Symbolic portrayals important to caricature – ‘Art demands both responsibility and courage’

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Ali Ferzat
Ali Ferzat

Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat is one of the Middle East’s most important living artists. Over a career spanning four decades, more than 15,000 of his satirical drawings and caricatures of political figures have been published in Arabic-language and international newspapers.

In 2011, with the first wave of the Arab Spring, Ferzat boldly depicted his dissent against the Asaad regime, using his pen to counter and critically frame the brutality of the regime’s crackdown. In retaliation, he was seized by a group of masked thugs and assaulted savagely, his fingers were broken with the intent of intimidating him into silence.

But the violence only amplified Ferzat’s voice. Photographs of a bloodied and beaten Ferzat spread online, gaining global attention and garnering solidarity. He was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2012.

Fully recovered from the attack, he continues to produce political cartoons today. In this week’s Insight, Ferzat, who has since been living in Kuwait, speaks to the Arab Times about his mission of breaking bonds of fear between his audience and the establishment.

The interview was conducted on the sidelines of the Nuqat creative conference at which Ferzat gave a workshop on Caricature Illustration, teaching young participants how to develop ideas and concepts and to present them appropriately through the satirical lens of the caricature.

A selection of Ali Ferzat’s work is also on display at the Contemporary Art Platform. In ‘Constant Caricature’, part of Nuqat Exhibits, some of his classic cartoons are revisited, stunning in their capacity to remain relevant over the changing decades. Additionally,  the exhibition also uncovers some quirkier and lesser known aspects of Ferzat’s artistic practice, leaving no doubt that his eye for detail is just as sharp as his mind for satire.

Question: Let’s go back to the beginning. Why did you decide to become a cartoonist?

Answer: It was not me who made the decision. Caricature chose me, I did not choose it. I discovered early in life, that I had  a spirit of sarcasm. It is something I cannot help. It is a gift from God and I cannot resist it.

Q: Your hometown of Hama was the scene of a bloody massacre in 1982, how did this incident affect you as an artist?

A: Violence has definitely pushed my limits to express myself. I am totally against aggression. When it happens, it triggers an idea in me and I have to make sure it reaches people so that they know about it, especially living under a regime that is autocratic.

Q: Do you consider yourself living in exile in Kuwait?

A: Not at all. I don’t feel like I’m in exile. I’ve been to Kuwait in the 1980s so it feels like a second home.

Q: Have you faced any issues with security since you left Syria?

A: So far, I have not faced any issues with security.

Q: How did you move from symbolic representations in your cartoons to open, direct representations of political figure?

A: Naturally when a person starts his career, before becoming a professional,  he has to start with the simple stuff and begin with symbols. As he progresses, he becomes more involved in life be it politically, socially or economically, where he can actually better represent what he is seeing. With this progression, his representation becomes more bold and outspoken as he builds an audience that can actually protect him from any kind of negativity that might come from the people he is criticising.

When the Baath party took over in Syria, they banned all privately owned newspapers. So censorship became very strong. For me and other artists to go around censorship, we had to revert to symbolism, that was the key.  I transformed from symbolic and allegorical portrayals of political characters to bluntly drawing them with the support of the audience.

I feel very strongly that when a cartoonist portrays a political character as he is, he is able to break the bond of fear between the audience and the character. The people will see this and realise that it is okay to criticise that character. Having said that, in different situations it is important to go back to the symbolic representations, as they are important to caricature too.

Q: When you decided to caricature Asaad, what sort of backlash did you expect at the time?

A: At the time, I had started receiving some threatening letters so I was expecting something to happen. But I believe that an artist should not just draw on a paper and be hiding in the background but be out on the street, openly facing dictatorship and maltreatment. At that point of time, I did not care about my safety, I wanted to walk the talk. Art demands both responsibility and courage.

Q: Do you feel that other artists have shouldered this responsibility?

A: There are a few vocal artists but most of them are not in Syria. Few have paid the high price of not only their freedom but their life for their being vocal like Akram Raslan. But today more artists need to voice out.

Q: How long did your recovery take?

A: The recovery took almost a year. It took a lot of physical therapy to get the fingers to work.

Q: In your early interactions with Bashar al-Asaad, when he visited your exhibitions, was there any indication of the repression that was to follow?

A: I believe that Bashar al-Asaad and people like him make use of artists, academics and intellectuals, by feigning support  and befriending us. They reach their positions of power either by repressing them or by supporting them. Bashar Asaad reached power by showing that he supports culture and academia. But once he got power he started closing down newspapers, not allowing peaceful conferences to bring in different topics to the floor. This is how a politician makes use of this tactic, and once he gets it, negates it.

Q: Early this year, Charlie Hebdo offices were targeted and cartoonists were gunned down. What is the appropriate response to images that we may find offensive?

A: The response should be word for word, drawing for drawing, and not killing for drawing.

Q: Speaking at the Oslo Freedom Forum two years ago, you stated that the Syrian revolution was successful because it broke the barrier of fear. With the conflict still ongoing today, do you still believe that?

A: Yes I still believe. Even if the war ends, the regime will not be the same as before because people feel that they can break that barrier of fear.

Q: You have been very vocal against the conflict in Syria being termed a civil war. Please explain why.

A: I don’t think that we can call it a civil war because everyone is coming together against the Syrian regime, they are not fighting each other but they are fighting against the regime. The word ‘civil war’ is just a political term created by the media but it does not reflect the reality on the ground.

The explosive barrels that are thrown on civilian neighbourhoods and residential areas, do not discriminate between Muslim or Christian. They are thrown indiscriminately on men and women, on children and the elderly. This is not a civil war.

Q: What is your outlook at the current Syrian refugee crisis?

A:  In my last trip to Holland, I had discussions with the foreign ministry. I expressed a plan to help tackle this issue. I suggested the creation of two committees, one from the European Union and one from the Arab world.

I recommend that Syria should be divided into safe zones. In the north, the safe zone can be managed by Turkey and Qatar, in the south the safe zone managed by the EU and Jordan. This would mean keeping the people within the safe zones, supporting them medically and with necessities. The international community should be engaging within these zones of influence, this way people will stay within proximity of their own country rather than make the journey to Europe. I think that this is plan that the international community should be able to successfully execute if they have the will to do it.

Q: You have served as the head of the Arab Cartoonists’ Association. What can you tell me about your activities?

A: We have always pushed for greater engagement but we face the issue of censorship in every country. So we have abandoned the idea and each one is working individually.

Q: What do you draw these days?

A: Most of my drawings nowadays are focussed on the Syrian crisis and specifically on issues against the change. Social issues are always a concern for me.

Q: Let’s talk about the workshop you gave on Caricature Illustration, why did you decide to collaborate with Nuqat?

A: I decided to give the workshop and collaborate with Nuqat this year because I have found that there is a harmony in ideas and execution between what I do and what Nuqat does. This harmony is what attracted me to collaborate with Nuqat and do the workshop. It has been a good experience, during the workshop I felt that my voice is being heard and understood by the participants very well and all that I am saying is being taken in by the participants thoroughly. They have responded very well in coming up with new ideas to match what I am teaching them.

Q: Are you optimistic about the future of Syria?

A: I am optimistic. I know that eventually victory will come, half of it requires work and the other half requires hope.

Q: Do you expect you’ll return home?

A: I believe so and I feel that it is getting closer.

By Cinatra Fernandes

Arab Times Staff

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