External Representation in Political Caricatures

Pictorial expression is a powerful kind of external representation, which in many cases surpasses the written word by not being limited to cultural and linguistic differences, and in that it accommodates a very wide range of audiences. An example of visual expression is political caricatures, which are often simple drawings that convey & sup-up complex narratives or theories.  Those caricatures use a kind visual “shorthand” that relies on symbolism, where objects are used to represent ideas, and are arranged or juxtaposed in a manner that helps convey the story or theory. So it is both the semantics (the images themselves) and the syntax (the arrangement) that allows them to work. Information conveyed through political caricatures is much more striking, memorable, and powerful than plain words

According to Jiajie Zhang, external representations, or shapes and positions of symbols, have certain properties that allow them to convey information for people to process in an integrative and dynamic manner. Such properties include that those representations provide memory aids – either long or short term – that help reduce the memory load on preceptors, as symbolism in caricatures does. The exaggeration of certain qualities in their drawings (such as exaggerating facial features of political figures to make them comic) allows for those images to stick in the viewer’s mind. Also, those representations need to hold information that is easy to perceive with minimum effort yet be formulated explicitly, and minimize abstraction of ideas to aid understanding and processing, which is done in caricatures by using drawings of concrete objects to represent abstract concepts.

A recent example and trend of political caricatures is seen in the Syrian Revolution. Protestors heavily rely on those caricatures in communicating their demands, feelings, and ideas. In Kafranbel, a small town in the suburbs of the Idlib province, political caricatures have become a nationwide – even international – phenomenon, where this town, previously unheard of, gained stardom and fame among Syrians and people following the revolution all over the world. It is frequently referred to as “the icon of the revolution” and its caricature banners are considered as powerful summaries of events and ideas that represent the whole of Syria. Here are a couple of examples:

In this caricature, sectarianism, which is an abstract concept, is pictured as concrete object – a balloon – being blown by Assad and infiltrators of the revolution (again, hypocrisy is pictured as a mask being worn by an infiltrator) and the revolution, pictured as a person wearing the Syrian flag, pops this balloon. It serves to explain how Assad is the cause of any sectarianism present, and how the revolution is eliminating it.

Similarly, in this example, Assad is shown as if he is a  battery low on charge, where his biggest ally and supporter, Vladimir Putin, plugs him with a charger. It conveys how Russian support to the Assad dictatorship has been the main reason why he has lasted this long.

Finally, here are a couple of interesting quotes on political caricatures by Dr. Paul Parker, a political science professor from Truman State University:

“Relying on symbolism and caricature, experimenting in fresh imagery, political cartoons help people think about politics. Whether their purpose is to promote the status quo, raise social concerns, or to spur people to fight hard for change, political cartoons have changed the face of history.”

“Political cartoons are a unique creation–pictorial editorial and artistic social commentary. The medium of the political cartoon, which combines the political and the artistic with journalism, allows them to make social commentary beyond the boundaries of the written word.”




Dan Youra – The Art of Editorial Cartoons & Political Caricature http://youra.net/pdf/books/politicalcartoons.pdf

Jiajie Zhang and Vimla L. Patel, Distributed cognition, representation, and affordance. University of Texas at Houston / Columbia University  http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Zhang-Patel-Dist-Cognition-Rep-Affordance-2006.pdf