Pushing Through Age-Old Boundaries with Comic Strips: An Interview with Ibtciem Larbi

by Yasmine Mattoussi

Ibticem Larbi is a 23-year-old illustrator based out of Paris. She has worked with numerous publications and organizations, including Institut du Monde Arabe, Vogue Arabia, and Women Who Do Stuff.  Her work invokes a kind of feminine anger and combines it with Maghrebi artistic details to give it her own flair. She spoke with Nour about her inspirations, her North African background, and experiences that shaped her work.

Nour Magazine: Tell us a bit about your background and your upbringing. What led you to start drawing?

Ibticem Larbi: I grew up in Champigny-sur-Marne, a suburb of Paris. My mother is Moroccan, and my father is Tunisian, so I grew up with a North African background. But we were a lot more connected to my Moroccan mother’s side since she’s the one who took care of our education. It was after my parents got divorced that I felt the need to discover and bind with my Tunisian roots.. 

I never thought of being an artist, it came to me when I was older and had to choose my studies. When you’re in school in France, you have to choose your high school section depending on whether you want to pursue math, literature, economics, et cetera. There was nothing that was really catching my attention, and I had a friend who told me about art studies, so I said why not?

Even though I had always been, like, drawing [for fun], I had never thought of [studying it] when I was a child. It was only when I decided to take it up in school that I realized I could work and make a living as an artist. 

NM: You mentioned that you feel more pull to your Moroccan side. How does that come out in your art or your artistic intention? 

IL: When I draw, I am always inspired by my upbringing and my living experience. So drawing comes naturally. I don’t necessarily make my illustrations with the intention to show my Moroccan side or Tunisian side—it comes naturally because, well, it is my environment, and it is how I grew up. It feeds my art and inspirations, which is also why you can see that I draw a lot of women. I grew up in a very strong women’s household, living with my sister and my mother, and in the summers, I would stay with my grandmother, my aunts, my cousins and great grandmother in Morocco. I was really always surrounded by womanhood. I always like to say that what I do [in my art] is sit as a witness of my time and who I am.

NM: You describe yourself as an illustrator and graphic novel artists. What kind of graphic novels do gain your inspiration from?

IL: I grew up reading a lot of manga. In middle school, our teachers were like, “yeah, don’t read manga.” They acted like it wasn’t “right” or, I don’t know, they had some kind of issue with it. Not all of them, but most of them. So I was introduced to proper graphic novels when I was already a bit older—a lot of them were from a specific publishing house called L’Association that specializes in graphic novels. It was through them that I found Marjane Satrapi whom I really love. Brecht Evens is another illustrator from that house I admire.

But my biggest inspiration definitely came from a big anime and manga background. I began to get really inspired by movies as well.

NM: I want to ask about Marjane Satrapi, because some of your work reminded me of her when I first saw it. 

IL: [laughs] Yeah, I have only read two works by her, Persepolis and Broderies, but I loved what I read. The black-and-white illustration stayed in my mind, because it’s kind of hard to make black and white stories actually dynamic, and it’s hard to balance the black and white in the illustrations.

NM: That’s perfect that you bring that up, because what really struck me personally about your work is how dynamic the women depicted in your drawings are. Are there certain women who shaped this vision you created?

IL: Well, obviously my mom and my sister, and after that I would say my closest friends, when it comes to real women I know in my life, who inspire me personally. But I just like drawing women in general. They hold a lot of power in their image.

NM: You are of maghrebine heritage and grew up in France. Do you feel like being a child of the diaspora affected you and your work? 

IL: Well, the thing with being a child of the diaspora is, when you’re young, you really just try to blend in. You know, you want to avoid standing out. Actually, in my time in school, even in the beginning of my path into studying art I struggled with a lot of stigmatization. I had a teacher who called me out in front of everyone, shouting at me and asking why I would have chosen to be an illustrator, and I should not be doing art because it isn’t what “people like me” are doing in school, you know? She was like, “yeah you should probably change the class you’re in to an economics track because it would suit you more.” 

NM: Wow.

IL: Yeah, this was my first year of doing art studies. Of course, I did not listen to her, I did what I wanted to do. But things like that stay in the back of your mind and build up. You always get those microaggressions you have to struggle with [as a POC]. Sometimes they don’t even intend to hurt you, like they say them in such a normal way. You have to say wait, it’s actually not normal to say things like that to children or to students, especially when you’re the minority. I was always the only Arab girl in class—you always had the one black guy, the Asian guy and the Arab girl. For me, it made me not want to stand out growing up, because I was tired of always having to explain myself. Why do you want to do this project? What does this project mean to you? There is always the issue of your work being fetishized and romanticized. So, I was always quiet in school, it was only after I finished school that I actually did the things I wanted to do. 

After my studies I also began to discover all these concepts and words I hadn’t known before like “people of color” or other ways to describe people fighting for their rights. Like I had always known people were fighting for their rights, but this specific way that people of color in France and in the French education system experience this. When I finally left school, I was able to meet people like me, other people of the [North African] diaspora who had also been art students and we all shared our experiences. It made me open my eyes to how I had really felt in school. I had always known things were not right, but learning these words and feelings taught me how to point to specific problems. I started to work and prepare my exhibitions with people coming from the same background as me. 

