It is the Season two finale of our show. This last episode features Geneva-based, comic artist and painter Jean-Philippe (JP) Kalonji. JP is also an editorial illustrator for the Swiss newspaper Le Temps. In this discussion, he shares the role artists and culture play in social change, plus the importance for him to use his twenty years experience to be part of change makers creating social impact. Likewise, JP talks about his role as artistic director with the NGO Civitas Maxima, an organisation that seeks to empower victims of war crimes in their quest for justice, and the way his drawings contribute to people's stories of healing. Listen to his story.
At the end of the show, the guests share a sneak preview into their favourite music or books by answering the same set of questions. Here are the links to JP’s answers. The music he listens to these days is from the following artists: Loyle Carner, Yasiin Bey AKA Mos Def, and Pharoahe Monch. The book he is currently reading is the Sefer ha-Yashar. The music that particularly resonated with him at a specific time in his life is Drum’n’Bass, especially the artist Dillinja. The book he particularly remembers is HagaKure: The Book of The Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo. His all-time favourite song that he absolutely recommends is ‘So What’ by Miles Davis.
Here are some additional useful links. You can find out about the International Criminal Court, the institution JP mentioned, on their website. In case you wish to have more information on the NGO Civitas Maxima and the newspaper Le Temps you can visit their respective websites.
Hello, and welcome to a new episode of narratives of purpose. My name is Claire Murigande, I am your host on this show. And my goal is to amplify social impact by bringing you inspiring individual stories of ordinary people who are making extraordinary social impact within their communities all around the world. So if you're looking for a programme that showcases unique stories of changemakers, stories of people who are contributing to make a difference in society, and at the same time you want to get inspired to take action, then this podcast is definitely for you. My second guest this November is Jean-Philippe Kalonji, also known as JP Kalonji. JP is an illustrator, a comic artist and a painter based in Geneva, Switzerland. He is the artistic director at Civitas Maxima, an NGO that defends victims of war crimes. JP is also an editorial illustrator for the newspaper, Le Temps, likewise, headquartered in Geneva, I have known JP for several years now. And he's one of the many artists I believe should share the mic on this show alongside social entrepreneurs and other changemakers. So for this very last episode of our second season, we bring an artistic touch to the conversations we've had all along, specifically around the topic of social justice, which is our focus this month. Do take a moment to rate and review our show on your preferred podcast listening app. But right now, listen to JP's journey and how he contributes to social change as an artist.
A very warm welcome to you JP, it's a great pleasure to have you on the show. How are you today? So I've known you now for quite a while. But I'd like to give you the chance to introduce yourself to our audience. So who is JP and what would you like to share with our audience from your background?
Yeah, I'm a cartoonist, author, comic author, I do a lot of storyboarding. I work for the press, usually. And I work also in the comic world, I did a lot of different work and jobs. I like to switch from a different style to another one. Paper is not only my Battlefield, this is what I like to say, I've done this for well, 20 years now, more than that, 25 years. I started really early. And yeah, I enjoy doing this. And this is my life.
So you just said right there that you've been doing this for 20 years, give us a little bit of a sense of how your path was to reach where you are today?
First of all, I think drawing started like it did for any young kid, for me. It was my passion. And I really knew early on that I really wanted to do it as my everyday life, you know, and I started to realise this is what I want to do for a living, watching other artists and cartoonists and people who just draw incredible characters or write stories and they simply inspire me to simply inspire me and when you are inspired by, these people, for me, it became natural. I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I was completely focused on drawing day by day when all my friends were going out to have fun. I was the geek, the weird guy, you know, I don't like to use that word, geek, you know, but I was just passionate about drawing and how drawing continued to nourish me and touch me and can touch also people like the power of the drawing. So I love my job. I love my work. I love what I do. And I feel very fortunate to do what I do right now. Because I also met a lot of professionals during my career, these big professionals who now became friends, you know, the people who I used to admire. So it's a very long process, you know, from the age of 16 to 21 for the first time when I met my first editor. It was for a magazine here, a local magazine in Geneva you know, talked about youngsters, graphic novels you know. And it was called Petit Peau and the guy's name was Mark Vila. And this guy, I think he's the first one to give me my chance. So I'd like to thank him, you know, he's the one who gave me my chance. It was in 1992 I made my first comic book called Street Nation, it was like short story short novels stories about like the hip hop world in Geneva know when the movement when this music came into Switzerland in Geneva, so I decided to translate all my stories and all the good stories and the good vibes that we have here, into short novels, short drawings.
