graphic artists in the arab countries

A medium for self-expression and social critique: Recognising the rich talents of MENA illustrators and cartoonists

Back for the first time in three years, the Mahmoud Kahil Award for comics, cartoons and illustrations recognises the talents and creative achievements of artists from across the MENA region.

Comic artists and illustrators from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Palestine came together in Beirut for the seventh edition of the Mahmoud Kahil Awards last month. Prizes were awarded in an official ceremony held at Dar El-Nimer, a non-profit art and cultural space dedicated to historical, modern, and contemporary productions on March 31.

“Arab comics, art and graphic novels are quite diverse,” Lina Ghaibeh, Director of the Mu’taz & Rada Sawwaf Comic Strip Initiative, told The New Arab. “You get a lot of the personal narratives [that are] grounded in the region. There's a lot of social [and] political commentary. Of course, themes of conflict, war and refugees exist, but they're not the only things.

“These artworks are introspective, at times dreamy,” she said. “They express joy and humour, as much as isolation, loneliness and uncertainty.”

This coincided with the opening of an exhibition of caricatures and comic strips, featuring over 120 works, as well as the launch of the Initiative’s annual book which contains the drawings and texts of the award winners.

Although the award programme is open to entrants from many backgrounds and does not demand works that address any particular, specific topic, the influence of recent events across the both MENA region and the world can be felt in this year’s selection.

“I would say it is a little more particular,” said Ghaibeh. “You can really feel the past two years of quarantine [and] the pandemic. It's more poetic. It's very cerebral. You also get a little more darkness.”

Themes of mental health, loneliness, and isolation all feature prominently, reflecting a trend of comics increasingly being used as a medium for self-expression and social critique, as artists respond to events such as Lebanon’s economic crisis, the Beirut port explosion, the Syrian Civil War and ongoing violent clashes in Gaza.

Established in 2014 in honour of the late Mahmoud Kahil, one of the leading cartoonists and caricaturists of the Arab world, the programme promotes comics, editorial cartoons and illustrations by recognising the talents and creative achievements of artists from across the MENA region.

The categories included Editorial Cartoons, Graphic Novels, Comic Strips, Graphic Illustrations and Children’s Book Illustrations, along with two honorary awards, the Lifetime Achievement Award and the Comics Guardian Award.

The political caricature category – the most prominent category, with a prize of $10,000 (USD) – was won by Ahmed Al-Khatib, a Jordanian artist currently residing in the United States. His technically simplistic style nevertheless conveys a powerful sense of emotionality through his highly expressive, exaggerated imagery.

As Khatib was unable to come to Beirut himself, his mother received the award on his behalf.

"The award means a lot to me because it bears the name Mahmoud Kahil,” Khatib said in a pre-recorded speech video. “[He] is one of the cartoonists I was most influenced by, along with the Lebanese cartoonist Habib Haddad and the Egyptian painter Helmy Al-Tuni."

In the category of graphic novels, Dans le Taxi by Barrack Rima (as seen in the article's cover image), a Lebanese comic artist living in Brussels, took the prize. Her story takes the reader on a journey through personal history, desire, sexuality and old wounds, set against the backdrop of her birthplace of Tripoli, all rendered in stark black and white.

“In all my works, I [find that I] am not able to fit into categories,” said Rima. “For me, it's very interesting to mix genres. In all my work, I have autobiography – I draw myself and I'm talking in the first person – but, at the same time, it's not about myself. It's about trying to create something that is common, that I am sharing with other people.

“Because my work is based on personal experiences, there's always reference to Lebanon,” she added. “I feel that I want to disconnect with this country, but it's obvious that I'm not able to. I left when I was 18. That was 30 years ago [but] I still have this connection.”

The prize for children's book illustrations went to A Chase by the Palestinian artist Baraa Al-Awoor. In her first visit to Lebanon, she travelled from the Gaza Strip, overcoming great difficulties to attend the ceremony in person.

Awoor’s illustrations combine sparse, striking visuals and clean line work with flashes of bright colour and gentle shading, creating surreal images that evoke curiosity in the face of what is at once both familiar and unfamiliar.

“It’s a great honour to get this award,” said Baraa. “More than the prize money, it offers exposure to the world and affirms an artist’s place in this industry, not just in the Arab world, but also internationally.

“In comics and illustration, it’s essential to understand your audience and to have contact with them,” she continued. “In Gaza, we don’t have institutions for comics or university courses for children’s literature. I would love to study it, but it’s hard to find in the Arab world.”

Iraqi artist Ali Mandlawi received the Lifetime Achievement award, in appreciation of those who have spent a quarter of a century or more in the service of the arts of comic strips, expressive drawings and political caricatures.

The Comics Guardian award, recognising those who support comic strips and caricatures in the Arab world on a large scale and contribute to the cultural heritage of the region, went to the SkefKef project from Morocco.

A special honorary award was also given to Palestinian-Lebanese-British journalist Jihad Al-Khazen. In addition to serving as editor-in-chief of both Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and Al-Hayat, he has been a foundational supporter of the Mahmoud Kahil Awards award. Unable to attend due to illness, his wife received the award on his behalf.

Robert McKelvey is a British freelance journalist and culture writer based in Lebanon.

Follow him on Twitter: @RCMcKelvey