6˚ of Separation: Artistic rebellion with a cause
We featured Rashid Al Kuwari, a Qatari cartoonist in the previous interview of this series. He recommended Abdulaziz Yousef, who is a fellow-Qatari cartoonist. Together, they publish cartoons in a popular Arabic daily newspaper.
Public relations professional by day and an artist/cartoonist for all time, Abdulaziz Yousef is on a mission to turn heads towards Qatari art. He speaks with honesty and heartfelt words of how the memories of a simpler time in Qatar and in his life inspire him to create art every day.
Qatar is a part of my identity and one thing that really challenges and inspires me here is what Sheikha Mayassa does. She’s really pushing the boundaries of peoples’ expectations of art. This really opens up their minds to how different art can be created and as an artist, it gives me the confidence to create and present the craziest things that I can. My main aim is to present my local identity through my cartoons, to raise the level to meet international standards and to stand out – to create a distinct local school of art, perhaps something like a Qatari Disneyland.
Memories from the years I grew up in Qatar come back to me frequently as things were so different then – the times were simpler, people were genuine and there weren’t too many complexities – the quality of life was so much richer. I associate my grandmother, a peaceful and affectionate person, with those years in my life and the values that were passed on to me by her are what I try to uphold each day.
I was one of those nerdy boys who always studied hard and excelled in everything. But I always had a piece of paper at the back of my books where I could draw, usually alone by a wall in a part of the house where no one really would find me. As a teenager in a conservative society, it can be hard to express oneself and rebel against the norm. At that phase, words just weren’t enough for me to express myself and since drawing was one of my biggest passions, it became my medium of self-expression.
Some non-Qatari Arabs do not understand our dialect and may find it hard to follow some of the cartoons that contain words and slang from our dialect. Our purpose is to get others to understand us and our culture and the best way for us to introduce them to this is through the language in our cartoons, which is what gives them that unique flavour.
The cartoon culture among Qataris is growing. We have a number of fanboys who imitate the anime cartoons they see and then we have an older generation of cartoonists who want to create and represent more serious art, the way it should be.
Currently, contributions to the local art scene by Qatari artists are very few and I don’t blame people because as artists here, we don’t have the courage to bring in something new and we also want to play it safe. So it is natural for people to lose interest.
In kindergarten, the kids would tease me by calling me ‘temsah’, which means crocodile in Arabic; they thought my teeth were much bigger than theirs. Somehow that name just stuck with me and I decided to use it as my nickname for all my professional artwork.
In our small gang of Qatari artists, we have two female cartoonists who began practising this art much before the rest of us did and were our role models too at one point; I’d like them to think beyond sketch pens and paper and I think their best is yet to come.
My sister-in-law Fatima Al-Nesf is an active cartoonist too. It’s really great that we can discuss our work and art during family lunches and practice new things. Our current obsession is screen printing.
My pieces are like my children. I don’t have very many to sell right now, but I only do so if I find the right ‘parent’ for each.
The other cartoonists in my circle and I consider ourselves to be more mid-range street artists. Finding a space to exhibit our work is hard because of all the legal procedures involved. Most of the reputed galleries are exclusive to some people. If we want to begin a business, we have to find a place to rent, get the government to agree, invest at least QR200,000 initially and acquire a license, which in turn is not an easy process. Or else, we have to invest all of these resources and do something that might be acceptable by the big gallery owners and take the risk. It may or may not really work out in our favour.
One of the best things that happened to me was when Damien Hirst requested to purchase one of my cartoons, which he saw in the newspaper. I was delighted and presented it to him, for which I also received a thank you letter from Sheikha Mayassa.
Works by post-modern artists such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst really inspire me. When I was younger, I lived in the US for a few years, where I worked as an art gallery operator. This was back in 2003 when there wasn’t much art exposure for Qataris. I was really surprised to discover that people do not stick just to painting on a canvas to create art. Seeing how galleries work and all the exposure to the widespread art scene really threw me off and inspired me to look at things very differently.
For the next interview in this series Abdulaziz recommends we talk to Latifa Al-Darwish, a cartoonist and filmmaker.