The Book – and Life – of Sarah
Why Sarah Lightman is so determined to bring exposure to the works of Jewish women comic book writers.
In 2010, artist and journalist Sarah Lightman co-curated the show Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women, which showcased the contributions Jewish women have made to the world of autobiographical comics. This world is a natural fit for Lightman, who created her own autobiographical comic called The Book of Sarah, which she calls “a book of the Bible based on my life story.” It includes everything from sibling rivalries and the deaths of her grandfathers to finding her husband and bearing a son. It is “my own genesis and exodus,” she explains. In the interview below, Lightman shares her passion for creating confessional comics and for helping other Jewish women comics get the exposure they deserve.
Why was it important to you to co-curate Graphic Details and to showcase the contributions that Jewish women have made to the world of autobiographical comics?
As a curator and academic, I believe I have a responsibility in the creation, and correction, of contemporary culture and especially Jewish culture, cultural memory, and knowledge. As a woman and a feminist, I can see art history has been very much that – art HIStory. In this regard, comics are no better, and maybe worse, than other areas of artistic endeavour. A major exhibition of comics earlier this century only showcased work by male comic artists. I recently attended a comics conference in the UK where all the speakers were men, and they only spoke on comics by men. It was like being back with the dinosaurs, but it was happening in the 21st century. And the most common response I get when I mention Graphic Details is the same question – “I know about Will Eisner/Superman/Maus, but I didn’t know Jewish women made comics.”
Why does this happen in this day and age?
The problem is that people have not heard of Jewish women who make comics – not that there aren’t Jewish women making them. In a recent talk I gave at Camberwell College of Art in London, I explained that we only know the artists who get significant opportunities, if they have the big shows in the major museums, feature in catalogues, collections, get major reviews and the like. But these museums were and are still overwhelmingly weighted towards men, even now in the 21st century. Many art schools still have more female students than men, but there is certainly not a 50/50 split in the works at the Tate or the Royal Academy in London. I splutter over my coffee when I read these art magazines, where for page after page, men write about male artists. So, when I gave this talk at Camberwell, to the next generation of artists, I wanted them to know that they are still facing major challenges.
How did you get involved with co-curating the show?
I was spirited into action by my co-curator Michael Kaminer’s article in The Jewish Daily Forward in 2008. I had previously curated exhibitions for the Ben Uri Gallery, the London Jewish Museum of Art, and, though I was working with other artists, I was feeling very isolated with regards to my own practice – namely visual diaries and autobiographical comics. I really missed having enough other Jewish women artists to relate to and reference, so after reading Michael’s article I was thrilled to discover how many more there were.
What did you learn from co-curating the show? Were there any generalizations that could be made about Jewish women comics?
I can’t think of any generalizations about the work, except that the artworks in Graphic Details all have universal appeal, not just to other Jewish women, or men, for that matter. Graphic Details shows how art can survive beyond the immediate event and resonate outside our community, to those beyond, to become a universal currency and language.
And tell us about the book Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews, which you edited. What was your goal of creating an archive?
Yes, Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews is the first book on Jewish women and comics, to be published in June this year by McFarland. I wanted to ensure there was an accessible archive for Graphic Details, a life for this collection of works beyond the exhibition and the press that accompanies it. I wanted future generations of artists and comic artists to have easy access to the works, as well as to the interviews and essays by an array of academics and writers that theorize the works in this show.
One of the things you said that appeals to you in the comics of Jewish women is that there “is a triumph of weakness over strength” and that “admitting your failures and mistakes is rewarded.” Given the emphasis on education and achievement in Judaism, why is this important?
Well, let me answer with a question – how many Jewish parents tell their child, “When you are older I want you to be a comic artist”? Or an artist of any sort, for that matter? I think if you are in the creative arts, you are already “opting out” of the straightjacket of conventional expectations in the Jewish community. You are already on the wrong side of education and achievement in terms of success and prestige. You are free from any expectations and blueprint for how to behave and what line to toe. I also think that the emphasis in Jewish society and culture is about survival, being alive and thriving, “in spite of” what has happened to us. We laugh at the mishaps we make in life, the short straws we pull, and the “wrong” turns, an ongoing celebration of our continuing checkered paths. I think that the personal herstories celebrated in Graphic Details are a microcosm for a national identity built on the recitation of disasters (Tisha B’Av), near misses (Purim), and how we have suffered, yet have still been saved (Pesach). The injection of humour, the beautiful artwork, the unremitting honesty, are all transformational devices to make “losers” into “winners.”
Tell us about The Book of Sarah and what inspired you to create it. I read that, in part, it was a reaction to the fact that most of the women in the Bible figure “mostly as signposts,” and you wanted to create a female voice.
The Book of Sarah is my life work, literally. I started it as I moved away from my religious teenage years, disenfranchised by Modern Orthodoxy and the chorus of apologetics I kept facing with regards to feminism; I began an artwork that took my voice and life and celebrated in a format that was still “owned” by Jewish men. Whereas in my religious life I need permission for certain acts, in art I was free to express and create.
In the Torah, we so often just trace the male lifeline, where women hover around the shadows and sidelines, referenced just as “begetting” the next generation, or briefly acknowledged for baking cakes (see my namesake Sarah). I wanted to make sure women knew their lives, however undistinguished, are and were important. The banal and domestic is newsworthy, profound, and poetic. This is very much in tune with how Jewish life infuses the mundane with spirituality and awareness. I am very excited that The Book of Sarah will now be published as a graphic novel by Myriad Editions in 2015.
About the Author
Sarah Lightman is an award-winning artist who makes autobiographical drawings and animated films. She is also a curator of Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women and PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow. She is the director of Laydeez do Comics. Visit http://www.sarahlightman.com to learn more.
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