Documenting the pulse of a nation, with humour
With the recent passing away of Mustafa Hussein, Egypt lost the top caricaturist not only in Egypt but also in the Arab world.
Hussein’s prolific work testified to his times and documented the changes that occurred throughout. With cartoons as his vehicle to criticism of social, political, and cultural issues, Hussein excelled at highlighting people’s problems and concerns. He combined artistic creativity with an elegant sense of humour, thrilling his admirers and winning over his critics.
The art he loved
Hussein was born in 1935 in the Cairo Fatimid district of al-Hussein and attended the Gamaliya Primary School, where the art teacher discovered his gift and asked him to do a number of paintings of the historic neighbourhood of al-Hussein. The young Hussein drew several scenes
which, to his absolute delight, ended up gracing the four walls of the classroom.
It was a turning point; Hussein decided he would pursue studies in the art he loved so much. On graduating from secondary school, he joined the School of Fine Arts in Cairo. In 1952, when still in his first year, he was chosen to work at the venerable publishing house of Dar al-Hilal, where he drew the cover of the weekly magazine Al-Ethnein wal-Dunya (Monday and the World) and where his bold outlines and vivid colours brought alive global concerns. In one cartoon he drew a glove split in two halves, one bearing the US flag and the other that of the Soviet Union—this was during the Cold War.
In 1956 Hussein moved to Al-Missaa’ (The Evening) paper as a cartoonist, and remained there until 1963. The following year he helped found the illustrated magazine Karawan, during which period he also contributed illustrations and cartoons to several prestigious Cairo magazines including the women’s weekly magazie Hawaa’, the children’s weekly Samir, the celebrity gossip magazine al-Kawaakib and the general interest weekly al-Mussawar.
In 1974 Hussein joined the State-owned publishing house Akhbar al-Youm, which issues two leading Cairo papers: the daily al-Akhbar and the weekly Akhbar al-Youm. He stayed with Akhbar al-Youm till he died, forming a
partnership with the widely popular Egyptian satirist Ahmed Ragab. Together Hussein and Ragab created a number of cartoon characters so vividly representative of various swathes of the Egyptian community that the public immediately identified with them and catapulted their two creators to the topmost tier of satire in Egypt.
Among these characters was Fallah Kafr al-Hanadwa, an illiterate peasant who nonetheless enjoys the gut wisdom of people who see the truth as it is without the embellishment of political correctness. Fellah was always depicted seated cross-legged in front of Egypt’s prime minister, informing him in superlatively simple language of how people felt about Egypt’s problems which—naturally—directly impacted them. Despite the simplicity of Fallah’s language, it was pregnant with subtle and not-so-subtle messages which relayed the true sentiments of the public.
There was also Kamboora, the nouveau riche trader whose heart’s desire was to complete his social image by landing a seat in parliament. To that end he was willing to go to the utmost lengths, which exposed just how much his new wealth was nothing but a hollow shell that thinly veiled the opportunism that made him rich. Qassem al-Semmawi was another of the Ragab/Hussein characters who the public absolutely loved since it depicted a true to life character frequently encountered on the ground; he represented the poor, lazy man who wouldn’t bother to do any effort to better his and his family’s lives, yet whose only business in life was to envy bitterly anyone who achieved even the slightest success.
Honours and awards
Hussein was elected head of the Syndicate of Egyptian Artists for two successive rounds from 2002 to 2010. He represented Egypt in many local and international exhibitions, including the 100 Years of Caricature
exhibition at the Ramataan Centre in the Taha Hussein Museum in January 2011; and Funny Concerns, organised by the Egyptian Association for
Caricature in May 2012. Among the international collective exhibitions he showed in was Egyptian Smiles, which was held in Bulgaria in 2007.
His artworks were published in many places abroad, including France and Russia. He also illustrated several children’s books in Egypt and the Arab world, and designed posters, among them the poster of the 26th round of the Alexandria International Film Festival in 2010.
Hussein received a good many honours and awards, among them the Ali and Mustafa Amin Award for best illustrative journalist in 1985; the State Incentive Award for children’s illustrations in 1976; the State Appreciation Award in 2003; the Mubarak Prize for arts in 2010; and the Medal of the Future University in May 2011. He won the Suzanne Mubarak National Award for best children’s cartoon book in 1990 and the national children’s drawing inspiration award in 1994. He was also head of the International Jury in the children’s cinema festival in 2001.
For more than 55 years, Hussein’s cartoons truly enriched cultural life in Egypt. He was able to make paintings out of his vivid hot and cold colour cartoons. He drew on Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic heritage for
inspiration, and was heavily influenced by the Egyptian folk environment. He masterfully depicted the Egyptian features, the somewhat thick lips, bushy eyebrow, curved nose, funny fat stomach, and others.
Because he was concerned with national issues, Hussein was keen to answer every invitation to open any exhibition or artistic event he was requested to attend, whether inside or outside Cairo. He would never let anyone down. He was the perfect gentleman.
Hussein was married twice and has a thirty-something son from his first wife. His second wife, Dalia Gaber, is the one who appears with him in the family portrait he painted.
Despite his lengthy struggle with cancer since 2007, Hussen outsmarted his pain by immersing himself in his work and art, faithfully believing he would get well in the end. But that was not to be. On 16 August, the ever-vivid soul reached out to the everlasting, and the tired body was finally laid to rest.
25 August 2014