Iranian caricaturist showcases sharp political cartoons at Paris exhibition

PARIS (AFP) - Iran's media censorship is notoriously strict - but it is not absolute, as a top Tehran-based caricaturist showed Thursday with a Paris exhibition of his often political cartoons.

Bozorgmehr Hosseinpour, whose drawings have appeared in major Iranian newspapers for the past 20 years, has managed to deliver incisive commentary without attracting the ire of Iran's clerical-led regime.

How does he get away with it?

"If you use subtlety and commonsense and apply your mind to what you draw, you can express mainly what you want to say, usually," he told AFP through an interpreter ahead of the exhibition opening.

Some of his cartoons seem to skate close to the edge, but with just enough distance to keep the identity of the butt of the joke open to interpretation.

One, for instance, shows a speaker at a podium talking about a man in a cage, and then the man being released and the cage empty. The punchline frame then shows the speaker being led away by police to a cage.

Another depicts a speaker describing a simorgh, a semi-divine bird in Iranian mythology of extraordinary plumage, only to ignore its legendary beauty and to warn the crowd about its sharp claws.

"In my work there are some very sensitive aspects, and we have to work around them with savvy," the 37-year-old artist said. "This is what the art of caricature, in fact, is about."

Still, the display of Hosseinpour's caricatures at a Paris museum and technical institution called the Laboratoire Aerodynamique Eiffel appeared to be another sign of a loosening of Iran's sharp restrictions on freedom of expression under its relatively moderate president, Hassan Rouhani.

"I was able to draw whatever comes to mind and to express the very harsh or contradictory aspects of policies over there" without encountering problems, said Hosseinpour, a carefully-spoken man with shaved head and glasses.

The technique for tackling a tricky social or political topic, he said, was "not to confront it directly".

The organisers behind the Paris exhibition, a cultural communications agency called "Generation I am", described the cartoonist as an Iranian equivalent of the biting caricaturists of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper targeted by Islamists in a bloody rampage in January.

But Hosseinpour himself shrugged off the comparison, though a version of his cartoon in support of Charlie Hebdo - showing a black-clad gunman breaking a pencil in two - is featured in his exhibition.

Instead, he spoke of the negotiations under way between Iran and, principally, the United States that are aimed at boxing in Tehran's nuclear programme and thus permitting a lifting of sanctions that have badly hurt the Islamic Republic's economy.

"The Iranian people and culture have many things to say and to express to the world, and if there is a positive outcome (to the talks) we would be able to export our culture and express ourselves more easily," he said.

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