For over 20 years, Kamal Sharaf has been drawing caricatures and humorous illustrations in the comfort of his home. Now, his eye-popping and thought-provoking work is appearing in numerous Yemeni magazines, newspapers and books. Sharaf is a regular contributor to Al-Jomhooriya newspaper and is a proud husband and father of two beautiful children. He compiled his cartoons related to the 2011 revolution in a book soon to be published.
Sharaf talks to La Voix du Yémen about his impressive and creative works and thoughts, and the way he uses simple lines and color to depict his ideas and thoughts onto paper.
La Voix du Yémen (LVDY): How does a typical day look like for you?
Kamal Sharaf: I wake up early in the morning I go to the office, then I think about the cartoon idea that I’ll be drawing that day. I browse the news. I read certain columns by Yemenis and Arabs then I choose the subject and start drawing. Sometimes though, the subjects end up choosing me instead of me choosing them.
After work, I go home and after seeing my children and wife, I like to go on Facebook and look at what the Yemeni youth and writers are up to. I try to exercise to lose my belly fat but that’s been a failure so I read instead. Reading to me is holy; before I sleep I have to read a certain book. I believe a caricature artist who doesn’t read is meaningless. The most important part of my knowledge and art comes from reading.
LVDY: How did you develop your drawing style?
Sharaf: I used to follow Naji Ali, a Palestinian cartoonist, his life and his resistance to the Israeli occupation. He died as a martyr for doing what he loves and believes in. That was planted in me and I recognized that his art was an important weapon that supported the truth and also a tool of political expression. I was also following the work of Ali Farzat, a Syrian cartoonist. I don’t really follow non-Arab cartoonists because of the language barrier.
LVDY: Why do you sketch?
Sharaf: For me, it is a way to breath, I feel alive when I draw. Without it, I feel dead. Drawing is not a job, it is a part of me, it is something in me. It is through drawing that I found myself. It is part of my personality. It is through drawing that I get to express my attitude, my passion, my politics, my struggles, and my dreams.
LVDY: When did you start sketching?
Sharaf: I started at a young age, I used to draw for a local children’s magazine called Osamah then I moved on to drawing for another newspaper called Adam and Eve, it was a newspaper that discussed social issues. I was 15 years old at the time. Then I went on a 10-year hiatus and stopped drawing. This was because I began feeling down about the work I was doing. We don’t have a supportive art and journalism community here or even a caricature community, and the media doesn’t recognize its importance or appreciate it. So I stopped and just began drawing for myself.
Then in 2007 when Facebook became popular in Yemen, I resumed my drawing. Facebook was a big factor for me because I was able to publish my work and I was able to overcome and surpass the authorities. I realized the impact of my drawing on people and then I began receiving offers from Al Jazeera. I worked for them for a while, I was the only Yemeni cartoonist to draw for them, and then I worked for some local Yemeni newspapers with Jomhooriya, a state run newspaper.
LVDY: Does Al-Jamhooriya newspaper force a certain subject on you?
Sharaf: No, but they have objected to some of my cartoon drawings. When that happens, I just resort to Facebook for the work that is declined. Most of the work that has been published by Al-Jamhooriya is on social topics.
LVDY: What is your favorite topic and why?
Sharaf: Socio-political justice, because it’s the ground of all other subjects. I think cartoons are like a small court for politicians and those that are using religion.
LVDY: How did you learn to draw people?
Sharaf: I studied and got trained in drawing in Fantasia Institute, in Sana’a. It’s the only real professional institute here in Sana’a, and with sketching practice and seeing other people’s work, I was able to learn more.
LVDY: When you are sketching is it society that is speaking to you or are you sketching things that you are personally impacted by?
Sharaf: My work represents issues I am impacted by as well as my community, our struggles and our challenges. Similarly to writing an article, the text should carry the writer. I think it is best to sketch on subjects you and your communities are personally impacted by.
Some cartoonists are tasked with drawing around specific issues that are not personal to them but I don’t do that because cartooning is something important and it is something born out of me so I cant draw something that I don’t feel. Sometimes I am embarrassed if I get a request and don’t feel a personal connection to it but if I feel it is an important topic, I will draw it without putting my name on it.
LVDY: Can you describe your process of creating a sketch?
Sharaf: First, it is important I read about the subject matter as much as I can from diverse sources, like an investigative story or an op-ed and etc. and after the reading comes reflection. During the reflection I determine the theme and this is the hardest process. Then comes the implementation of the sketch. First I sketch manually on my notepad then I get on the computer, I scan it to the computer, and using editing software like Photoshop I begin to color the cartoon.
But sometimes an idea suddenly comes to my mind that I already have enough political education about, so I sketch immediately. Political issues are built on accumulated social justice issues that many of us have been forced to face so this helps to create the cartoon really quickly as it doesn’t require me to do any additional research.
