The fearless master of the visual jab: The cartoons of Ali Ferzat

The horrendous story of how Sakharov Prize laureate Ali Ferzat was beaten up and had his hands broken by thugs working on behalf of the Al Assad regime is very well known, as are his outstanding cartoons. The man himself potentially less so.

I was honoured to get to know him on his short visit to our islands in November, organised by the European Parliament Information Office in Malta, and what I got to know of him was wonderful. A man who laughs out loud at jokes that tickle his fancy, loves life, but does not fear death if it means compromising on his beliefs. A man who believes in the power of satirical images, and how they can bring people together.

I was invited by the organisers of his visit to meet with Ali Ferzat up close a number of times while he was in Malta, and we had time for some long conversations. In the main, the talk was about Syria and the dire situation there, with political powers from around the world contributing directly to the nature of the war that is destroying the lives of the common Syrians. This was also the main topic of the well received talk he gave at University on November 19.

aliferzatgorg
Ali Ferzat talking about cartoons with Ġorġ Mallia (photo by Marie Louise Kold)

Because I had been introduced to him as a cartoonist, we also talked about the techniques he uses for his cartoons. I asked him if he uses a computer to draw, colour or enhance his witty, satirical takes on the tyranny he despises, but he was aghast at the thought.

“You cannot get the passion across if you use a computer,” he said vehemently. And then added, with a smile: “It’s like kissing a woman through a pane of glass.”

An apt image indeed, and it sums up what Ali Ferzat is all about. He is hands-on, passion incarnate. It is little wonder that it was those same hands that were broken by those who wanted him silenced. But his belief in being present, right there, signing his name and saying it directly (ironically, by means of the inference that is at the base of socio-political cartoons) got him through that, and through all other threats (not least from ISIS themselves).

At one point he took out two felt markers from his jacket pocket, one medium, one thick. “I use these,” he said. “And whatever else comes to hand.” And went on to show me by making a quick sketch, there and then, standing up and resting a blank piece of paper on a copy of The Times.

Basically, what he was saying was that the tools do not entirely matter. The skill of the cartoonist does. His ability to suss out a situation that can then be ridiculed by means of his razor wit, or portrayed in ways that will definitely stick in the mind of whoever sees it.

The objective of this piece is to select a few random Ali Ferzat cartoons and look at them with the intention of understanding how he works technically, and what his wit dictates, all of this against the background of what he said to me personally and in public during his Malta visit.

 1-cut-trees-and-buildings

I’m beginning with one that’s close to home, and has nothing to do with the war in Syria. Lots of tall buildings in the background, and cut trees bundled in a trash can in the foreground. The juxtaposition of both is where the crux of the comment is. The “trees” are actually branches, and what we see would barely fit in a fraction of the ground on which just one of the buildings is built, but the branches symbolise the whole, and their presence in the foreground, destroyed and discarded, overwhelms the senses, with the backdrop providing cause and suggesting disgust at the artificial replacing the natural. The line work is rough and even untidy at times, but the portrayal of the elements is perfect. His feathering on the branches and the tight crosshatch on the dustbin provide the necessary shading that makes the elements in the foreground stand out, pointing out the death of beauty, replaced by the ugliness of man-made things.

In his talk at the University of Malta, Ali Ferzat stated an unequivocal opinion that Russia was aiding and abetting Syrian President Bassar al-Assad, and he went on to accuse Russia of a number of oppressive actions of war. So a despotic Russia figures quite often in his cartoons.

2-russia

Ferzat’s ability to portray the human figure, morphed into whatever strikes his fancy, can be seen throughout the thousands of images he has produced. Russia is a dour-faced general, wearing a military hat, striding forward holding up a delicate olive branch. But the military figure is also a bomb, the fins substituting for pant legs, with shoes indicating a marching soldier, and the sleek body of the bomb replaces the dark-coated body of the soldier. The bomb/body is huge and dominates the mid-ground of the cartoon, framed contrastively against white and a light orange (the smoke of war?). It overwhelms entirely the olive branch, which, though held up front, is contradicted and negated by the rest of the image. An incredible denouncement of the hypocrisy of international politics that are used as an excuse for oppression. The pen stroke is clean for the face, olive branch and hand, but necessarily harsh and rough for the bomb, though the yellow-green-blue of the outline provides a sheen that emphasises the sleekness of the weapon, its intended use, and its ramifications.

