July 22, 2019

“I Haven't Made Any Concessions”: Nicholas Burman in Conversation with MAIA MATCHES, Comix Artist and Amsterdam’s City Illustrator

Amsterdam based, Canadian born cartoonist and comics creator Maia Matches is a prominent name in the Dutch capital’s comix scene. Alongside her numerous zines, collaborative newspapers, and long-form sequential works, she also regularly produces posters for concerts and club nights. 

Her work can generally be split into two categories. Firstly, the sex satire, inspired by cartoonists such as R. Crumb but told from a staunchly female perspective. Her “The Bitch” character is one such example: a no-nonsense, S&M loving, INCEL-fighting action woman. She also produces journalistic work, often regarding the squatting and autonomous communities that were once a hallmark of Dutch culture, and often also depicts broader social discourses ranging from migrant crises and immigrant rights to sex and gender politics. 

It is perhaps because of this interest in the political, combined with a track record of cooperative work and journalistic integrity, which won her the title of Stadstekenaar van Amsterdam (City Illustrator of Amsterdam) for 2019. This position finds her and her work being brought into much more mainstream spaces than most comix creators are used to, but also shows that there is still some interest in the halls of city’s government buildings to promote some of the rebellious spirit that drew Maia to the city in the early 2000s. 

I caught up with Maia over email, and at her studio in De Pijp, an Amsterdam neighborhood currently succumbing to rapid gentrification, to discuss her work, her role as City Illustrator, and the importance of social spaces for zine culture and artists. 

Nicholas Burman: Your work is orientated around various feminist topics and is quite focused on sex (and sexual organs). What's your goal with these portrayals, and what are you aiming to bring to the page that you think is missing, or misrepresented, elsewhere? 

Maia Matches: The goal is to intensify the representation of the female gaze. At every comics festival I attend, all over the world, I look for "The Other Bitch". I couldn’t believe that I was the only female artist using a big-breasted, overly assertive, and evil woman as a protagonist, and I have found a few examples from other artists. I love the drawings of Heather Benjamin and Chloë Perkins, but I struggle to see the narrative in their work. There are, of course, many more “Bitches” out there. I salute Super Bitch, Planet Bitch, Big Bitch ... but those comix were written by men! Where are the modern fem/non-binary narratives? That’s where my work comes in.
NB: How did you become the Stadstekenaar, and how you have found being a public figure in a broader way than a lot of comix artists are? 

MM: I became the Stadstekenaar somewhat by coincidence. One fine morning I received a phone call from the City Archives of Amsterdam. It was an invitation to present my work to the board (the Commissie van Tekeningen). To my surprise, I had been nominated, along with two other artists, for the position of Stadstekenaar for 2019. The board keeps a long list of emerging artists (mostly students from the city’s art school, the Rietveld Academy, or so I've heard), which is reduced to a short list, and so forth. 

I'm not 100% certain why I was chosen, perhaps my general contributions to the city are being awarded? I was once an initiator/editor of the Amsterdam Comic Newspapers (2012-2016), and I contributed artwork for a graphic novel de Kraker, de Agent, de Jurist en de Stad (unfortunately this book only exists in Dutch). Whatever the case, the city made a bold choice by appointing me to the job. 

At first, I really thought, “seriously!? Is this a bad joke?” I'm a comic artist, I make sexually explicit comix, which have a blatant cynicism towards the patriarchal system. I haven't forgotten what an enormous privilege it is to have this opportunity, to write freely and to a direct and large audience through having strips the spreads in the national daily newspaper Het Parool. I receive an honorarium for the work, but it doesn't cover all my costs, I will have to work abroad this summer to feed my bank account. 

As far as being a public figure... well, I haven't been aware of (what I expected would be) more recognition (if that's what you mean). I have to work very hard to promote my work to a new audience while keeping a few loyal fans updated about upcoming publications. It's a juggling act. Plus, I regularly get requests for small commissions, mostly for charity (my loyalty towards subculture often doesn't allow me to say “no” to these jobs). It's been really hard to make ends meet (I need an agent). 
NB: What encouraged you to move to Amsterdam in the first place? 