Having a political understanding of Yemen and the world gives me a foundation, which helps me create numerous political cartoons to start off from. I think of something very simple that can convey the message. The imagination is a critical tool for the cartoonist.
LVDY: Does sketching tie in with any other work that you do? If so, how?
Sharaf: I am also a designer and I write short stories so I sometimes blend my caricature artwork with my design profession too. I am also trying to develop satirical political cartoons in 3-D.
LVDY: You have faced threats for your work. The state or the political elite have felt offended by your political art-work can you tell us about that, and has the revolution change things?
Sharaf: I am still continuing in the same path, exposing the truth and revealing the real image of the religious clerics and sheikh’s in Yemen. The last threat I had was from the case of Sheikh Ali Al Awadhi and the murder of two youth (Khalid Al-Khatib and Hassan Aman), both in their 20’s. I drew Al Awadhi and under his beard were the two young victims in hiding. The cartoon spread like a virus.
LVDY: Is there a difference between drawing and caricature?
Sharaf: Simple drawing has rules while caricature depends on imagination and there are also no guidelines or rules, the only rule for sketching is imagination, imagining the person you are drawing and being creative with it. The most famous people are the ones who draw from their imagination.
The most important part of sketching is the sketching itself and the theme of the artwork. It is not how you draw or what you used to draw it is rather the theme or the message inside this artwork, it’s like the sentence of a thinker, even if his handwriting was bad it doesn’t mean his idea and his messaging wasn’t powerful.
There are international cartoonists that are incredibly famous and if you see their work, you would think a child drew it but when you look at it for a while you will recognize the power of the cartoon and the message it carries.
LVDY: Who do you think is most interested in the work that you do?
Sharaf: Ordinary people, the working class, the poor and the Youth. The success for the cartoonist I think is if the simple people are interested in the artwork.
I do not find the opinion of journalists, writers, scholars and philosophers as important as the opinion and feedback I receive from ordinary people. The “educated” elites have many different tools and instruments that can deliver their message while the simple, ordinary, marginalized, and illiterate can find their voice through caricature art without any restrictions. It is those that are much more in need for simple drawings to convey their messages.
What are your top 4 tips for readers who want to sketch?
Sharaf: – Read and surround yourself with things that inspire you, generate ideas and take a position.
– Imagination is everything: dig deep into your brain
– Practice, practice and practice
– The only limit to your ability to draw is the limit you put on yourself.
LVDY: is there a history of cartooning in Yemen?
Sharaf: There’s not much of a big history like Syria and Egypt where they were privileged enough with schools that gave support to artists. In Yemen, there was no such thing. But we did have artists. The first sketch came from Adnan Juman, an artist in Aden, and Mohammed Al Shaibani and Aref Al-Badwi in Sana’a in the 1960’s and 70’s.
However, political restrictions were a lot tenser at that time so there was limited interest in challenging power dynamics through art practices. Art leaders at the time didn’t even leave their fingerprint and they barely passed on their knowledge to the younger generation but they are not to blame. I put the blame on the media who are heavily dependent on text as though it is the only way to speak on social justice issues. They have this mentality that cartoons are childish entertainment, which don’t hold anything meaningful, so space for artistic journalistic participation was absent.
But after the revolution and with the help of the Internet and social media, the appreciation of art is finally on the rise. The situation for cartooning improved, many people began seeing the pen as a resistance tool, many drawings on then president Ali Abdullah Saleh popped up and enthusiasm for art grew. Artists incorporated their feelings about the political situation through artistic practices. This drew local papers to give space for cartoonists. It was exciting because what once was a practice we did quietly in our homes started to be widely appreciated. Thus, our art became visible locally and internationally.
Sketching in Yemen needs a lot of cultural support, even cartoonists themselves, we need institutional support there are so many great talents in Yemen, however we do not have art spaces to exhibit our work or have a space to keep learning. All the ones [artists] I know, great cartoonists, they don’t work in sketching because sketching alone cannot provide their income. Some cartoonists stopped because there is no future for a cartoonist in Yemen. However, I am not giving up. My friends and I are trying to do something for the cartoonist community, we are demanding rights and training courses.
We have a great opportunity right now because of the Internet, it has allowed us to use this platform to learn about other peoples work and connect to artists. But all of this is personal effort not organized effort. Because our environment is not really helping innovation, so for anyone who wants to be a cartoonist they need to rely on themselves, they cannot wait for support from anyone..
LVDY: What is your dream?
Sharaf: My dream is to build a 3-D publishing house and a sarcastic socio-political newspaper dedicated to cartooning that pays the artists well and treats them well. Some have tried and have been blocked, but my dream still lives.
Interview conducted by Rooj Alwazir
Some of Kamal Sharaf’s famous cartoons:
Rooj Alwazir is a Yemeni-American organizer in Washington D.C., and co-founder of SupportYemen.