"I see myself as a world citizen. I think I belong to the Internet." – Khalid Albaih
An interview with the man who is changing the world one cartoon at a time...
Sudanese artist Khalid Albaih has a lot to say about the political landscape of his home country and the Arab spring. And he has a uniquely simple way of saying it – cartoons. Due to his father's diplomatic career he moved from Romania (where he was born) to Sudan and promptly back out of Sudan to Qatar, his adopted home. He was acutely aware of the injustices in his home nation among other places in the region and felt a duty to say something about it. He found his voice in his artistic talents, which he used to start a commentary on the political matters affecting him and so many others.
Buro 24/7 spoke to the busy artist about his inspirations, his hopes for the future and how he finds time between raising two small children and full time job at Qatar Museum, to change the world...
"I identify with being Sudanese because of my family. I see myself as a world citizen. I think I belong to the internet. that is where I learned everything. That is why I work on line. The internet is the place that gave me a chance."
Talk us through the process of how you create your pieces – how does the idea start, what materials do you use? How long does each cartoon take?
It could take anything from 3 minutes to a month. I work with whatever I think fits with what I'm trying to talk about. The process starts with reading or seeing something – a TV show, an article, a sign on the road or people talking. Being an artist I try as hard as I can to listen to what people are saying, what they think about whatever is happening now. This inspires me to do something. From there the idea materialises, I try and do whatever fits that idea, a collage, or a watercolour. My style is minimal so I like to work with different materials.
Why did you land on cartoons? What was it about this specific art form that attracted you?
I knew I always wanted to be an artist. I come from a very political family, my father was a diplomat. We had to leave Sudan early on because of the politics. Cartoons mix art and politics. When I was growing up, the only access we had to talk about politics that was okay was the cartoons at the end of the newspaper. Everybody would flip to the last page and look at the cartoons... It's the simplest way to look at things.
You can get detached from reality with grand art or with something abstract. I don't want to be in a gallery, being examined and analysed, I don't want this to be only for certain people. I want this to be for everyone. The political situation is what everyone feels it's not just for a certain group.
Also because I like to things fast!
"My father is my biggest influence. He was a diplomat. He had an inside view into things. In Sudan, we would watch the news and it was all just a show, he would tell me that what I can see is not what is really going on. What you see is only 10%."
Some of your pieces are very politically charged, where did your interest in politics come from?
My father is my biggest influence. He was a diplomat. He had an inside view into things. In Sudan, we would watch the news and it was all just a show, he would tell me that what I can see is not what is really going on. What you see is only 10%.
My uncle's cousin was President at one point in Sudan, and I have another uncle who was executed for a failed military coup. He was a communist. We had communists, we had Islamists and we had liberals all in our family, but everyone would eat together at family events. It was amazing, that our views did not disturb the peace between members of my family. I thought – why isn't the whole world like that? Why are we killing each other over our political views?
We left Sudan because of my father's political background. The government in Sudan is like "you are either with us of you're against us". If you're against them, you are done. There is no dialogue, that is what I always thought about, nobody is talking about this.
Some of the subject matter is a little brave for the region, do you ever get worried that you will offend the wrong people? Or indeed anyone?
Yes, I'm trying to make a difference but at the end of the day, I'm just drawing cartoons. People are out on the streets (protesting) and getting shot, they are the real heroes. They are the bold people. Of course it's not safe at times. But it is my duty to do this. People have given their lives for this. Of course I think about my family. I try as hard as I can not to offend anyone.
You get threats and called names. The thing about living in the region, anything could happen at any given moment. You never know.
"I can see people talking to each other who wouldn't usually talk to each other. I'm documenting the times, the more comments I get on something the better I feel about it."
Have your artworks ever landed you in trouble?
A lot! But that's when you know it's good art! It did get pretty serious at one point. But usually it's just on social media, that is the creation of a dialogue. I can see people talking to each other who wouldn't usually talk to each other. I'm documenting the times, the more comments I get on something the better I feel about it.
How many hours do you spend a day drawing? And can you tell us about your 9-5 day job?
I finish my day job and then I come home. I have a 3 year old and 40 day old baby so I spend time with the family. I work at night, when everyone else is asleep. That's why I always look like I haven't slept... Because I haven't! I try to come up with something new every day – I've been doing that for the last 2 years. The thing with social media is there is always a conversation so you have to keep up with that as well.
If you were unable to draw what would you do?
I work at Qatar Museum as head of installations and design for public art. I work a lot with artists and government entities. I coordinate between a lot of sides to put the art work somewhere. It gets quite hectic sometimes. I meet a lot of artists. Qatar museums are doing amazing things right now. Bringing a lot of new art into the area. I'm glad to be part of the cultural change.
I am dyslexic, I think that is why I draw because I can't write very easily. It's really hard for me to write. But I love writing, it's such a powerful tool. If I wasn't drawing I wish I could write. I've had a few articles published – so there's hope!
Whose work do you admire? Who inspires you?
Palestinian artist Naji al-Ali. He was assassinated in the early 1980's in London. I was amazed at his work. Most of the Sudanese and Egyptian cartoonists were funny. But Naji al-Ali's drawings weren't funny they were dark and they were telling a story. They were sarcastic maybe, but they weren't funny. In no other cartoon would you see a mother dying holding her child. It was very dramatic and I loved that about his work. It was very powerful.
I was 14 when I first saw his work. It changed my life. The way he made me feel is how I want to make other people feel. He made me realise that the situation is serious and you don't have to be like everyone else. You don't have to make people laugh for them to listen to you.
Later on I was very fascinated with street art. I love Banksy. I think he is really good and striking. He talks about political issues to the west in a very simple and striking way. I wanted to do street art, but of course because of where I live, I can not do street art. So I made some of my artwork look like street art. I work under a 'creative commerce license' so everything I do is free and shareable online. That is why my work has spread. Graffiti artists have used it. It was used in the streets in Lebanon and in Tahrir Square and people also use it as logos. I couldn't do it but others can. That is part of the what is happening with the Arab spring, we are all working together to have these conversations.
"There is a lot of junk online so it takes a lot to stand out. You are at the mercy of a scroll. It pushed me to work hard, to attract the attention of anyone I'm trying to reach. People are very visual now."
How did you end up in Qatar?
I was born in Romania, we came back to Sudan, then a change of regime happened and it was just impossible for anyone with a different mind set to stay. A lot of people left including doctors and professors. My dad chose Qatar because it is still close to Sudan, and it's a very nice country and a great place to live.
I identify with being Sudanese because of my family. I see myself as a world citizen. I think I belong to the Internet, this is where I learned everything. That is why I work online. The Internet is the place that gave me a chance. There is a lot of junk online so it takes a lot to stand out. You are at the mercy of a scroll. It pushed me to work hard, to attract the attention of anyone I'm trying to reach. People are very visual now.
What are your favourite places in Qatar?
I love the museum park, it's very beautiful and I will definitely be inspired if I go there. It is also right by my work. My other favourite place is my studio, I can stay there for hours.
I have been in Doha for so long now and there has been a lot of change. They are rebuilding a new city. A lot of the old stuff that I connect with is gone and there are a lot of new places coming up. I go to small hole in the world places. There is a restaurant called Alzarga on the corniche and it has the best breakfast ever. Its a small restaurant but it is always packed.
Who are Qatar's biggest talents?
There is amazing talent here, from the old and the new. I have been working on the Here and There exhibit. It's surprising the amount of talent here, and this exhibition has really proved that. These people had a great education and great design school experience here. It was amazing to see the outcome of that education.
Alanoud Al Buainain is a great curator, I like what she is doing at the moment. It is very creative and very simple. Mohammed Alnasi is a great artist and also a cartoonist.
I'm very proud to be part of the instigation that brings out theses talents. When I was growing up we didn't have these museums and galleries where artist could exhibit. It's an amazing place to be in terms of arts and culture. It's like a renaissance. I wish I could see that in my own country one day.
Do you get back to Sudan?
Yes I go back a couple of times a year. To visit family. It's difficult because the government doesn't really like me there but there are ways around that. I really want to be there when the change happens, I don't want to miss that.
I want my kids to have a better home. I don't want my kids to have the same feeling I have right now wondering where I belong and why I am not in my country. I always try to go and be there and talk to people.
Would you like to work on your art full time and quit your day job?
I don't know. I would love to have the freedom to do that. I would love to try it out and just sit down and do my work. I have a lot of projects going on. But at work I meet a lot of people, a lot of artists, and I like that. Working at the Qatar Museum is inspiring.
What has been your biggest career defining moment to date?
I got my first fan mail (on Facebook) from a 16-year-old from Sudan. She said she loved my art and that she is happy there is a Sudanese person doing what I am doing. She said it gave her faith to continue with her art. When I read that I thought – this is why I am doing this.
We are a discreet country, we have 6,000 years of history, thousands of ethnically diverse people, it's a beautiful country. But no one knows anything about it, nobody knows anything but war. So now when kids see that I'm doing well, and seeing other artists doing well, I hope it will inspire them.
What's your dream for 2015?
I've been trying to publish a book for the past five years, but I've had a hard time because of censorship. I am speaking at a conference in the USA and I'll be exhibiting in Bahrain. Just going to keep trying to push the envelope.