MM: I was born and raised in Toronto by immigrant parents. When my father offered me a Dutch passport at the age of 18 I didn't hesitate to move across the ocean. I don't know what made me do it, I was just a naïve kid looking for adventure abroad. I stayed with a host family (friends of my parents) for the first nine months. They lived in Drunen, a small town in Brabant. I learned to speak Dutch pretty quickly there. Soon, I was accepted into the art school of 's-Hertogenbosch, where I studied sculpture and joined the squatting community. I lived in Den Bosch for eight years before I could finally move to Amsterdam, where I was sure to become a famous comics artist (!). 

NB: You speak about that friction between being "underground" and "mainstream". This seems suspiciously close to the position that comics as a medium has, being both populist and also anti-popular, in a sense. How have you negotiated this friction in your own self since becoming the Stadstekenaar, discussing anti-establishment topics in strips for newspapers and public exhibitions? 

MM: I haven't made any concessions regarding the content or style of my comix for the sake of the city. When I asked the archive board what they found offensive/worthy of censorship, the reply was "don't mix sex with religion". So... no Popes getting BJs?! Eventually, I decided to censor myself and quit drawing erect penises in every scene. I have permitted myself to draw boobs and butts. I can't quit the visual power of naked bodies, I use it to express vulnerability and power in my comix. 
NB: For those who don't know the history of the city, could you speak a bit about the "alternative" and counterculture side to Amsterdam, and how this has inspired your work? It's a very clean and commercial city these days, so new arrivals and visitors are unlikely to get a sense of the culture you're part of... 

MM: Squatting is about creating a community, and it is a political act. Amsterdam has a strong history of squatting, though nowadays squats are likely to be evicted within a few months of being founded, and often quite violently. To give a relatively recent example: ADM was a legendary and autonomous community-based in the far west of the city. It was home to artists and activists, acted as a venue for events, and a flourishing ecosystem grew over the 21 years it was occupied. Following a long and complicated battle with the municipality in court, on 7 January 2019, the hundred-or-so residents were forcibly removed from their self-built town by police and bulldozers, hired by the terrain’s new owners to demolish the various caravans, houses, and installations, which of course simultaneously disrupted the local ecosystem. 

Currently, Amsterdam is promoting itself as a living museum and attracts around 18 million tourists per year. Here, you can buy a waffle in every third shop on the Warmoesstraat, while the authentic “brown-cafés” are being replaced by hipster brunch patios. Also, there is a banner campaign to stop tourists drinking/pissing in the street, which warns of a €140 euro fine if you empty your bladder into a canal. It just seems evident to me that the council is predominantly seeking to accommodate the growing number of expats and tourists, and in the process is putting profit before people. I suppose it's just a matter of time before artists like myself are driven out of the city center, and perhaps the city totally. 

Back in 2012, a small group of us started a zine library in the basement of the Fort van Sjakoo, an anarchist bookshop on the Jodenbreestraat. We were eight feminists, POC, trans/non-binary comics artists with a love for zines, coffee, and activism. After three years, we were no longer able to use the basement to host Saturday meet-ups, and that's when our original Zsa Zsa Zine project, unfortunately, fell apart. One of the things I love about my job as the Stadstekenaar is reconnecting with those friends, such as Amsterdam city council member Vreer, Transgender Netwerk Nederland’s communications manager Nora, refugee shelter co-ordinator Pablo, IT expert Jiro, and so many others. It's really inspiring to see their activism continue in a constructive way. Few are as lucky as I am, to have met as many heroes as I have over the past thirteen years. 
NB: Given your experiences of Fort van Sjakoo and Lambiek in Amsterdam, have you got any thoughts on comic/books shops as community and social spaces? How that works, or, if it currently isn't, how it could? 

