Watani talks to the founder of Egypt’s Caricature Museum
Even though the world has its fair share of cartoon museums, Egypt only established one of its own as recently as 2009. The first of its kind in the Middle East, the museum was founded by Egyptian artist Muhammad Abla in the Fayoum village of Tunis, some 100km southwest Cairo, where he has made his home. The museum houses works of high artistic value by some 55 Egyptian caricature artists; some of the works were taken from satirical magazines published decades ago.
The Caricature Museum, however, was in December 2015 targeted by as yet unknown attackers who attempted to cause damage and destruction but, fortunately, with minimal success. According to Abla, none of the caricatures were stolen, but some were cast on the floor and the bookcases emptied and their contents strewn around.
The museum reopens in an official event on 21 January, after the damage was repaired and a new collection of cartoons added to the original collection.
Watani talked to Muhammad Abla about his pet enterprise which, he says, tells the history of modern Egypt through its cartoonists.
Why didn’t Egypt have a national caricature museum till relatively recently?
In my opinion, this is because caricature as an art form is still not easily understood. Although it carries a social and political message, many artists see a cartoon as ‘done’ only after it is published, as though it cannot stand on its own as a work of art. This leads to neglect by the artists themselves. We rarely find original cartoons, and you can say that almost 99 per cent of them have been lost. Cartoons that are published are often the only ones available; others that were rejected by editors can never be found. Unfortunately, this is a rich heritage that has largely vanished.
Another problem with a caricature museum is finding an audience interested in visiting. Except in some former communist countries such as Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic where cartoon museums are still State-owned, they are keen to take students. But even so, these museums are now suffering. Plus, cartoonists don’t enjoy the popularity of other artists, except for a very few. Among these in Egypt are Mustafa Hussein (1935 – 2014) and George Bahgory (born 1932).
So how was the caricature museum in Fayoum set up?
Over the past 20 years I have collected works of caricature. Whenever I find a cartoon on sale by auction, I buy it. I always wished there was a cartoon museum in Egypt, and I remember when I met the caricaturist Samir Abdel-Ghani years ago and told him of my wish he simply said: “You do it.” I found myself thinking: “Why not?”
After I made my home in the Fayoum village of Tunis, I set about collecting drawings. I contacted cartoonists and journalists; some of them responded and others did not, but with most of them I had a positive interaction, including George Bahgory, Samir Abdel-Ghani, Ahmed Abdel-Naeem, and the late Ahmed Toughan (1926 – 2014). Finally I managed to create a collection of 500 cartoons, and I began to think of the way and order in which they would be displayed.
I also thought of other details: how the museum would help in studies on trends in language, clothes, social and political change, and how it would be a historical documentary.
After the museum opened, it was used by researchers in Germany and Switzerland to prepare studies on Egyptian caricature.
Egyptian caricature is one of the richest and oldest artistic forms in the world. It played—and still does—a vital and effective role in political change, and some governments even fear it.
Do you think this is one reason for not having a national caricature museum?
I don’t really think so. In my opinion, the reason lies in the difficulty of classifying caricature and how far freedom of opinion allows the publishing or display of bold political caricature. This kind of caricature is supposed to be carefully chosen; it needs very specialised experts. Caricature museums usually have an academic rather than a popular quality.
What are the limits of caricaturists?
They use a symbolic and visual language, so caricaturists have more freedom than writers. When freedom is tightened it naturally extends to all, but cartoonists still have all manner of tricks to tackle a subject by drawing without commentary. They can also address millions and their ideas are easily conveyed to the audience. But, like many other art forms, caricature can best flourish in a climate of freedom.
Why are some people bothered by cartoons?
Simply because caricature shakes our thoughts, beliefs and traditions, and it can attain its target easily, compared with written texts. That is why it is very important to have smart caricaturists who use their freedom cleverly to convey their message. Caricaturists should have an intellectual or academic approach, and know exactly how to use past experiences so that their drawings do not cause trouble because of any ethical breaches, especially those related to religion since this can then be taken as ‘disdain of religion’ which is a legal offence in Egypt.
Some caricaturists have sacrificed their lives and freedom because of their drawings. This is proof of what an important art caricature is.
Can caricature act as a bridge to link people on the cultural and civilisational levels?
Caricature definitely contributes to bridging cultural interaction; it is a common international language understood by anyone, whatever his or her culture. Hundreds of exhibitions tackling many human topics are held every year. It represents a weapon of love or hate. An artist uses caricature to send a significant message, and this will be manifest in his or her work.
Why do you think women artists in Egypt have not drawn cartoons?
Not only in Egypt, but in many places over the world. Female caricaturists in Egypt make no more than some 10 per cent of Egyptian caricaturists, the same percentage as outside Egypt. I think we need specialist researchers in this field.