Now, I'd like this to focus perhaps on something that you've been doing much more recently, you're the artistic director of an organisation called Civitas Maxima, which is focusing on supporting victims of international crime. So first of all, tell me a bit about that organisation. And then, what led you to join them?
Well, Civitas Maxima is an independent legal representation of victims of war crimes, and crimes against humanity. It was built and created by Alain Werner. Alain is a very old friend from 20 years ago. He used to work at the Tribunal Pénal International. I saw him many times on TV, because he actually pleaded the case of Charles Taylor. In 2016 he called me, he said, "Hey JP, how are you doin? Do you still like drawing?" I was like "Yes, absolutely. Are you up for a coffee?" And it's like, "okay, sure!" And so, we had a coffee. And then he had this idea and said "Look, I would like to put some illustrations in my annual report." And I was like "You want to make some drawings in your annual report, talking about victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity?" And my first thought in the beginning was really shocking, because my drawings are more like, not funny, but yes, such a comic hero, Japanese style vibes. And I didn't make the connection of how I could help him. Then he proposed to me to create a character called Musu, a little girl, then she can tell exactly the adventures of what's happening in Liberia. We'll talk about the, the mass murder and the the atrocity, during the bloodshed. In the beginning he said create some characters or illustrate some topics on my annual report, and this is exactly what I made. And then he was really, really, really happy. And in the world of lawyers, and experiments, and judges, and there was a mass, big response on positivity, like, "wow, this is great ''. Such a great idea to illustrate this, because let's be honest, with all the problems of the world, right now, of course, it was before the pandemic, a lot of people were in their bubble. Don't want to hear about, like, what happened in Africa, or even in Yemen. Except the people who really work in these kinds of fields. And my work was to create a bridge, through my drawings, you know, to put a word or translate the words or probably the review or the report, and also explain what the NGO does exactly. It was very essential to put in light that it's a collaboration with the local NGO in Liberia. it was not seen as a European "Right guys, we're going to make the difference, or this is our goal." No, what I remember and what I always noticed from Alain is, first of all, it's about the victims. it's to give them a place, a word, then they can explain, you know, and to find justice. It's very important for him, and it's crucial for I think it's the core of Civitas Maxima. This past year marked the five years anniversary of Civitas Maxima, it was in 2017. Let me read you know what he said about it, he said, "This past year marks the five year anniversary of Civitas Maxima, a journey since our start, and we're very proud of how far we have come and want to thank the victims for that trust, because this is the most important thing." He is the most passionate person that I have ever met in this field. And all the people of Civitas Maxima that I work with, I'm really fortunate and lucky to work with this with this incredible, incredible talent. And this is what I love also in my work, because the throwing era, I mean, everything that I've done led me to work in this kind of field, and probably have jumped to your question about, how, how come?
I could say like, I'm not only a cartoonist, you know, I'm not only a comics author, I'm not only an artist, I'm also a human being, you know, and I'm living here, and I can't be, you know, only in my bubble, you know, what I could do and with my skills, and with my art is to help in any way.. In a moment of my life, I was like, "Okay, you have fun, you've been in the USA, you had all those good things you've been in Japan, you enjoy all that." So what now? If I can help with my drawings. If I can help a cause like this one with my drawings, there is no question for me. I'm super lucky. And with the big experience that I have with Musu and the cartoon that we created with the crew of Civitas Maxima. After a year, it was still successful in Liberia and Monrovia, that some of the artists there, and people from the theatre started to play the adventure of Musu. And they went into villages to talk about our wounds. Let's talk about what happened to the generation. That didn't know about the genocide.
So basically being part of the healing process, right.