MM: Lambiek is still a social space for the comic artists of Amsterdam. As for Fort, it lasted for a time, until those spaces were no longer able to facilitate us. Lambiek moved to a smaller location, and Fort found other (paying) tenants for their basement. Other comics shops, such as Beeldverhaal, can host exhibitions, although I find that they are not particularly "inclusive" when it comes to showing the diversity of comics and comics makers. The DIY community has proven itself very capable in this department, but it takes a lot of dedication to maintain initiatives without a budget or stable venue (I learned that the hard way). 

When Chad Bilyeu (of Chad in Amsterdam ) and I organized the zine fair STRIPCLUB in September 2018, we had a venue called BAUT at our disposal, and a bit of cash to make a run of posters and flyers. Fortunately, Chad has a brain for business and a long history in the local club scene as a producer and event facilitator. Combined with my extensive list of cool Amsterdam comics artists, we had thought of a plausible concept to promote comics to a new audience. In the end, all the table participants made a profit in sales, as they were not required to pay for the venue, tablespace, or their own travel costs. I had hoped that attendance would hit the roof, but when you have to rely on social media and a sporadic poster trail, we expected that a try-out event such as this would not make media headlines. Nonetheless, I would love to see STRIPCLUB make a comeback and become a regular event in Amsterdam. 

A great deal can be accomplished with proper funding, including curating an event that hosts comic artists from other countries. Language is not really an issue, I've gotten by OK so far with English as a primary language. Evidently, even hosting an “international” event does not necessarily require funding, as we've seen Italian comics collective Döner Club accomplish recently at another Amsterdam venue, the OT301. For artists willing to improvise on sleeping arrangements and travel, it is possible to find events where you will be welcomed. 

NB: I was struck by the amount of variety in the Amsterdam Comic Newspapers, the contributors delivered a really diverse range of impressions and thoughts on their local environment. Did you give them guidelines, and more generally, how did you curate the content? 

MM: Artists were encouraged to find their own connection to the neighborhood. Of course, I had to be sure that no one subject matter would be repeated by two or more comic artists, so it was imperative that the artists communicated their ideas to me before starting, and that I also had a list of story ideas ready to inspire them. I hosted several group brainstorming sessions to discuss content (there was cake) and I regularly checked in to get progress reports from the artists. Simultaneously, I worked on a layout plan of the newspaper to determine the flow of the various stories and eventually the pages fell into place... (that makes it sound magical, but really, it was damn stressful!) 
NB: How would you summarise the current Dutch comix scene? Are there particular cartoonists whose work you think is deserving of greater attention? 

MM: (I find this to be a difficult question...) The Dutch comic scene is small, and perhaps I feel somewhat alienated from it. Over the last decade, I have worked obsessively to promote comics art as a norm for consuming information (such as via the comic newspapers). Now that I'm focussing on putting my own work forward, I find myself wishing there were more opportunities to highlight the diversity of comics. There just aren't enough mainstream platforms publishing comics in this country. 

One collaborative project worth mentioning is the graphic journalism website, Drawing the Times. They are showcasing comics artists from all over the world, but the initiative was Amsterdam-born, and it is presently run by two women Eva Hilhorst and Merel Barends, who are also comics artists. Thanks to Drawing the Times, I reworked the FOMO series I had made in 2017 by adding statistics, etc, in order for it to have a more journalistic tone. They have a vision, and that is saving the world with comics... what's not to love about that? 

NB: How do you distribute your work, do you get it into shops, or is online retail more of a focus for you? 

MM: Actually, I'm working on a new website which will finally include a webshop but, for the moment, I have pages to fill for Het Parool newspaper, and that is, frankly, the best method of distribution for my work that I can think of, in that it will expose my comics to a wide range and number of humans. Maybe they'll give me a column next year so I can continue bashing politicians. 
Nicholas Burman is currently based in Amsterdam, from where he writes about comics, experimental music, ambient artistic practices, and DIY culture for The Comics Journal, MusicMap, and Amsterdam Alternative, among others. You can find his portfolio at:https://nicholascburman.com/

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