In my opinion, I think male caricaturists have more space of freedom to go here and there, networking, and meeting different categories of people, much more so than women. This can also be seen in cinema, theatre, and satire. And not only in these artistic fields, but in all branches the percentage of participating male artists is greater.
Moreover, there are difficulties in publishing caricatures, especially in the printed media. Perhaps this discourages women.
But what of online publishing?
I believe that caricature is in the sense of the paper: in drawing, colouring and texture. The museum we have is not digital or hypothetical, but a collection of paper drawings.
Can we encourage women to venture into the caricature field?
There is a problem. Some women artists stop creating after marriage. So we need to finance and encourage this art if women really want to keep on with a career.
Isn’t it strange that newspapers themselves don’t organise any cartoon contests? So sad as well to know that even universities have little concern. So we should activate the field of caricature though circulating and studying. On my part, I have organised a competition on satirical faces, and the first prize went to Nessma Bahaa’, a female cartoonist who worked at Sabah al-Kheir magazine.
Why are there no critical reviews of caricature?
We should have an academic curriculum, but this in non-existent in Egypt.
Caricature is basically difficult, and criticism of it would accordingly be much more intricate.
How then do you see the future of caricature?
The future of caricature is mainly associated with freedom and support. The more freedom and pluralism, the better caricature will flourish.
We need to have encouragement and support from all sections of society, especially the private sector. In other places in the world, private firms sponsor cartoon festivals and contests. We need something like this in Egypt.
Caricature in Egypt: A rich history
What is caricature? The well-known definitions say it is a rendered image showing the features of its subject in a simplified or exaggerated way through sketching, pencil strokes or through other artistic drawings.
Caricatures can be insulting or complimentary and can serve a political purpose or be drawn solely for entertainment.
The term is derived from the Italian caricare—to charge or load. A great cartoon is one that engages the reader, forcing one to rethink a political reality and laugh at one’s own bias. But a cartoon is only as effective as its lines and its composition.
The history of caricature started with prehistory man who drew on the cave walls simple and funny spontaneous drawings. Such drawings also appeared later in ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, and Assyrian art.
During the Renaissance era, Leonardo da Vinci drew caricatures; the point was to offer an impression of the original which was more striking than a portrait.
Honoré Daumier (1808 – 1879), a French printmaker, caricaturist, painter, and sculptor, is widely seen as the godfather of modern-day caricature and his many works offer insight on social and political life in France in the 19th century. Daumier produced over 500 paintings, 4000 lithographs, 1000 wood engravings, 1000 drawings and 100 sculptures. A prolific draftsman, he was best known for his caricatures of political figures and satires on the behaviour of his countrymen.
In Egypt, the art of caricature took off in the late 19th century, at the hands of Yacoub Sanua (1839 – 1912), an Egyptian Jewish nationalist activist, journalist, and playwright.
Early in 1877, Sanua founded the satirical magazine Abu-Naddara (The One with the Glasses), which had an immediate appeal with the public. It was quickly suppressed as being liberal and revolutionary, and its author banished. No copies of the first 15 issues of Abu-Naddara are known to exist today. Sanua went into exile in Marseilles in 1878, but his banishment simply steeled his will to go on producing his journal. He did this lithographically from handwriting in Arabic and French, printed at a local shop. It was the first Arabic-language magazine to use Egyptian vernacular Arabic, a language quite different from literary Arabic.
Cartoon magazines became very popular, and many were issued. In 1898, Baghl al-Maashar was issued by Hussein Zaki, who then published al-Humara in 1904, and Afreet al-Humara in 1905.
In 1926, al-Baakouka was issued by Mahmoud Amin Khattab, and in 1930, the famed cartoonist Rakha issued Eshmeana. In the 1980s, Mustafa Hussein (1935 – 2014), a caricaturist, painter, and journalist, created the weekly cartoon magazine Caricature with fellow artist Ahmed Toughan.
Among the pioneers of caricature art in Egypt was the Armenian Alexander Saroukhan, an Egyptian-Armenian caricaturist whose drawings appeared in many Arabic and international publications. Saroukhan, who was born in 1898 in Russia and died in Egypt in 1977, was the pioneer of political caricature in Egypt and the Arab world.
Other Egyptian greats include Salah Jahin (1930 – 1986), Ahmed Hegazi (1956 – 2011), Mohieddin al-Labbad (1940 – 2010), Ahmed Toughan (1935 – 2014), and George Bahgory (born 1932).
The Caricature Museum in Tunis, Fayoum boasts a rich collection of the works of
caricature giants such as Hussein, Saroukhan, Toughan, Hegazy, Bahgory, Jahin and al-Labbad, as well as contemporary cartoonists such as Amro Selim and Doaa al-Adl, a female cartoonist.
18 January 2016