3-media

Another of Ali Ferzat’s attacks was on the media and the way they pervert the truth about Syria and what is causing the war there. A brilliant cartoon defines the media as he sees it… a dark forest made of microphones instead of trees, all of them pointing the same way, while multicoloured arrows all point in different directions, as a small man with a large question mark over his head crawls among them, lost and unable to find his way out. I’m not sure whether the word “Syria” was added for the English dissemination of the cartoon, but it adds clarity regarding who the figure is. Syria is lost in a jungle of media comments, all of which point away from it, but which communicate conflicting messages about it. The portrayal of the microphones as each being different from the other infers that not just one media outlet spreads the misinformation, but many and they come from different countries and institutions. The roughness of the feathering on the microphone stems, the darkness portrayed as a cloud on which they rest, and the hulking silhouettes that provide a backdrop of more microphones, make for a denseness that conjectures impossibility of penetration. It is little wonder that the figure lost among the “stalks” has the question mark over his head.

4-lift

The United Nations’ plan of peace for Syria and the way it has been ignored irritates Ferzat massively. It is clear from the cartoon where a soldier is using the lift while the man brokering peace is taking the stairs that outright war has been given an advantage over the possibility of any sort of peace agreement. The visual allegory that is at the core of all the best socio-political cartoons is clearly evident in this one. The soldier and the lift are centred in the foreground, the peace broker sidelined on the right, the stairs disappearing behind the lift that will obviously get to the destination a lot quicker. The soldier is in full combat gear, drawn in Ferzat’s signature economy of line style which, however, is heavily toned with dark blocks and feathered softeners. The peace broker looks at the soldier, but still walks slowly up the stairs (one can tell from the position of the legs and the posture of the whole figure). The image continues to stand out because all the action happens in the lower half of the drawing, with the rest taken up by (at least part of) the distance to be travelled… fast by one and very slowly by the other.

5-audience

Ali Ferzat’s former friend and, eventually, most bitter enemy, Bassar al-Assad, is often the butt of his savage, visual jabs. He thinks of al-Assad as a traitor to the intellectual class, and, of course, to the whole of Syria and its people. Al-Assad is almost always drawn as a thin, tall figure, with jutting out ears and an elongated neck that includes a non-existent chin area (“He’s ugly!”, said Ali Ferzat about him during his University talk). Ferzat draws him in contexts that indicate what al-Assad thinks of himself, for example framed in an ornate, baroque casing that shows he considers himself to be great. The podium to the right tells us the General is about to give a talk, but the audience is being assembled from cutouts, brainless, opinion less, and with no character at all. Al-Assad wants only his voice to be heard, and for it to be heard only by those who will say yes to him (or in any case, not “no”). Ferzat uses a tight cross-hatching to create contrast between the floor and the cutouts, that are all the same and lie in a muddled heap on each other. The army official putting them on the chairs has only placed one so far, but the inference is that the whole hall will be taken up by the cutouts. The fact that they are in a box (nicely labeled and with a “this side up” indicator) shows that they’re stored away in between speeches, and brought out for the occasion. This is Ferzat’s denouncement of all those who support al-Assad, and, even more than that, it is clearly his denigration of a man who had once hypocritically given the impression that he supported intelligent dissent, only to then brutally suppress it.

6-al-assad

In fact, the “grandeur” with which al-Assad perceives himself is spelt out in the cartoon where his tiny, caricatured figure is being reflected in a gigantic mirror, arms bent upwards to indicate mighty muscles. The detail on the General’s uniform and on the actual mirror itself, along with the black blocking and feathering that give a rounded, three-dimensionality to the figure, are all signature elements of Ferzat’s drawing styles, as is the roughness of the cross hatching, intended solely to create depth and illusion of size.

