Monday, 14 March 2011

La Vache Qui Rit

Wordplay-Parody Turned into Aesopian Symbol – The Relation between the Valkyrie and Mubarak

Thanks to globalization, the motive of the red laughing cow on the round carton cheese package, has become familiar to the inhabitants of 120 countries. Jules Bel started to produce this milk product by the end of the 19th century on the French side of the Jura. The artist, Benjamin Rabier designed the first laughing cow for the competition organized by Bel who was searching for a product-label.
The name “la vache qui rit” is originally derived from a French wordplay which mocked the food transport of the German army during World War I –called “Walküre” (i.e. “Valkyrie” in French). The divine heroine of the Norse mythology was therefore brutally turned into a happy cow and exposed to laughter in hostile lands.
However, this is not the end of the story: Egyptian Aesopian speech which was aiming to foment resistance against Mubarak’s authoritarian regime during the last decades, integrated the laughing cow into its vocabulary. “La vache qui rit” in written satire and caricature came to represent the ex-president Mubarak.
In conclusion: the Norse divinity Valkyrie was turned into a laughing cow, at the beginning of the 20th century and –in this new guise– came to represent the Egyptian president, one hundred years later. Which means that a logo, designed after the parody of a popular etymology was employed anew as Aesopian emblem of resistance against oppression. In the first place, a symbol of strength of the enemy was mockingly debased, in the second step, the outcome and commercialization of even that parody, was used to degrade a representative of arbitrary and corrupt rule. This is how the happy, red cow successfully laughed about two menacing power- constellations.
On the Opera Square, stands a sign which should draw the drivers’ attention to traffic lights. This somewhat useless indication to traffic lights, which do not exist on or near the square, was turned into the support for a logo of the Mubarak opposition: a crossed-out picture of the laughing cow.

Traffic sign with the "la vache qui rit" anti-Mubarak propaganda sticker on the Opera square

The Caricature and the Revolution

The Caricature and the Revolution” is the title of the exhibition which Mohamed Abla opened today in his gallery “Cairo Atelier” and which will warmly welcome visitors during the next two weeks. Six walls are filled with the satirical artwork of Egyptian as well as American caricaturists. The caricatures are mostly reprints of the originals which were formerly published in newspapers, since the beginning of the revolution.
One of the major topics brought forward by the artists is Mubarak’s stubbornness in refusing to step down. The former president is therefore depicted as having the pyramids plug into his ears while facing the demonstrations; as crossing his arms on his chest and saying that he will stay; or as standing in a lake of blood, while insisting to continue his mandate until the bitter end. At the same time, the sphinx with a plaster on her nose and the sharks of Sharm el Sheikh call out that they will remain until he leaves. In another drawing, the people push the tyrant down from his royal throne with a huge “la” (no) or they snatch him away with an enormous arm, composed of the masses of demonstrators. Watches are also symbolically used to display that Mubarak’s time is up: a sand-watch shows his face on the bottom while shoes are drizzling down and menace to drown him. (To call somebody “shoe” is a common and bad insult in the Egyptian dialect, for the shoe also being related to impurity in a socio-religious context).

Another important subject displayed in the caricatures of the exhibition is Facebook. This new medium is metaphorically celebrated as the knight which came to liberate the country or depicted as a gin which jumps out of the computer in front of Hosni Mubarak. A big drawing of “Facebook” is also presented in a caricature as the new “office picture” which managed to ban the omnipresent image of the former president. At the same time, the national personification of the United States, uncle Sam, hesitates whether to “unfriend” Hosni on Facebook. Another satirical drawing shows the sinister representative of the secret service sarcastically gaze at the demonstrators and explain to his ally –the death– that what they have to do now is to make those “friended” people “enemy” each other.

Facebook is generally recognized as having played a main part in the coordination of the protests. However, the voices which insist on the fact that the revolution was truly “popular,” state that when Mubarak’s regime made the internet and telephone system collapse, the people were –surprisingly– still able to gather for demonstrations. As the access to Facebook clearly marks the social status of a person as on the middle and upper class level, the Egyptian revolution of the masses might –in theory– be turned into a movement completely in the hands of the elite. In order to make her position clear concerning this discussion, the first female judge of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Tahany al-Gibali, mentioned in her talk about the constitution, which took place in the AUC today, that the revolution must be considered as a “popular” uprising to which Facebook contributed but which was not solely established by this modern instrument of mass communication.

A third important topic depicted by the caricaturists is the change of attitude of the population towards the police. Amply feared before the revolution, the officers now serve coffee and nicely great the “people” who look down on them. In one satirical painting, a criminal explains in a talk on his mobile phone that he cannot “work” at the moment. Due to the fact that even the police are afraid of the anger of the masses, he does not dare leave his home… 

At the same time as the police is mocked, the army is celebrated as the savior of the freedom of the country. Not only the caricatures celebrate the victory of Tahrir as achieved by the people and the army, even on the streets, while passing in front of the opera, I could witness again groups of young men proudly and happily taking pictures with a tank positioned on the square.