ISSUE 3: CREATIVE RESISTANCE | NOVEMBER 2022 | PİYALE MADRA | Cartoons that fight against taboos

Cartoons that fight against taboos

Cartoonists resort to indirect narratives on subjects they otherwise find suffocating; they make references and associations by experimenting with allegory and abstraction.

Ademler ve Havvalar || Courtesy of Piyale Madra

In 1996, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, the exhibition Bir Sofra (One Table), curated by Beral Madra, was held at the BM Contemporary Art Centre in Istanbul to showcase important women artists in Turkey.[1] Bir Sofra was a reference to Judy Chicago's 1979 work The Dinner Party, from the permanent collection of Brooklyn Museum. Chicago’s installation addresses the erasure of women’s legacy in history, using a triangular table to symbolise equality and break the cycle of this omission. The 39 place settings, arranged in chronological order, each honour historical and mythical women, including goddesses, saints, poets, writers, queens, wives, and mothers. The installation was exhibited in 16 venues across six countries.

In Bir Sofra, 20 artists were given a white plate with which to create a work of art. What emerged were ironic works that examined concepts such as gender, the roles assigned to women, and the commodification of women in our country. Each artist expressed herself indirectly. As in cartooning, it was about finding a way to draw the unsayable. I used my plate as a palette and called it Kocacığım Bugün Yemek Yapmadım, Resim Yaptım (My Dear Husband, I Didn’t Cook Today, I Painted).

Cartoonists resort to indirect narratives on subjects they otherwise find suffocating; they make references and associations by experimenting with allegory and abstraction. Indirect approaches to the subject can create different perspectives that multiply with each person who ‘views’ or ‘reads’ the cartoon, well beyond what the cartoonist originally sought to reflect. I have observed this many times with ‘Piknik’ (Picnic), my comic strip published in Milliyet newspaper for 14 years, then Cumhuriyet. One time, an abstract cartoon I drew was censored by the editors for being political when my intention was completely different. Cartoonists face a double censorship, first obstructed by herself, then the publication.

Yet I believe cartooning is best described by the expression, ‘Wherever something is wrong, that’s where you’ll find a cartoon.’ Our country is an oasis for cartoonists in that sense.

Because cartoons reflect the realities of society, the art form has always troubled the executive power. The censorship limits of each country and each period are different. Today, it doesn’t seem possible to stage Yeni Binyılın Eşiğinde İnançlar Uluslararası Karikatür Sergisi (Faiths on the Threshold of the New Millennium International Cartoon Exhibition), which was held at the Schneidertempel Art Centre, Istanbul, Turkey, in 1999.[2]

On the other hand, cartoons still manage to appear in oppressive and restrictive countries, like water finding its own level. In the Aydın Doğan International Cartoon Contest, in which I am a member of the jury, the best cartoons always come from Iran, and Iranian female cartoonists have won many awards over the years.

Nahid Zamani, Aydın Doğan International Cartoon Contest, Success Award, 2016 || Source:

Women who think, smile, and make others laugh

In 1914, a work by our country’s first female illustrator Fatma Zehra appeared on the cover of Leylak, published just once with the subtitle ‘Women’s Humour Magazine’. Özden Öğrük’s ‘Çılgın Bediş’ (Crazy Bediş) appeared in Gırgır, which began publishing in 1972, and was followed by Ramize Erer’s ‘Biz Bıyıksızlar’ (We, the Moustacheless), and ‘Kötü Kız’ (Bad Girl), helping to lay the groundwork for Bayan Yanı magazine in 2011.[3] A century after Leylak, Bayan Yanı brings together 20 illustrators to tackle women’s problems in different languages and with different characters. I believe its true strength is that it touches upon sexual taboos. Unfortunately, the censorship that women apply to themselves in life is also reflected in their drawings. While men can easily talk about sex, it can still be taboo for women.

Ademler ve Havvalar || Courtesy of Piyale Madra

If only all women realised that basic human rights are conferred upon them by birth. Sadly, we live in a world where men see women’s rights as a favour, and even some women see it as such.

If we consider that we live in a society in which families have scolded their girls, ‘Don't laugh too much!’ throughout the ages, it is easy to understand why so few women engage and lag behind in this art form that is based on making people think and laugh.

Cartooning requires being open to the world and keeping a finger on the pulse of society. But women are told they must stay at home and prepare dumplings!

Speaking of dumplings, here’s to bright days with plenty of dumplings against censorship …


Translation by Ayla Jean Yackley

  1. Artists Ebru Acar, Ayla Aksungur, Hale Arpacıoğlu, Elvan Alpay, Selda Asal, Bala Anduru, Fatma Başoğlu, Hülya Botasun, Sebla Eczacıbaşı, Nilüfer Ergin, Esra Ersen, Tuba Ersen, İnci Eviner, Anna Fairchild, Candeğer Furtun, Suzy Hug Levy, Piyale Madra, Şeyma Reisoğlu Nalça, Leyla Sakpınar, Gonca Sezer, Şehnaz Sayar, Seyhun Topuz, and Müşerref Zeytinoğlu participated in Bir Sofra, which was held from March 6 to 12, 1996.
  2. This exhibition invited the world’s leading illustrators, including Polish graphic artist Janusz Kapusta whose submission bore an image of the prophet Muhammed’s face and was therefore rejected. Kapusta responded that organisers could cover his face with white paint, demonstrating a tolerance and respect for religion. Six years later, the publication of 12 caricatures of the prophet in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper sparked year-long worldwide protests, even leading to uprisings in some Muslim nations.
  3. ‘Bayan Yanı’ literally means ‘next to a lady’ and refers to a gendered practice of public transportation in Turkey: women sit next women, men sit next to men.