7-customs

The need of the regime in Syria for brainless support and stopping at source dissenting ideas, can be seen clearly depicted in the cartoon in which a customs officer not only checks the traveller’s bag as it lies on the conveyor belt, but also makes sure that there is nothing in the brain of its owner. Again, Ali Ferzat resorts to one of the staple weapons of cartoon art, a visual, metaphoric interpretation of an abstract concept – the realistic portrayal of the skull being lifted like the lid off an empty box, and the sheepish look on the “brainless” man’s face, countered by the stern look on that of the official, pretty much speak for themselves. The traveller is stooped forward in an abject servile posture, while the official is rigidly bent, showing him to be the superior of the two. The simplicity of what is shown in the image, and the fact that only what is needed is there and in the foreground, along with the black blocking of the figures for the sake of contrast (there is no drawn background) make the full figures pop and the message all the more poignant.

8-fighting

One final cartoon I’ve chosen from the almost 15,000 produced by Ali Ferzat to date defines the man’s anger at how the majority of people are being used by the few who have the money and the power to manipulate everybody else. The two, well dressed, grimly smiling men shaking hands with each other, sit on the shoulders of tattily dressed, barefoot figures who fight each other brutally. Wars are being fought on behalf of prime-movers who sit back as destruction ensues. The sheer dynamism created by the white, dotted and dashed lines indicating movement, the clear representation of status by means of clothes worn, and the brutality in the facial expression of the fighting men, make this an incredibly powerful cartoon. There are only the four full figures, up front and in the face of the reader, heavily rendered in black against a stark white backdrop. The men on top ignore the figures they are piggy-backing, and just look at each other and smile, knowing that in the end, whatever happens to the fighters, they will both win.

Ali Ferzat knows well the power of cartoons, and his is the skill to portray visually what can only be described as a spitting in the face of despotic authority. This is done both in those cartoons that symbolically refer to figures that represent stereotypes, predominantly used before his fall-out with al-Assad, and after that, even more so in his direct attack on those who were and are destroying his native land. It is fair to say that not even broken hands can stop this man from using his images to inspire dissent, underscore injustice, but at the same time spread his message of love as a weapon against hate. It is little wonder he has been named as one of the most influential figures in the world. The medium of cartooning deserves that. As does the man who masterfully uses the medium in this best of all ways.

This article was published in The Sunday Times‘s cultural supplement Escape on November 27, 2016.

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A philistine talking about art

You can call me a philistine if you like, but I like art I can feel.

I like it to talk to me, and tell me things that might not have been in the artist’s mind and hands as he or she made it. But then again, might have been. I like art to stimulate me and make me think thoughts I would not have felt had I not experienced it.

I like art that I can understand. No, not necessarily with my mind, but with some part of my being or my field of experience. It needs to touch me with a subtle, rough or explosive tactility that leaves an effect. And I need it to please me. Or not, come to think of it. It can disturb me, too, like a Francis Bacon or a Edward Munch. It does not have to be a Degas, with its delicious pastels to get under my skin. It can be a towering smoothness by Henry Moore, or a brilliantly emotional Rodin.

What worries me is Conceptual Art. So, yes, call me a philistine. The Concept seems to have taken over. Our modern art museums are full of it and very little else; our galleries, if they want to be reviewed, need to be full to brimming with art that nobody understands, but nods knowledgably at and looks sombre in front of and is able to make intelligent sounding noises of assent as some person with an art degree describes the intricate qualities of what makes that art what it is.

