Alexander Saroukhan: New exhibition showcases pioneer of political cartoons in Egypt

Nahed Nasr, Tuesday 26 Apr 2016

An extensive collection of late cartoonist Alexander Saroukhan's work is displayed at Al-Masar gallery, seeking to honour and encourage widespread attention for the prolific artist

Serry Pasha fails in playing the National anthem, by Alexander Saroukhan. Watercolor on paper, 46x65cm (Photo: courtesy of Al-Masar gallery)

For the coming month, art lovers in Egypt will have the opportunity to experience the work of Egyptian political cartoon pioneer Alexander Saroukhan.

A selection of Armenian-Egyptian Saroukhan’s political cartoons are showcased for the first time at Al-Masar gallery’s exhibition titled Political Comedy, which runs until the third week of May.

Saroukhan’s son-in-law Garrow Jakoub, said on a TV programme that the Saroukhan’s family would like to donate most of his works to the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. Jakoub hopes the ministry will establish a museum for the prominent cartoonist instead leaving his art to be forgotten or locked away in private collections.

His pleas have so far gone unanswered, and Saroukhan's family is still waiting for galleries to express their interest in showcasing the cartoonist's work. Jakoub revealed to Ahram Online that the opportunity to present the art relies on a few connections within the culture world that family members have managed to develop. As such, the exhibition held in Al-Masar's halls is one of the few attempts to remind Egyptian viewers of the wealth of political cartoons produced in their country.

In fact, over the past years Saroukhan’s works have only been exhibited on a handful of occasions. Most notable were an exhibition at Bibliotheca Alexandrina six years ago, a 1989 book about his life and works published by the Armenian Association in Cairo on the occasion of what would have been the artist’s 100th birthday, in addition to a few smaller exhibitions in some press coverage.

Undeniably this was very little of what could -- or even should -- be done, not only to honour Saroukhan's role in the Egyptian artistic movement, but also to enable the generations of art scholars to study his style.

Al-Masar’s Political Comedy exhibition, which consists of dozens of Saroukhan’s works published in the Egyptian press between the 1930s and the 1970s, seeks to revive the memory of the Egyptian Caricaturist Artists Association’s founder.

Saroukhan established political cartoons as a consistent feature of the Egyptian press, and more than 20 thousand of his art pieces are kept in his family’s private collections awaiting an opportunity to be taken care of by state organisations, private art galleries, artistic agents, or academic art institutions.

When speaking to Ahram Online, renowned Egyptian cartoonist Samir Abdul Ghani describes Saroukhan as the “godfather of political cartoons in Egypt”, pointing also to his students that prominent Egyptian cartoonists Mohammed Rakha, Ahmed Hegazy, Mustafa Hussien and others have continued on the path that Saroukhan paved.

“Anyone who wants to learn how to be a cartoonist should study Saroukhan,” Abdul Ghani said.

“The problem is the art scholars find few chances to see his work, since there are neither academic publications nor a museum to showcase it. By all means, Saroukhan is not properly presented. We lose the legacy of our modern civilisation and we waste the opportunity for future generations to learn about his work and to be proud of this legacy,” he added.

In a 1998 memorial article about Saroukhan, the late Egyptian artist Hussein Bikar, who worked with Saroukhan at the newspaper Akhbar Al-Youm, wrote, “Though he was honoured and received several medals from foreign countries including USA, Saroukhan was not comfortable with the idea that he was not well known in Egypt, where he spent most of his life and served its press until his last breath.”

Saroukhan moved to Egypt in 1924, and passed away on 1 January 1977. From 1952 until the time of his death, Saroukhan was chief political cartoonist at Akhbar Al-Youm. Before his employment at Akhbar Al-Youm, the artist contributed to newspapers and magazines including Rose El-Yousef and Akher Saa.

Jakoub, who still lives in Saroukhan’s Heliopolis home, is surrounded by thousands of his works and recalls the artist’s last days.

“He suffered from heart disease but he never gave up. I remember the night of 31 December 1976, when he was not able to join the family celebrations of New Years Eve. Instead, he stayed in his room drawing a cartoon for Akhbar Al-Youm, and he asked me to deliver it to the editor just a few hours before he passed away. He worked until his last breath,” Jakoub says.

Garrow Jakoub points to one of Saroukhan's works on the wall of the apartment, depicting Saroukan's daughter and Garrow Jakoub during marriage ceremony. The picture served as an invitation to the ceremony. (Photo: Nahed Nasr)

In the archives of weekly magazine Akher Saa, where Saroukhan worked for a few decades, a news piece was published on 16 February 1955 stated that, "Saroukhan, the caricaturist who lived for 31 years in Egypt, has finally obtained Egyptian citizenship. He is now the happiest man on earth, and it is expected that his cartoons will reflect his happiness."

