Egypt museum pays tribute to cartoons
TUNIS & CAIRO - An Egyptian artist is trying to make sure that the art of drawing cartoons, or caricatures as they are known in the Arab world, gets adequate recognition as a modern art form and secures its place as an important historical record of its influence in Egypt.
Mohamed Abla, who once sought to become a professional cartoonist but is a prominent fine artist and sculptor, founded Egypt’s first museum of cartoons.
The museum in Tunis, a village in the central province of Fayoum, boasts hundreds of cartoons, satirically and artistically documenting almost everything that has happened in Egypt in the past century.
“Some of the cartoons are among the first to be drawn in Egypt,” Abla said. “They would have been lost forever if they had not been exhibited here.”
Abla, originally fond of collecting stamps and rare coins, developed a passion for collecting cartoons more than two decades ago. He has collected hundreds of cartoons, some by Egypt’s most prominent cartoonists.
His museum is turning into a mecca for cartoon lovers and students from all parts of Egypt. Every day, dozens of cartoon lovers pack the museum’s halls to view the exhibits, which represent an honest if sometimes ironic take on the country’s history.
Abla said his museum aimed to pay tribute to the hundreds of Egyptian cartoonists who are out of work or suffering due to tough financial conditions.
“To say the truth, cartooning is becoming the Cinderella of all journalistic arts in this country,” said veteran cartoonist Mohammed al- Sabbagh. “Newspaper editors rarely take cartoonists very seriously.”
In Egypt, just as across the Arab world, most newspapers boast a daily cartoon or caricature taking an ironic or sarcastic look at a political or social situation. The cartoons often get to the heart of an issue with few clean pen strokes in a way that even the most incisive editorial or well-researched investigation does not.
One of Egypt’s most widely read dailies, al-Akhbar, used to publish the famous Kafr al-Hanawdah cartoon on its second page every day.
The cartoon always depicted a farmer, wearing the traditional Egyptian jellabiya and addressing a government official, informing him of the main issue of the Egyptian people on a day-by-day basis.
Political cartoons have lost their lustre, however, and many daily newspapers no longer feature a cartoon and cartoonists are disappearing, too.
Newspaper editors, faced with ever-tightening budgets, have said they have no choice but to let cartoonists go. Some of Sabbagh’s colleagues have stopped drawing. Others have changed professions to earn a living.
Those conditions were in Abla’s mind when he turned the ground floor of his home into a cartoon museum. He opened the museum almost ten years ago. His perseverance over the years has earned him one of the largest caricature collections in the country.
Abla said he tried to land a job as a cartoonist in one of the local newspapers years ago but was unable to find work due to a lack of opportunities. Still, his commitment to caricatures was undimmed.
“This is not about me but about the tight spot that drawing cartoons as an art is being pushed into,” Abla said.
Abla said increased scrutiny and a lack of appetite for political criticism and satire have sounded the death knell for cartoon drawing at a time when political cartoons are needed more than ever.
There are at least 16 journalists currently in Egypt’s jails, according to Reporters without Borders, an international NGO that defends freedom of information and the press. Although none of those in jail are cartoonists, the situation in Egypt means that everyone in the media, including cartoonists and the editors who hire them, must be cautious.
Abla’s museum has three main halls featuring exhibits that focus on various themes. One features cartoons that satirise economic conditions in Egypt. Another shows cartoons that mock the country’s politicians. A third features cartoons taking on social issues.
Many of the cartoons in the museum are about political, economic and social conditions in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century; others focus on current conditions.
Visitors to the museum pay 10 Egyptian pounds (56 US cents) to enter. Abla uses the fees to maintain the museum and pay for general upkeep.
“I have no support whatsoever, so this money is important to keep the place open,” Abla said.
The museum has many regular visitors who come every few weeks to see what new exhibits are on show. Abla changes exhibits every two days, meaning every visit is a new experience.
“This place is more than wonderful,” said Nagham Tawfiq, a fine arts student and frequent visitor to the museum. “Apart from being unique as a concept, the museum brings together some of the best cartoons drawn in the history of our country.”
Dozens of people visit the museum every day, bringing Abla enough revenue to sustain the operation. He said the museum is currently operating at capacity and an influx of new visitors would be challenging.
“The more people visit the museum, the more money I need to keep it clean,” Abla said. “I only want to rescue the cartoons exhibited here from being lost forever at a time beautiful cartoons are becoming rare and cartooning as an art is close to extinction.”