Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 July 2009
Issue No. 957
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Not just another cartoonist

Syrian painter Youssef Abdelki, recently back in Syria after many years spent abroad, specialises in political protest of the indirect sort, writes Sayed Mahmoud in Damascus

Click to view caption
From Left to Right: Abdelki signing his catalogue; Two Dishes; The Bird and The Knife; Abdelki at the Fine Arts College, Damascus 1974; An Elegy To The 1970s Generation

Ten years ago or more, the Syrian painter Youssef Abdelki had an exhibition in the Mashrabiya Gallery in Cairo. His work was fraught with political protest of a quiet type, the type that comes with headless fish and disembodied shoes.

Back then, Abdelki was living in Paris. He doesn't refer to that period as a time of exile but rather as a "waiting station". He was just another member of the Syrian intelligentsia opposed to some of the policies of the regime back home. With the relative improvement in the political situation, however, Abdelki decided to go back to Syria. It wasn't an easy decision to make, and he hesitated over it for quite some time.

Abdelki formerly worked for years as a cartoonist for the UAE newspaper Al-Khaleej, but he has also honed his skills as an outstanding graphic artist. Politically inclined, and constantly worried about the future of his country, Abdelki as a young man was very keen on pursuing his artistic career. He left Damascus after getting a degree from the Fine Arts College in the city in 1976 and went on to earn a diploma in graphic design in Paris in 1986, followed by a PhD in 1989.

During his years of "waiting", Abdelki had a solo exhibition in Damascus in 1973 and also exhibited in Tunisia, Cairo, Jordan, Beirut, Sharjah and Dubai. The British Museum has bought four of his works, and the Institut du monde arabe in Paris two. The Digne-Les- Bains Museum in France has also bought works by Abdelki, as have the Kuwaiti National Museum and the Oman Museum for Modern Art.

At first encouraged by his father, also very much politically inclined, Abdelki started doing cartoons in 1966, going on to develop his skills through doing illustrations for children's books and magazines. Abdelki is now in Damascus preparing for a new exhibition for the Jabla Festival, an annual event held in a town close to Latakia. I ask this man, who has lived 24 years outside his country, "waiting" as he puts it, about his feelings at being back home.

"Much has changed in the structure of Syrian society," he says, "especially in the cities. These changes may not have affected the historic heart of Damascus, but they have left their mark on the suburbs. The capital is now surrounded by randomly built districts and by towns that are larger than the original Damascus itself."

Abdelki pauses before answering a question about whether these changes have affected his work as an artist.

"I don't want to talk about the architectural and aesthetic distortions that the city has suffered," he says. "Suffice it to say that these developments have created new urban relationships because of the 'ruralisation' of the city, a phenomenon that is not only dangerous to art, but also to the way people live. Ruralisation can create a conservative view of the world and narrow the scope of people's interests. When people focus primarily on making a living they stop thinking about improving society, or enhancing the future, or seeking political freedom -- the very things that kept our generation and the one before it busy."

We sit in the window of a coffeehouse called "Andena", which is popular among artists and journalists. Abdelki points at the houses crowding the Qassiun Mountain overlooking Damascus and sighs.

"However, there is another change that I have sensed among my closest friends," he says. "The hope inside them has shrunk, and they have given up and become accustomed to all the changes that have occurred in everyday life." One thing that still makes Abdelki himself optimistic, however, is the fact that the coffeehouse is filled with paintings, and that the singer Fayrouz is still singing in the background.

Despite his disappointments at Syria today, Abdelki does not seem to regret his decision to come back to his native land. Speaking in a steady but animated tone, he says that "I don't regret coming back. Since my first day in Paris I looked on the city simply as a way-station. I was always waiting to come back, and my waiting has continued for 25 years. When I decided to come back four years ago, I came because I wanted to, without coordinating my decision with any party or politician first."

Abdelki admits that Paris was rich in art and architecture. As way-stations go, Paris was the "shop window of the world" and a place where every form of art and culture could be found. It was a cauldron that moulds identities. Abdelki himself had many individual and collective exhibitions in Paris between 2002 and 2007, and the experience has influenced the way he works and the way he now cooperates with other artists. He leaves the table for a while and then comes back carrying a catalogue of his work from a bookshelf in the same coffeehouse.

I leaf through the paintings and read a review in which art critic Emile Monem says that "Abdelki became a graphic artist because he wanted to be an active force, because he wanted to take on inanimate matter and bend its rigidity. His work has a space for imagination and a space where personal energy, anger too, takes on a physical form."

I ask Abdelki about the changes in his work after his return to Syria. "Before I went to France, my paintings had a clear political message," he says, "which was one of protest. When I was still new in Paris I started working on still life, in order to show the relationship between matter and space. I was expressing then the alienation that I myself felt."