NM: In France, this issue of microaggressions in the public sphere is very prevalent and common. You are talking about what happened to you in school, people not even realizing how bigoted or racist they are acting.

IL: Right. Of course, I remember this teacher calling on me in front of everyone, like, no one budged. Because it’s normal. She would have never said that to a white kid.

NM: It’s very similar to the US, although in France this issue seems to be much more disputed.

IL: Yeah, it’s the same thing! It’s crazy because when you actually talk to these people and use words like “race” or “racism” you put them in a very awkward place. They don’t even like to use those terms, that’s how much of a problem there is. 

But like, every child of the diaspora has lived through something like that, right? Either from teachers, or from other kids. I remember my teacher from my final year, who was supervising my final project for the year. It was always the same, he never remembered my name or what my project was about. He only had to oversee three kids, but he could never remember what I was doing. It’s the same teachers who will always mix up the two Asian kids’ names in the same class. They don’t think it’s a big deal. 

NM: With a large North African diaspora in France, do you feel more or less connected to your identity? Do you find it easier to collaborate with artists who share these experiences with you? Not just a North African community necessarily, but a larger sense of a community of artists?

IL: I never necessarily “struggled” with my identity. I always knew who I was and where I came from, and what my traditions were. But when I was in school, I was not feeling safe enough to show it out in the open. My background is personal to me, and unless people ask me to talk about it, I won’t just talk about it on my own. People who haven’t had the same upbringing as you, who don’t see the world the same way you do, they tend to ask a lot of questions that…I don’t want to say hurtful, but…wait, I have to search for the word in French [laughs]. Their questions can be unwarranted, or sometimes just rude. At first, I feel fine answering  them, but when you answer questions like those again and again it feels hurtful. You feel like they ask out of curiosity, but they do not try to understand your response. 

I really enjoy working with other people from the diaspora, because it’s easier for us to understand each other, we all have similarities. Even if some of us are Jewish or Muslim or come from different countries, we can relate to each other, because we all experienced a lot of the same things here in France. It’s easier for us to create together because it’s such personal stuff to be showing. You can only do that if you feel that the people you are working with have experienced some of this stuff too. I feel more inspired when I work with these communities—it’s not to say I have not worked with white artists, but I would not lead my project the same way. There is just always a gap in what we feel and do, so at a certain point, I can explain to someone what I want to do, and they can do the same, but it does not change the fact that we have not lived each other’s experiences, and therefore cannot fully understand, you know? I don’t have any issues working with artists outside of the diaspora; we can create some really cool projects. But the projects we would be making would not have the same meaning or aim as the projects I would be making with my community.

NM: Do you have any upcoming projects you are working on that you are excited about? Anything that has been fulfilling or even challenging?

IL: I am working on a project right now, it’s a three-page story for a small Italian magazine that collects comics called Frankenstein. Before that, earlier this year I worked on two projects I really loved which were a huge step forward for me. One of them was my first coming from a client, which was for Apple. They do workshops called Today at Apple, and I was asked to illustrate different types of jobs you can do in the field of cinema, which is something I am really interested in. They really let me do whatever I wanted with almost no restriction, so I could have a woman wearing a hijab, and no one asked me, “oh, could you maybe draw her with hair?” I was afraid they would, because in France, you know, I would not be surprised. I loved having so much liberty on such a big project. I also worked on a ten-page comic for Colorama Clubhouse, which is a small publishing house with which I did a residency in Berlin. We were supposed to be on site, but with Covid we ended up doing it remotely, over zoom. We were almost 15 artists from all over the world, all very different. It was so interesting to hear from them, because the artistic process involves talking about what you want to make, telling your story, exchanging advice. Johanna Maierski, who runs Colorama, and who started the residency, is such an enlightening person. We did a podcast with her and all of the other residents about how we work, how we could change the education system in art, and the problems with the current ways of teaching. She was so amazing as a person. I loved making the comic. I wanted the message behind it to be broad, to have any kind of meaning you want projected onto it. The idea of women rising up for something, but they do not know why. They could be any women.

NM: Are there any films, shows, musicians that inspire you right now?

IL: In terms of movies, there are two directors whom I love. I binge watch all their work again and again—Jim Jarmusch and Wong Kar-wai. There is a third one, he does anime films, Yoshiaki Kawajiri. As for music, I’ve have been listening to old school hip-hop, lots of Snoop Dogg in his early days. Plenty of Korean rap as well. 

Check out Ibticem’s playlist of the moment here.

NM: I did not know Korean rap was big right now.

IL: [Laughs] Yeah, a lot of people know K-pop, which I do not really keep up with. 

I love music, I am always listening to it, when I draw, when I am not doing anything. I will listen to pretty much everything. As for artists… well, I love my friends’ artwork, for one. Instagram definitely provides a big ground for seeing other artists work, and artists I follow like @alienhabibti, @moshtari, @jonnnynegronn and @doradalila provide a lot of inspiration for me. I am a huge fan of Melek Zertal, Lisa Signorini, Ai Yazawa, and David Hockney. 

NM: Ibticem, thank you so much for chatting with me and with Nour today. It was really insightful speaking to you. 

IL: Thank you for having me!