CAIRO: There’s a certain pleasure in walking into a gallery space packed with caricature works, especially if, growing up as a child in Cairo, you were in the habit of checking the daily papers to indulge in the humorous illustrations of the day.
The opening of the group exhibition “Caricature” at Ubuntu Art Gallery in Zamalek, Cairo, then, is a timely celebration of the populist art form and a welcome reminder of its power to inspire laughter and provoke thought. It ends on December 28.
The exhibition features work from numerous artists (predominantly from Egypt, but also from the wider Arab world and beyond). From the genre’s pioneers to modern-day up-and-comers, the exhibition “documents and presents a new historical narrative of caricature art in Egypt” according to the curatorial statement, adding that the genre presents “often sarcastic interpretation(s) inspired by daily life.”
“This is a moment when we come together to say that caricature art is still thriving,” says Samir Abdelghany, curator of the exhibition and a caricaturist himself, as we begin our tour of the two-floored exhibition.
On display is a varied assortment of works tracing the development of caricature as a form of social and political cartooning. The exhibited works vary from funny comic strips to portrait sketches, and from pencil or ink doodles in black-and-white or color, to patchwork, and wire, silicone, steel or stone sculptures.
Many works carry the signatures of prominent artists including Salah Jahin, Hegazy, George Bahgoury, Ragaey, Mohsen Gaber, Ihab Shaker, Salah al-Leithy, Mohyeldin al-Labad, Mohamed Abdel-Moneim Rakha, Ahmed Toughan, Saroukhan, and Mostafa Hussein.
“Essentially, we are celebrating the pioneers of caricature art,” says Abdelghany. “We observe their works and wonder if creativity ebbed after them. But then we come across artists like Doaa Al-Adl, Amro Selim, Makhlouf, and Mostafa Salem, among others, and find that it obviously hasn’t,” he adds.
Abdelghany says Egypt has a long history of caricature, even claiming it is a “pharaoinc art,” as evidenced by ancient drawings, papyri and fragments. The country also has a distinct style, he says. “Egyptian artists took up the art of caricature, and together they helped fashion an all-Egyptian caricature style.”
The exhibition comprises works acquired from private collections — including the families of Saroukhan and Toughan — and from antique dealers. Other works were commissioned specially for the exhibition, which also includes work from Abdelghany’s own collection, which he began to amass in the early Nineties when he moved to Cairo from Alexandria to work as a producer on Egyptian state TV.
“We must have hosted some 50 cartoonists, and each one of them would illustrate at least two pieces before going on air — one for the program director and the other for myself. Eventually, I had amassed a huge collection, but I didn’t know what I was going to with it at the time,” he says. “Another time, I was working on an article about artist Hassan Hakim and needed a motif. He gave me three! Little did I know that 20 years later I would be exhibiting these in a caricature-themed exhibition, with Hakim as one of its stars.”
It was Abdelghany’s personal relationship with Hakim that initially inspired him to curate the exhibition, he says. “I’ve always loved Hakim’s work and I worried that he was going to be forgotten if we didn’t showcase his works more often.”
The gallery’s celebration of the rich culture of Egyptian, and Arab, caricature comes at a time when the art form seems to be battling for survival, Abdelghany says. “There was a time when Sabah Al-Kheir magazine allowed over 30 artists to doodle together in the same workplace. Why is this no longer the case? Talented artists still exist.”
The exhibition is also a chance to educate art students and young artists, according to Said Badawy, an established caricaturist and former illustrator for Al Ahram newspaper, among other publications. Badawy’s contribution to the exhibition is a comical illustration of a dog calling for his owner’s attention as her husband engages in an affair with another woman. “It is a funny caricature that attests to the dog’s never-ending loyalty,” says Badawy.
He says that each work in the exhibition is “a lesson in its own right” for visiting aspiring artists, portraying the importance of social and political cartoons, and highlighting the artists’ position as ‘the voice of the streets.’
“The role of a caricature artist is not to collect the mountains of rubbish piled up next to a hospital, for example, but to illustrate the health hazards caused by this waste and shed light on corruption with his satire-themed strokes,” he explains. “The caricatures on display are a candid representation of different moments in Egypt’s modern history, which in turn left their mark on the work of (the) artists.”
Beyond functioning as an alternative, often-critical, documentation of Egypt’s social and political history, caricature can also be an avid celebration of cultural life. This is especially clear in the work of Mohamed Hakem, who contributes two vibrant works to the exhibition. The first is of an Egyptian moulid, and the second of a street fight in an Egyptian harra (alleyway). The latter is a major source of inspiration for Hakem, who has created 41 large illustrations of the “big world” of the harra to date. “No one has captured its essence, except maybe for (filmmaker) Salah Abou Seif.” (He also cites the “attempts” of two other filmmakers, Kamal Al-Sheikh and Youssef Chahine.)
Caricature is often seen as an ‘inferior’ visual-art form (particularly by fine artists), with its often crude or childish representations considered to demonstrate a lack of “true” ability on the part of its artists. That idea is at the core of Abdelghany’s own contribution to the exhibition — an acrylic painting which shows a couple embracing as they exchange a long glance, thus imagining “caricature in a relationship with fine art,” he explains.
“Caricatures can carry fine-art elements, and vice versa,” says Abdelghany, adding that one of the reasons he was keen to invite artists such as Mohamed Abla, Samir Fouad, and Mostafa Rahma to contribute caricature-inspired paintings to the exhibition was to promote this idea. “(Caricaturists) can create fine art.”
And they do. Abdelghany says he expects the exhibition to run in December 2020 and December 2021 as well. It is, he says, “a victory for caricature art.”