Having visited the Goethe Institute’s inaugural ceremony for its new comic book and graphic novel exhibition, I had the sensation that a storm was brewing among the too-long suppressed underground world of pop art.
Moving among a young, hip and often anarchical group of artists at Cairo’s first ever exhibition of this type, there was an unambiguous sense of hope for the future importance of the graphic novel and comic book in the Egyptian literary and artistic canon.
For nearly two months, the Goethe Institute organized a workshop titled “The Comics Experiment, supervised by acclaimed German graphic novelist Iza Creits and Egyptian comics artist Madgy El-Shafee. A large number of Egyptian comics artists participated in the workshop and its outcome was unveiled last Sunday at the institute’s headquarters in Downtown Cairo.
As artist Kareem Ahmed said, “We all hope that one day, everyone will hold a comic or graphic novel in their hand. Ahmed is the creator of the impressive “Cairo 2060 series, based around a futuristic and dystopian Cairo where factions of vigilantes battle for control of the city.
Egypt’s first ever graphic novel “Metro was published last year but was removed from bookshelves by the censorship a few months later. This has not, however, dampened the enthusiasm of its author El-Shafee or prevented him from sourcing young Egyptian talent and organizing an exhibition in which they can showcase their work to comic book enthusiasts and prospective publishers.
Talking to El-Shafee, it was clear that he had quickly come to terms with his own thwarting, shrugging it off as a simple technicality and reassuring that there was no doubt in his mind that the struggle for the promotion of Egyptian graphic novels and comics would not be silenced so easily.
For him graphic novels represent the current ideas, illusions and hopes and fears of a disenfranchised Egyptian youth. Graphic novels and comics give power back to young people, providing them with their own identifiable art form.
“Cairo 2060 depicts a world in which governmental autocracy has collapsed and the struggle between good and evil is conducted, not by ministers snuggled in a corrupt government, but by the city’s heroic youth on the very streets they inhabit.
It is not difficult to understand why graphic novels are a point of controversy. One look at the buxom, scantily clad heroines, found not just in Ahmed’s work, is enough to make the conservative flinch. But the message remains clear: this is more than just mere escapism.
Comics are not a new phenomenon in Egypt. Tawfiq Muhammad, comic artist and regular contributor to the Saudi owned comic “Basim, points out that Egyptian children comics – most famously the Disney-based comic adventures “Mickey – have been available for more than 60 years. He draws his main influences from the comic books of his childhood that included the famous American DC Marvel series. His satirical versions of a knobbly-kneed Superman wearing heart underwear over his classic red and blue caped suit in “Cryptofull are a result of this exposure.
Magazines such as “Basim employ many artists from all over the Arab world but the real future lies in their own independent publications. By incorporating the help of foreign comic book artists such as Isabel Kites to run artist workshops and by securing the endorsement of international cultural bodies such as the Goethe Institute, El-Shafee is adding muscle to his renaissance movement.
Nevertheless, El-Shafee remains adamant that the change must first come from within Egypt itself. Publishing houses must be prepared to take the risk, he says, because there is not only an enormous amount of untapped Egyptian artistic talent but also a wide readership available.
The huge amount of interest generated by this particular exhibition, the tangible buzz among the artists and the number of Facebook groups discussing their work, are all testament to a genuine desire for making comics and graphic novels available in this country.
Not only is the art work itself of supreme quality – the sheer attention to detail in the “Cairo 2060 character sketches is evident in the bulging muscles, chiseled faces and screeching motorbikes – but also the works represent the desires of a section of society too often ignored. El-Shafee, Ahmed and Tawfiq’s dream will be fulfilled, even if we have to wait until 2060.
“The Comics Experiment exhibition is currently on display at Goethe Institute’s Bustan Street branch in Downtown Cairo. Tel: 012 889 1197