Of all the places his art has turned up, for Khalid Albiah one of the coolest had to be a wall in Egypt during the revolution.
‘One of my works got graffitied in Tahrir Square. That was really cool,’ he says. Although currently working at the Museum of Islamic Art, as the son of a Sudanese diplomat he grew up all over the world. But just because he’s in Qatar doesn’t mean you have to go to the museum to see his art.
‘Because I do a lot of political stuff, [getting published] was pretty hard. So I just decided you know what, this is the 21st century, I’m just going to go on the internet. Screw it.’
That’s how people in Egypt first saw his artwork, on one of the many online sites like Tumblr where he’s a regular. While the internet is often credited with a role in the Arab Spring, for Albiah, it’s been the door he walked through to draw attention to his art.
‘The internet is the reason the whole world is opening up more. I could be on Twitter and somebody from Kansas City is following me. They don’t even know where I’m from, they just like what I say.’
He’s been doing it well before the revolution in Egypt however. He started drawing cartoons when he was a child. ‘I just noodled around and stuff. But I didn’t really take it seriously. My dad had these two really famous Egyptian caricature-based magazines, and I loved the idea that something so simple could, even if it’s funny or not, really affect a person. A whole article, you can just say in one panel, just one square. I really liked that idea, so I started doing it,’ he says.
Early doodles turned into what he presents to the world now. Growing up in the Middle East didn’t hurt either: his work has a distinctly Middle Eastern flavour. ‘They are black and white political statements, very simplified political statements, but to the core. When you grow up in the Middle East, when I was a kid, we didn’t have cartoons because our president wanted to speak. And he just spoke for hours: and nothing happened. This guy would come on TV and we’d be like ‘ugh, that’s the end of my day.’ I just wanted to shorten all the stuff they said and get right to the point. So my work is very very minimal.’
Since he primarily publishes his work online, he has followers from all over the globe—and many are surprised he’s doing what he’s doing where he’s doing it. His regular viewers are often shocked with what he gets away with. But he says the cartooning community in Qatar is a lot edgier than most people assume.
‘The thing with being a cartoonist, you have to be very famous to say what you have to say. If you have a following, then you can say whatever you want. The cartoonists in the newspapers here, they say really edgy stuff, they’re on point, they’re very up to date, they don’t tone it down.’
Neither does he. For his own work, he’s covered everything from political figures and current events to cultural phenomena. One of his most popular cartoons was a joke on Al Jazeera, where he put the symbol for Facebook plus the Twitter logo, plus the Al Jazeera symbol equals the revolution.
‘The ones that got a lot of response were the funny ones, not the political ones. And even within the political ones it was the really simple ones, you know? The revolution fist, with the wireless sign, that really got a lot of attention. It’s stuff like that. I notice that I’m not good at telling a story—because I notice if I talk a lot, people don’t listen to me.’
But they will look at his pretty pictures. ‘I get a lot of ‘I don’t get it’. For me, if you’ve thought about it, if it’s thought provoking, I did my job. I want people to think about a certain situation, but I don’t want to spell it out for you. Use your brain. It’s kind of like ‘hmm what does he mean by that?’ I love it when people say that. Sometimes I just draw stuff for the hell of it; I don’t even know what it means!’ he says.
But despite the growing openness in the world and in Qatar, people still can get miffed at the things he draws.
‘A lot of people get angry at my cartoons all the time. ‘You don’t get it’ ‘this is not how it is’ ‘what made you the voice of the people?’ I get that all the time. This is my opinion, it doesn’t have to be yours, this is my opinion, this is what freedom of the press is all about. People sometimes find cartoons easier to take as an opinion. You read a whole article, a lot of people get offended. But with cartoons, even if it’s really offensive, if it’s a good idea, they will like it, because it’s visually nice,‘ he says.
‘If you see it you’ll understand, I don’t need to say anything. As they say the truth is wider, it’s always there.’
He credits the internet for not only giving him access to the wider world, but for being a driving force for change—something that’s easily apparent from much of his subject matter, which highlights new media and it’s relation to politics.
‘I think of myself as a journalist actually—instead of writing a piece, I’m drawing a piece. Everybody always looks at the last page first (with the cartoons). It’s for people who don’t read, and a lot of people don’t read now. They want like a Twitter feed, 140 characters, a Facebook status, that’s the maximum they can get.’
That’s not enough for Albiah. He wants to do something more, while at the same time creating works of art that are good enough to be framed on the wall, as well as reposted to Facebook newsfeeds and blogs.
‘I want to deliver a message, you know? I want to deliver a message to the whole world. What I’m trying to do is, like the internet, I want to connect people. A lot of people are going to see my art, hopefully, and I want a lot of people to talk about it. This will make dialogue between everyone. At the end everybody just wants peace. And at a citizen level, just normal people, like an Average Joe, I think everyone just wants to get along.’
You can check out Khalid Albiah’s latest work online on Flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/khalidalbaih