Being a part of the healing process. I was astonished by how many comic books and graphic novels talked about the end? The apocalypse? Okay, great. We know the collapse. But now what? What are we going to do if anyone is able to draw a future of it on the good side? And it's the same for movies, so like, can anyone show me a possible future? Does someone have the power, or the thought to project your mind to the future without seeing it as a catastrophe? A bit of hope. By looking forward. And by believing that, no, this is not the end. I have a young girl. I'm a young dad, I am six years old now. And I don't want to say to her, "oh, sorry, you're born, but everything's gonna fall apart. So just enjoy it for the moment, because we're all gonna burn". No! This is my responsibility as an adult, as an artist, to do the best I can to be a part of the right story, and not feed the beast or feed the bad news. Of course, there is information, it's very important to say something like, "there is this problem", but it's not about avoiding the problem or hiding. It's about talking to people about solutions to create. I want to be a part of these people. And this is the reason why I work with this NGO. The reason why is that it work with Le Temps, the newspaper, when they came to me and they decided to make a portrait of me.
So just for our listeners, Le Temps is a newspaper in Geneva, right? And so you're collaborating with them on editorials and on specific topics. Because I recall seeing a few articles we had collaborated mostly about domestic violence as well, and the heritage of Switzerland and colonialism, things that were not really known
That one was a smart move. Because they were like, "Okay, let's talk about the colonial thing" and said they had an artist and they think he's gonna, he's gonna, he's gonna dig it. And this is exactly what I did. And it was perfect.
Now in terms of collaborating with Le Temps, do you see how your drawings are also participating in building this bridge? You mentioned earlier that you're kind of building this bridge between all these topics and getting closer to people. What is your observation there?
Yes, my observation is that working with the press is working fast, sketching really quick. I observe also, first you have to learn and read, of course, the articles. Before everything has to be inked, and approved, you know, by the journalist and the chief editor. Before the printing, what I observe also is my different manners of drawing. And my approach is to find the particular details in it, so that the reader can have a straight look. And it means you have like two things in mind. First, look, the picture and said, Oh, wow, this is beautiful. Second, the illustration that has to reflect the general ID of the article. And I learned from day one that I love to read articles. Because firstly, you know, I nourish my own knowledge about different topics, I'm really here to just make a link, you know, I'm the little chain, make that link. But that chain or that link has to be clean, has to be a perfect DNA, you know, in the article, and I gain their trust, because my goal was like, "Okay, I'm gonna make you beautiful, beautiful things that automatically, you will call me like, hey, we have this topic, we need JP you have to do this!"
So you basically established yourself as an artist of reference, if I can say for their newspaper?
I honestly can say that. And in a moment, I'm happy to say that there are some journalists who will say, "Hey, I have this article, but I want Kalonji to make the drawing for this." Some of them say things like, "oh, but we could, we could put a photo" and they reply "no, I want an illustration." And some readers say like "hey, you know what I buy Le Temps now, because I see your drawing, and I read the article." So it's a win win. You know, it's a win win. For me also, it established me as "Oh, okay, you draw on le Temps!" That's Serious.
I have this feeling that maybe artists in general or even culture at large, if you take it like that, the impact in society is not always recognised. Do you see it that way or not? And how do you see that evolving in the future?
It's quite a long story of artists who are not being recognised, or the cultural genre is not recognised, you know, by society and then been abused or used, and people don't see this. But during the pandemic, lots of people were in a life of pause, and they realise, without all, the essential group of people around the world of artists, or actors, in any kind of discipline, suffer this lack of recognition, but also open an eye. Clearly, there is a problem. A country without culture is not a country, we are essential to the life in general of anyone. The culture is, it's one of the core, it's very important, you cannot put aside that. It's not possible. I mean, people travelling to go to different cities of Europe, in Italy, it's all about the culture. You go in Italy, you go to Rome, come on, the city is just like, wow, there was a Colosseum, the rest, you know, all those paintings the the culture, you know, and when you go in New York or the MoMA or in Africa, it's so linked to what we are now as human beings,
Invest in culture and support artists, that's the message right?
Yeah, the message is just like investing. Because you gain on that. It's interesting now to see that Red Bull, this energy drink company, was more into extreme sports and now they're changing the vibes into artists, street artists. They invest a lot in conventions and things. So they realise the impact, there are the influencers, this or that, but artists nowadays, competition is tough, but as long as you know what you get, if you have something interesting to say, you always find the place.
