Caricature during the 2011 Libyan Civil War
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The revolution in Libya turned into an armed conflict and a civil war. That war ended with the capture and killing of Libya’s ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, on 20 October 2011. An artistic lampooning and ridicule of the notorious leader pepper Libya's streets, walls, and ground.
Gaddafi's cult of personality
The cult of Gaddafi's leadership was expressed in a wide variety regime-sanctioned images and objects, including postage stamps, wrist watches, posters, rugs, postcards and other paraphernalia.
In their exploration of the history and significance of caricature, art historian E.H.Gombrich and psychoanalyst and art historian Ernst Kris note: "From a sophisticated studio joke, thrown off for the amusement of the artist’s intimates, caricature had become a social weapon unmasking the pretension of the powerful and killing by ridicule."
"A caricature," they say, "may be more like the person than he is himself."
Objects of caricature
One of the most common images in revolutionary Libya's caricatures is Muammar Gaddafi's clothing. The Libyan leader created for himself a distinctive form of dress that featured flowing robes, often with rich and deep colors, a small round cap, jewelry, as well as other insignia. In 2008 Gaddafi was declared "King of Kings" by 200 African kings and other rulers who supported his vision of pan-African unity and many of his outfits expressed this "royal" image.
During the 2011 Libyan civil war his opponents satirized his style of dress in order to demean the leader and express their animosity toward him.
Gaddafi’s hair also frequently is lampooned in Libya's street art. In real life Gaddafi's hair was curly and he wore it relatively long, allowing it to flow out from the sides of his cap.
His opponents referred to him derisively as "shafshufa", a Libyan colloquial expression for "bad hair" or "crazy, frizzy hair".
In one graffiti image spray-painted on a street in Tripoli, Gaddafi is depicted as a rat, complete with "shafshoofa" hair and his signature cap. The image recalls Gaddafi’s criticism of his opponents as "rats", as noted in this Australian television report: "Dressed in a matching light-brown robe, scarf and turban, and wearing glasses, Mr. Gaddafi told the public to 'capture the rats', apparently referring to anti-regime demonstrators."
Christiane Gruber, an expert in Islamic art at the University of Michigan wrote, "street art and graffiti are often likened to violent acts", forming a "speedy 'bombing’ of the urban landscape, with the visual and textual messages part and parcel of an artist's armory. From images plastered anywhere and everywhere to those mounted singly in high-profile areas, muralists indeed use the artistic equivalents to carpet bombing and strategic strikes."
Some satirical representations of Gaddafi employ actual photographs, manipulated to insult the ruler. In one image, a photograph displayed in a storefront on Fashloom Street, Tripoli, Gaddafi's face is superimposed on a picture of an African king, along with his many wives. The original photo is that of Joseph Langanfin, King of Dahomey, Benin, taken by Daniel Lainé in 1990.
During and shortly after the war depictions of Gaddafi hung in effigy in Libyan cities. E.H. Gombrich and Ernst Kris wrote that the roots of caricature include insulting representations in which punishments, including hanging in effigy, were carried out.
Daniel Freedberg, in The Power of Images, called execution in effigy a symbolic statement: "It exemplifies the kind of punishment the miscreant would have received had he been present or alive; or it even exaggerates it."
On Tripoli’s shop-lined Fashloom Street, Gaddafi effigies were suspended over the road in full view of people on the sidewalks and in cars. Gaddafi, depicted in his elaborate robes, hung by his neck.
Freedberg noted, "If one could be honored by means of an image, one could also be dishonored by one."
"As with images of political leaders," he continues, "we deal with the feeling, unexpressed though it may be, that by damaging the representation one damages the person whom it represents. At the very least, something of the disgrace of mutilation or destruction is felt to pass on to the person represented."
In Libyan revolutionary images, another form of insult is defacing images of Gaddafi that were meant to glorify him. In Arab societies stepping on something with a shoe, showing the sole of a shoe or throwing a shoe is a serious insult.
At the entrances to many public buildings rugs, posters and other depictions of the ruler are placed on the ground in such a way as to make it impossible to avoid stepping on his face.
In the image to the left, a rebel soldier in heavy boots stands on a rug woven with an image of Gaddafi placed strategically at the threshold of a hotel.
The Libyan flag also is used in graffiti and other images as an anti-Gaddafi symbol. It often is painted on walls, store fronts and garage doors in many Libyan cities. In revolutionary and post-war Libya it is sewn into clothing, used in wrist bands and in women’s jewelry.
The flag of the Libyan civil war and, now, the nation's official flag, is the flag of the Kingdom of Libya, introduced in 1951, when Libya won its independence from Italy. Its new incarnation is a rejection of the plain green, unadorned flag which Gaddafi adopted in 1977, a visual reference to his "Green Book" of political philosophy.
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- Gruber, Christiane (2011). Strategic Strikes: War and Disaster in Mural Arts from Iran to America. Austin: University of Texas Press.
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- Gombrich, Kris, E.H., Ernst (1952). Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. New York City: International Universities Press. p. 194.
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- Freedberg, David (1989). The Power of Images. p. 260.
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