Though he did not have Egyptian citizenship until then, Saroukhan’s political cartoons published in the Egyptian press were full of nationalist spirit and loyalty to Egypt from the moment his first piece was published in Rose El-Yousef in 1927.

According to Armenian art critic and historian Herant Kashashian, Saroukhan’s political cartoons perfectly captured the political atmosphere leading up to Egyptian independence in 1952. Conflict among political parties, and the way they were colluding with British colonisers in corruption, was sharply criticised throughout his work.

In Kashashian’s 1998 book about Saroukhan, he writes, “The only positive hero in his caricatures was Egypt, portrayed as a beautiful lady. Afterwards he created the character of El-Masri Effendi to represent the struggle of Egyptian people for their rights, freedom, and independence. Thus, after Nasser’s revolution, he moved from the opposition camp to become a supporter and defender of the state’s achievements, and he was a fierce opponent of Egypt’s enemies.”

Saroukhan was considered an Egyptian long before he obtained citizenship, although when he began working for Rose El-Youssef in the 20s he was not fluent in Arabic and knew little about Egyptians.

Despite the fact that most of his caricatures published in Egyptian papers were a result of the respective publications’ editorial boards, Saroukhan believed in the message of his cartoons.

Gomaa Farahat, a renowned Egyptian cartoonist, wrote of Saroukhan in a 1998 article: "Saroukhan was not only a mirror of the editorial board, but his book entitled This War, about the Second World War, was considered to be one of the his masterpieces, and proved that he was a man of a clear vision, strong principles, and a free mind."

However, his political attitudes and principles are not only what made him a pioneer. More important was his style, refined over years of experience and continuous practice.

The artist published his first satirical magazine in primary school, collaborating with his brother, and then went on to study art in Vienna. His long experience and extensive practice helped him develop his own unique style that Kashashian calls Saroukhanism, defined by strong and simple lines, balanced compositions, and motion.

He was one of the most prolific cartoonists in terms of both quantity and quality, producing many kinds of cartoons dealing with political, social, and cultural subjects.

Apart from his work published in established Egyptian daily and weekly publications, Saroukhan published thousands of cartoons in up to 20 different periodicals in Egypt and abroad.

According to a 1934 issue of Akher Saa magazine, Saroukhan produced 53 cartoons in one week.

Saroukhan 2
A new type of aggression, by Saroukhan. Ink on paper, 35x49cm, 1965 (Photo: courtesy of El-Masar Gallery)

“Though his works used to have many details, Saroukhan was drawing fast. A coloured cartoon such as The Cane Dance that contained more than 80 figures could take him only couple of hours,” Jakoub said.

According to cartoonist Samir Abdul Ghani, Saroukhan adopted many elements of visual art in his caricatures, including the use of colours, shadow and light, as well as mass and void.

“You never feel that his paintings are overcrowded or disturbing, even when they are so full,” Abdul Ghani says.

According to Egyptian visual artist Mohammed Abla, founder of the Abla Museum of Caricature, the way Saroukhan was able to capture the most important aspect in the personality of a figure he draws was one of his strong points,

“One of the most influential works of Saroukhan in this museum is a cartoon which consists of several self-portraits for Saroukhan that he drew using different styles of great international artists,” Abla told Ahram Online.

Rawya Sadik, the visual artist who is translating Saroukhan’s book This War, agrees with Abla.

“Going through his cartoons in this book, you can see how he was able to represent the personality of international political leaders and their sides in the war. He was able to spot where there was no chance for a better future. Saroukhan is an intellectual artist who combined his European study of art with his involvement in Egyptian society to create his own unique style,” she said.

Many artists and critics have called for Saroukhan’s art to be widely distributed among arts schools and students, to be shown publicly and privately, for a museum to be established to showcase his work, for a street to be named after him. Said critics, scholars and artists appreciate Saroukhan and grant him his deserved position as one of the pioneers of the modern Egyptian art movement.

Al-Masar’s exhibition is an opportunity to honor the artist and encourage state and private cultural institutions to value this legacy and bridge generations so that future artists can build on what has been achieved by past masters.

Saroukhan's home with his work on the walls (Photo: Nahed Nasr)

The exhibition continues until third week of May
Al-Masar Gallery, 157 B, 26th of July Street, Ground floor, Zamalek, Cairo

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