This example you're sharing with me that Red Bull is is switching their gears from extreme sports to artist, what would you as an artist and doing this for over 20 years now, what would be your advice to the younger generation or someone who'd come up to you, let's say your daughter you mentioned your daughter is six years old. If in a few years she says, "Dad, I want to go this path," what will be your main advice from your experience so far?
Main advantage is simple. I love what you do. Be serious with that. Be committed, enjoy every minute, because it's a passion. And at the end, when it's a passion, it's not work, you get to spend like 48 hours, just drawing like crazy. Of course, you're going to be tired, and then you take a break. But you don't feel that because sometimes, of course, it's not uncommon into the character that you have in your mind is not, it's not as flawless as you want. But there is something very spiritual with drawing itself. Something that is not physically here, it's in your mind and your spirit, and it floats, comes into your mind, then it's a little bit weird, then it becomes a bit more clear. And then boom, you put this on the paper, and then the idea that you have in your mind, close to 90%. And then you put it on the sheet just like 74/75. But I think it's this process for me it's what we call magic. But for me drawing has a spiritual connection. My advice is to be committed to what you do and do it seriously. And do it with heart and success. As long as you do this, you know, with your heart, it's successful. Go wild, be honest with your work. And whatever you could do. It's you. Because we all have one fingerprint.
There's this thing I like to do at the end of every discussion with my guests, which is my quick preview questions. I have three short questions, because I would like to find out what type of music you're listening to, or what books you're reading. So I have three short questions. And the first one is, what is the music that you're listening to at the moment? Or what is the book that you're reading? Do you have something that is kind of on repeat on your playlist, for instance? Or do you have a book on your nightstand that you can just go to bed without reading
That's so difficult. Because I draw most of the time I put on movie soundtracks, I like soundtrack movies to draw. And it depends again on the drawing, it could be like, from hip hop to rock to punk rock to UK stuff. Loyle Carner is one of the guys I’m listening to a lot. I’m listening a lot still to Yasiin Bey AKA Mos Def. Some old school stuff, some new stuff. Also, I discovered a lot of new artists, this is like, it's to many, it's difficult to say. And the last album probably of Pharoahe Monch. This is really a lyricist punk rock sound. This is kind of very energetic music. And in terms of books, The book now it's the Bible way of Judaism story. It's called the Sefer ha-Yashar.
The second question is, is there a book or even a specific music album= that has resonated with you at a specific time in your life?
Yes, there is a specific book. Yeah a specific one. It's Hagakure. Hagakure is the code of Bushido Samurai you know, in Japanese. It's an old treaty, written from the 18th to the 16th century. It's really interesting, in terms of books and in terms of music DNB Drum and Bass when I want to get mad, you know, just like, "woooo" any factor to choose one track, I'm not gonna say one track - one artist is Dillinger from drum and bass music.
And my very last one, I think this is a tough one. Maybe you don't have an answer to it is that do you have like an all time favourite, be it book or music, that you would say people need to listen to that people need to read this book
For the music will be Miles Davis ‘So What’. And for the book? Easy for me will be The Bible. Easy.
Thank you so much. Thank you, and thank you for the time. I really appreciate it. It was great to connect with you again. And thank you for sharing your journey with me and with our listeners.
No problem. Thanks again to all the listeners. And for the podcast and for you for the invitation.
That was episode 25 of conversation with Jean-Philippe Kalonji. I truly enjoyed this discussion and was delighted to host an artist for the first time on the podcast. I really like how JP uses his skills and his art, beyond entertainment to support different causes as something natural that shouldn't be even questioned. I must confess that I regained interest in reading the newspaper Le Temps since I saw his illustrations. This goes to show how impactful his drawings are. Thank you so much for tuning in today and listening to this new episode. Or should I say this last episode, which concludes our second season. Join me again soon for more stories of social impact from local changemakers. If you want to be a featured guest, or you know someone who might be interested, feel free to reach out, you can send us an email at email@example.com. You will find the email address in the show notes. Or you can contact us directly on social media. We are on Facebook, at narratives of purpose on Instagram, at narrativesofpurpose_podcast and on LinkedIn at Narratives of Purpose Podcast. Don't forget to leave us a review wherever you listen to your podcasts and share our show within your network. Make sure you also sign up for our newsletter on our homepage so you can stay informed firsthand about all our activities. Until the next episode, take care of yourselves, stay well and as always stay inspired.