Immigration has exploded in American political discourse, becoming a part of every candidate’s platform and affecting our relations with the outside world. This debate, obviously, cannot be isolated to the United States but rather exists in every country, to a certain extent.
Students in French 057, a course focused on French comics as an exemplar of cultural and social discourse, and French 045, which looks at French-African cinema in both colonial and post-colonial contexts, investigated the way French comics, or Bande dessinée, illustrates the immigrant experience. Although the project was spearheaded by Professor Alexandra Gueydan-Turek in the French department, students in the class did almost all of the curatorial labor and presented their findings last Wednesday in McCabe library as a capstone. Part of the curatorial process was choosing a topic to investigate within the context of French comics — that too, was left up to the students.
“They all came about and said that they want to work on immigration. One reason among many being that this topic is … very salient in today’s society,” Gueydan-Turek said. “But also, students thought that topic would allow us to intersect both ethical questions of human rights, questions of what is considered legal and illegal, and the strength of the graphic novels and French Bande dessinée, which is to give voice to those who have been tangentially put aside and marginalized.”
Intuitively, comics may not seem like the natural or most serious medium to frame a discussion on immigration. However, in addition to their proclivity to liberate marginalized community voices, French Bande dessinée has also experienced a canonization as of late, entering academic circles in France with much greater frequency and becoming a legitimate source of scholarly research. According to Gueydan-Turek, though, Bande dessinée has an intrinsic dualism in that it is also an art form.
“Bande dessinée has been termed ‘the ninth art’ and this terminology is quite important for the Francophone world at large. We aren’t just talking about a medium, we are talking about an art in itself … it has now taken an equal stance as would a book from Victor Hugo or Baudelaire or Zola. So in some sense Bande dessinée is both part of an institutional literature and on top of that it is still a mass media,” Gueydan-Turek said.
Students in French 057 examined immigration using a very flexible definition. There was a large focus on perhaps the most predictable immigration: a south to north entrance from Africa, specifically Algeria, to France — pointing out a struggle with post-colonial trauma and historicity. One student broke out of historical contexts and investigated the sci-fi trope of immigration as an extra-terrestrial invasion of Earth or vice versa. Aileen Eisenberg ’15 chose to look at a west to east migration instead.
“I studied Bandes dessinnées that covered French immigrants in Japan. There is no single history to this type of immigration, for the works I looked at centered around both white, male French immigrants and Franco-Japanese, female immigrants (so their experiences were quite different). The reason I chose this type of immigration is that it is unlike the immigration that occurs between France and its former colonies. I think it is important to consider West-East immigration in the context of globalization” Eisenberg said.
“Imagining Immigration” was a project that was focused on developing French 057 and 045 students’ interest in how Bande dessinée is able to tackle a very serious issue like immigration but also on allowing them to curate a project from beginning to end. The set-up of the space, each individual panel, and all the research that went into them were entirely conducted by the students. According to Professor Gueydan-Turek, the students were highly successful in their efforts to not only analyze the Bande dessinée but also in their professional delivery. Eisenberg found the project highly rewarding.
“This was an assignment unlike any other I’ve ever done at Swat, so it was a great learning process … It would be great if those who see the exhibit can walk away wanting to read more about this art and realize the potential that is has to give voices to a variety of narratives and inspire action” Eisenberg said.