And by “our” I do not mean just Maltese. I am living in Sweden at the moment, a country that loves art, that buys art, that has whole sections of newspapers dedicated to art, that often has companies allocating part of their budget to buy art … to generalise, a country whose people are not philistines, to say the least. But here too, the Concept seems to get the formal nod from those critics who refuse to even look at something that has a popular aesthetic. They need to be able to EXPLAIN the art to me, so I can say how bright they are that they can see things in the concept that I cannot even begin to think about, and how important it is that they (knowledgably, with nods and sombre looks) ignore every single other artistic expression to chase conceptual art alone. Because that is what the academies teach. That is how students get in, and, on the other hand, how students who do not push a Concept, but are good with their hands and their hearts, are left out. How you can only be a GOOD art teacher in higher education if you tout the Concept to the detriment of all else.

I am not saying no to concepts. Heaven forbid. They are at the heart of art and the artist must have them to exploit. But NOT when they take over and push everything else out. It’s like stripping the soul out of the body, or, inversely, just floating the invisible soul for all the world like the Emperor’s new clothes.

This was brought about by an article in the Swedish daily Sydsvenskan this morning, that spoke in a language I could understand and share about a Banksy exhibition here, and went on to talk about street art. The wonderful, free, expression of people who want to say something, rather than conceptualise it, obfuscate it, then call it art that people nod and look sombre at. And it made me realise how much I miss solid, communicable articles about art – ones that show the knowledge of the writer in ways that do not include wordplay and the defined hocus-pocus jargon of the critic who struggles to signify without bothering to feel.

So call me a philistine, if you like. You have a right to.

But I have a right to my art, because I cannot live without it.

An essay on Design

I live and breathe Design. I see Design all around me. I touch it everywhere. There’s a sensual feeling of almost taking in Design through every pore of my being. I love it most times, hate it at other times, but respect it always.

We are, admittedly, at the mercy of Design. It leads us by the nose, or the eyes, or the heart. It is a persuader and a coaxer. It cajoles and gets its way. The brands we like (or are softly lulled into liking), the names we understand from among those that gently fly around the ether, the air, and the radio waves, are all carefully crafted by Design. All given an identity so unique it startles, or so pliable it lingers in the depth of our subconscious, or so shocking it shocks.

The visual gymnastics that are Design’s own domain, created skillfully by designers trained in colour compatibility and association, visual balance, font significance and creation, image manipulation, and, quintessentially, the use of space (be it white, black or coloured), ply their trade in every sphere of society. They are the gurus leading our eyes as we drive up busy thoroughfares; they are the ones that determine the decor of the shops we visit; they craft the chairs we sit on; they manage the looks of the magazines we read. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They sit backstage, directing the orchestra of our senses, playing music of seduction and thriving on our pleasure … that which makes what they do worthwhile. Because pleasure, at icons that signify products, sells. Or buys. The designer is a mercenary on the side, a pen for hire. Fighting somebody else’s war with shapes and colours.

The designer’s job is to problematise communication. He or she must understand the needs of what is to be communicated, the needs (in the best tradition of Maslow) of those who will eventually see the design product, and the needs of the visual. They tie together the aesthetic with the intellectual, because the best Design has both, in an invisible bond that carries the essential message and pleases (at time pleasures) and communicates ideas, or thoughts, or just basic information.

Design is also culturally significant and brands countries with a brush that generalises, but is often an accurate interpreter of mood. The cleanliness of the Swiss, the cacophonous, crowded colour of the Mediterraneans, the minimalism of the Scandinavians. And so many others in between. The history of Design is rich in national treasures and iconic moments that stay with us as persistently as the best art.  From the French Belle Epoque’s Toulouse-Lautrec’s exotic dancers, to Milton Glaser’s American heart. From Tatlin’s Russian tower, constructed with the need to indoctrinate patriotism, to the Dadaist Duchamp’s urinal, not constructed and meaning nothing at all.

The logos that are stuck to facades in meters high cutouts, and which adorn in miniscule visuals the face of our watch, identify and decorate. Because Design has become a totally integral part of life … a visual underpinning of society. It burns with the fires of screaming and dances with the pastels of dreams. It shouts and whispers, and cries and laughs and beckons. As invisible as breathing. And, it tells us persistently, just as indispensable.