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“If you make fun of someone, you’re not scared of them” – Interview with artist and activist Khalid Albaih

11 October 2019
Photo of cartoonist Khalid Albaih in front of his many cartoons
Image: Khalid Albaih, by Merghani Salih / Instagram

 

Khalid Albaih is no stranger to politics. He is from a political family–his father was a diplomat–and Albaih spent much of his childhood in Sudan before moving with his family to Doha, Qatar.

The political cartoonist would later be inspired by the city’s mix of fashion and diversity when creating his Instagram page Doha Fashion Fridays – a clever form of social commentary which shows the humanity and vibrancy of the migrant workers in Qatar’s capital on their one day off. Social commentary has been Albaih’s modus operandi for his artistic career – with the artist using various creative means to convey deeply complex and cutting commentary.

However, whilst Doha Fashion Fridays takes a more subtle approach to the social strata of Doha’s population, it is Albaih’s other works–his Khartoons–that have garnered him the most polarising attention. His clever illustration of athlete Colin Kaepernick’s kneeled protest, his iconic hair a symbol of Black Power, garnered him popular acclaim with Hollywood praising the artist, and reproductions of his prints selling globally (unfortunately without the artist’s permission, or any compensation).

His moving imagery of the Syrian children devastated by the war illustrated the heartbreaking reality of ongoing conflict; his powerful imagery offering to humanise his subjects in a way that traditional media struggled to achieve.

Cartoon representing Syrian crisis for children and iconic image of US footballer Colin Kaepernick
Choices for Syrian Children; #IstandwithKap / courtesy of Khalid Albaih

 

However, it was due to his commentary on the Arab states that finally led the artist to leave the region for his own protection.

“I’ve been doing a cartoon a day probably for like eight years and that upset a lot of people,” Albaih said to Freemuse, “If you make fun of someone that means you’re not scared of them. And you’re not scared of them, that’s all they have right?”

He recalls an incident where he was arrested in an Egyptian airport. He explains the tension and fear that surrounded his work, describing each publication of his work online as creating a greater a climate of fear as increasing amounts of people around him were arrested for speaking about the state of authorial powers in the Arab world.

“It got tighter and tighter for me because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Albaih said to Freemuse, “whether in Egypt or Sudan… or in Saudi, I really thought it was best for me to leave–until things get better”.

Commissioned as an artist in residence by the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN)–an organisation he states to “admire so much” for protecting creatives at risk– Albaih now calls Copenhagen home where his work still revolves around creative advocacy and activism.

Whether through his installation Camp / Wall / Flock at Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Jacksonville, which vividly depicts the liberation and restriction of citizenship rights in part through giant-sized flying passports or most recently–his endeavour to develop the Sudan Art Fund (SAF).

Albaih envisions the fund to boost the creative economy in Sudan–to empower the country’s artistic potential by supporting artist projects and the artists themselves. The artist describes the ferocity of artistic expression in North Africa.

“So, we went through an amazing revolution, an amazing, peaceful revolution [the Arab Spring] after 30 years. And art was a huge part of it. You see the graffiti and it’s not because people love street art, it is because they wanted to express themselves. They wanted to say it so badly that they did it on walls in the street. You know, this is the this is how much they were censored before, that literally I think the first thing that exploded in the Arab Spring was art, it’s everywhere and that’s an expression of freedom”

However, its an investment that the artist describes as lacking and underappreciated. And something he endeavours to change.

“You know, these forces are way bigger than you and its status as a continuation. I mean, so what’s the best way to fight?  Keep that continuation going,” Albaih said to Freemuse, “So, with projects like the fund, these are very important for the continuation and improvisation of people getting information, which will kind of lead them in their own way.”

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