts and the reality. The reality is that people are being oppressed by another people. Yes, I think that’s one of the reasons I draw for Palestine.
Your drawings evoke emotions from sadness to outrage. Do you think that’s what it takes to wake people up to the reality of the violence in the Middle East?
I think there is something in a drawing that’s very different from a photo. There’s a need with drawings to use symbols and other stuff like that to make people think in a different way. With a photo it would be easy just to show dead people which would shock people even more. With a drawing you can use symbols which is a very, very useful way of making people aware of a situation, and you can also make comparisons. I’m not sure if it’s important to shock people. It’s more important to make them think. And a drawing doesn’t need to be realistic – – it needs to be symbolic, coh erent, logical and respect reality.
Can an illustration can be more effective than a photograph in some instances?
I absolutely agree with that. It’s possible with illustrations to use symbols and also to add some personal opinion, which is not possible in photos. A photo is a transcription of one’s opinion, but it’s cold, it’s without a frame, in a way. I think both photos and cartoons can be interpreted in the wrong way. They always need a word by the artist or a word by the author of an article which would explain the piece.
You have a unique style. Is there anyone that influenced you?
I’m not especially influenced by other illustrators but I’m inspired by other kinds of artists, singers, writers, novelists, photographers, anyone expressing what they think and denouncing things that are happening in the wrong way, according to them or the majority or minority of people somewhere. There is a British artist, Banksy, who has been a big inspiration in recent years and the [self-exiled Israeli] musician Gilad Atzmon.
Isn’t there an illustration of Atzmon on your web site? You have a large gallery of illustrations and caricatures you’ve done of activists from around the world.
Yeah, I did Atzmon. I didn’t do an illustration of Banksy because one of the popular mysteries of Banksy is that nobody knows his face. That’s funny.
There is also an amazing blogger and a good friend, Steve Amsel, who is writing every day about Palestine and Israel. Another who writes about this issue is Mary Rizzo. She has a blog called peacepalestine. I met her a few weeks ago in Brussels. She was here to attend the International Citizen’s Tribunal on Lebanon, February 22-24. It was to be a trial over what happened in the Lebanon War, but there was no Israeli representative. It was really sad. There were only Lebanese people from the Midd le East, but no Israeli representative. Because of that no one would accept what was said at the trial. [The tribunal found the Israeli state guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide for its 2006 war in Lebanon.]
Yes, well thanks for the time and for taking my call at this late hour (10:30 p.m. in Brussels).
No, it’s really not that late. It’s really a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk with you. Excuse me for my French accent. It’s terrible.
No, it’s beautiful. It’s great.
Okay. Have a good evening, and see you soon on the Web.
KATHLYN STONE is an independent journalist and publishes Flesh and Stone.net, a health and science news site.
Ben Heine web sites: