Tamer Youssef and Cartoon for Starter

By Sherif Awad No Exaggeration  Cartoonist Tamer Youssef on living in the land of comic books . A mong the many cartoonists and ...

By Sherif Awad

No Exaggeration Cartoonist Tamer Youssef on living in the land of comic books.

A mong the many cartoonists and caricaturists of his generation, self-taught Egyptian artist Tamer Youssef is noted for the textured illustrations and hard lines that make his work stand out from typical cartoon gags or goofy portraits. Given the substantial amount of time he puts into his creations, rather like a painter working on canvas, Youssef’s pieces are more like works of art.
Now based in San Francisco, Youssef developed his style and technique through extensive practice in lieu of studying for years at art school. Consequently, he has always tried to heighten the artistic value of his drawing, avoiding the easy option of attracting attention through crude facial distortion, a technique popular among some of his peers.

Born in Cairo in 1974, Youssef originally wanted to study filmmaking but ended up graduating as a software engineer from the Modern Academy in Maadi. After his illustrations appear in the French-language daily Le Progrès Egyptien in the late 1980s, he decided to become a professional artist after graduation. Youssef’s artwork has also appeared in local newspapers such El-Beit, Sabah El-Kheir, Sayedati Sadati and the English-language daily The Egyptian Gazette, and graced the covers of Egypt Today and Business Today Egypt. He worked for publishing house Al-Ahram, where his pieces were included in many publications, and has also appeared in the pages of insider magazines Caricature, published by the Egyptian Caricature Society, and Pharaohs, published online by the Federation of Cartoonists Organizations.In 1992, Youssef was the first to introduce digitally colored caricatures — as opposed to those created by watercolor, airbrush and pencil — to Egyptian print in advertising, labeling, and media publications.“I was heavily criticized by a few fellow cartoonists when I started to digitally color my illustrations,” he says. “They said that the colors looked unnatural, even though I was following artistic concepts and incorporating my experience with software from my training as an engineer.”After this method of coloring became widely used in Egypt, Tamer reverted to a mixture of traditional methods.

Although his artwork was popular, scoring slots in both European and Arab publications, Youssef decided to leave the country for the United States five years ago, as he felt he hadn’t achieved the recognition he sought.“I just didn’t face fair competition,” claims Youssef. “A war was waged against me and my contemporaries by the older generation of cartoonists and heads of newspapers who refused to give a chance to younger artists.”Getting hired as a cartoonist for an Egyptian publication isn’t an easy task. At Al-Ahram, Youssef asserts, cartoonists land jobs depending on their age and political orientation. “If someone is hired but then found not to fit a certain profile, he will be excluded,” he claims. “While I was in Egypt, it was easier for me to distribute my illustrations abroad than inside the Arabic publications of my home country.“[Because of this,] I decided to pack my things and leave everything behind to go with my family to San Francisco. [] I started again over here, where I am currently working as a graphic designer and contributing to The Eagle newspaper.”
Life wasn’t easy when Youssef first arrived in San Francisco. As he recalls, it took him quite a while to settle in and secure a regular job.

“It is not about leaving my own country to start from scratch, it’s really about developing my craft and expanding my knowledge. Communicating with different illustrators based here thoroughly helped me strengthen my skills. For instance, I have noticed that comic strips are widely [available] in the States because characters like Snoopy, Garfield and Batman got the syndicating and marketing treatment to become a franchise in different media.”

Tamer’s recent caricatures include Nobel Peace Prize–winner Albert Schweitzer, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas, and American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. Some of his portraits, like those of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the highest-ranking Shi’a Muslim cleric in Iraq, and Mu’ammar Qaddafi, the leader of Libya, have provoked tough criticism from readers.When he worked in Egypt, Youssef used to draw funny cartoons as well, but now this is problematic. He says that past masters of artistic ridicule were able to work the way they did because they had the support of their editors. “Right now, a cartoonist is [unsupported] and can be sued and thrown into jail as per the current laws of journalism,” he says of the media climate in his home country.“I still remember the case of cartoonist Essam Hanafy, who was imprisoned after portraying former Minister of Agriculture Youssef Waly a few years ago. Because of these incidents, publications are now wary of criticizing political figures and so are limiting the freedom of expression of their cartoonists,” explains Youssef. “Even in some national publications, certain caricatures are [created] only to calm down the public a little bit. You can easily spot the big difference between these cartoons and those bitter caricatures that appear in El-Dostor newspaper, for instance.”Although San Francisco is a liberal haven for culture and the arts, even there cartooning can be a tricky practice. “There is a big sensitivity when a foreign cartoonist — even when he becomes a local citizen — criticizes sociopolitical issues through comic strips, as it can be misconceived by the local public,” says Youssef. “Most of my illustrations are exhibited with my presentations and lectures in cooperation with the Alliance Française, the Middle Eastern Studies Department at Stanford University and the International House at [the University of California, Berkeley].”

Youssef still believes Egyptian cartoons deserve more recognition. “Nowadays, I am working individually on a Caricature Encyclopedia and I will finance its printing as well,” says Tamer.A database of the history of Egyptian cartoons has yet to be created. While he was in Egypt, Youssef worked with other Arab artists including Syrian Dr. Mamdoh Hamada to create a first edition of the Arab Caricature Encyclopedia, featuring illustrations by cartoonists Bahgat Osman and Mustafa Hussein, among others. However, because it didn’t post big sales, subsequent editions were never published.“There is still not a caricature museum in Egypt,” says Youssef. “I think the initiative of the Caricature Museum in Fayoum, established by the great painter Mohamed Abla, cannot withstand the test of time without an organization, not an individual, to support it and a group of writers and historians who are free of personal agendas that [could compromise the project].”

Although there are many talented cartoonists and caricaturists in Egypt, there has never been a character that stands as a national symbol, such as Mickey Mouse in the States or Tintin in Belgium. “The art of comic strips reached Egypt through European and Arab artists at the same time as France and Belgium — near the end of the nineteenth century, but unfortunately these early creations, like Abou-Nadara magazine by Syrian artist Yacoub Sanoo, faced political difficulties that ultimately stopped them,” explains Youssef. “Sanoo fled Egypt to escape the menaces of Ismail Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt, and published his magazine in Paris. However, the art form continued in French-speaking countries like Algeria, where the late Gamal Selarabi fostered his talents. It was only later he settled down in Egypt for political reasons and published his strips in Al-Ahram’s Hebdo.“As for myself, when I was in Egypt, I started to draw [small four-frame comic strips like Garfield and Snoopy] in The Egyptian Gazette starring the character of Kazaza, an Egyptian caught up in daily life. But recently, the space dedicated to drawing has been shrinking, with more space for paparazzi coverage of celebrities and football players! Unfortunately, there is no inspirational role model, not only in art but in our daily life in Egypt.”

Right now, Youssef is taking courses on animation software such as Maya, used in major Hollywood productions, including 300 (2006), Kung Fu Panda (2008) and Monsters vs. Aliens (2009).“Animation takes a lot of time to execute and also needs a high production investment that we cannot afford in Egypt. Before I came to the States, I was offered an animation job by the late Dr. Mona Abolnasr (creator of the popular TV cartoon character Bakkar) but I had to decline because she couldn’t even offer a moderate salary. I also had an experience with an Egyptian website called kazoza.com where Waleed Taher and Amr Selim and I produced animated series, but after a few months we were forced to stop because it was not well-marketed.”So what’s next for Tamer Youssef? “I will be exhibiting again with Stanford and Berkeley universities and also continuing my cooperation with the Alliance Française in a new exhibition in New York featuring caricatures of Nobel Prize winners throughout history. I think 90 percent of my caricatures are of politicians compared to only 10 percent for writers, singers, actors and athletes. I will continue to lecture about my art experience in many American universities and art schools. Also, I am looking forward to a 2010 exhibition at the infamous Young Museum in California,” he pauses and then adds: “Maybe more covers for Egypt Today too!” et.

Published @ Egypt Today | Volume 31 | Issue 1 | January 2010

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