Abdelki sees his Paris period as a period of forced estrangement. He always wanted to return to Syria, he says, but the political circumstances were not right. He speaks of how alienation can seep into neutral subjects, even into drawing a fish in a dish or flowers in pots. Abdelki often uses ink on paper as a medium, as in his depictions of birds of paradise, subjects that stray from any conventional political vocabulary. The tension that one sees in such pieces is subtle, like the indirect lighting of the subject matter. This style, with all its subtlety and indirectness, is still evident in the pieces Abdelki finished after coming back to Syria.

Back home in Damascus, Abdelki comments in more optimistic mood that "the old dreams and projects have come back to life. Now I dream about working in the countryside, meeting the people once more and learning about their daily concerns away from the restrictions of city life." Above all, the shift to still life does not mean that Abdelki has turned his back on the political concerns that characterised his cartoon pieces, some of which were done in bas relief.

"Certain motifs are evident in my recent work," Abdelki says, "such as the headless fish and the empty shoes, where the symbolism is clear. In general, I prefer to give a subject matter its own symbolism. For example, I may draw a dead bird in protest against the idea of killing. The elements of my pieces are not neutral; rather, they are intertwined with my obsessions and political views. However, the impact of such pieces is more profound than a piece in which I draw a gun, for instance."

Knowing his past as a leftist activist who has been engaged in politics since the 1970s, I ask him about how he now feels about politics.

"Politics is not a thing of the past," Abdelki answers. "I am convinced that every citizen should be involved in politics. The Arab authorities have confiscated politics and banned people from the things that matter in their lives. On the aesthetic level, my work has struggled to find its own equilibrium and banish vulgar connotations. I have tried to express issues related to major existential problems. And in my work I have tried to avoid a direct approach. I aspire to find formulas that reflect a subliminal aesthetic and avoid crass incitement."

Abdelki also believes that his cartoon work has helped him personally.

"Doing the cartoons as a form of protest brings a sense of relief, which in turn helps free my art from a direct approach. I do not think that a direct approach is necessarily flawed. Goya and Picasso, for example, did some directly political pieces. However, it was only when their work touched people's souls that it became really worthwhile. The problem of political art lies in its form. It can be profound and refined, or it can be direct and ephemeral."

Despite the present popularity of his work, Abdelki has now stopped doing cartoons. While he does not seem to mind this, he admits that the decision was taken as a result of outside pressure.

"I stopped doing cartoons about four years ago. At the time I was working for the Al-Khaleej, and one day the new editor did something to me and the newspaper that I don't think was very professional. To make a long story short, he abolished the margin of freedom that we had had earlier, which led to a situation of professional imbalance that I couldn't accept."

Abdelki has not worked for other newspapers since. He now says that the media eats up the time that should go to art. However, he also says that he might go back to the press if the situation were right. "If I get a good offer to work in the weekly press, I might say yes," he comments.

Why, I ask, have many Arab cartoonists stopped doing cartoons and started doing children books instead.

Abdelki chuckles as he answers. "Perhaps it is just despair. But in the case of once great Egyptian artists, like Ahmed Hegazi, I imagine it is also a kind of protest. Painters can have trouble with their form of art. Day after day, the space of freedom allowed to Arab cartoonists narrows. In the 1950s, when oppressive dictatorships ruled, the margin of freedom was actually greater than it is now. Perhaps we need the type of freedom we've had before. In fact, diminishing freedom places the cartoonist in a more difficult position than the journalist or writer, for the margin of manoeuvre in imagery is more limited. Cartoons are also based on irony, which is hard to camouflage."

What are his plans for the future?

"I would love to work in the Sudan, in the Egyptian countryside, in south Tunisia, and in China. I need new colours on my palette," he answers.

How does he see Arab art today?

"Art in the Arab world, especially in the Gulf, has gone through a boom. Look at the number of galleries, of new artists, and at the spiralling prices of paintings. This is something that one has to attribute to the wealth amassed from oil revenues. However, now that the world is going through a recession, I believe that things will become more normal again."

It's not that today's Arab artists do not deserve the money they make. "In fact, the old prices were unfair to artists," Abdelki comments. "However, let's not forget that the financial and artistic values of a given piece are not one and the same thing."

Prices of paintings by Syrian masters like Fateh Al-Modarres, Louai Kiayli and Mahmoud Hammad have also gone up.

"This is all to the good," Abdelki says, "but it would be even better were the prices to go up gradually, since that would inspire confidence. A short-lived boom is not necessarily a good thing, though in the long run time tends to smooth things over."

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