Mohammed Al-Shaibani: “Yemenis do not see cartoons as an art.” [Archives:1997/48/Interview]

December 1 1997

Mohammed Al-Shaibani is one of the best cartoonists of Yemen who started his profession as a hobby early in his childhood. In 1975, while with his family in Saudi Arabia, Al-Shaibani, 39, worked as a cartoonist in “Hassan,” a Saudi children’s magazine. After one year, he started working as a graphic designer and produced lots of caricatures for the Saudi “Okaz” newspaper, and later for “Madeena” newspaper in Jedda. Working with famous Arab cartoonists and artists such as Mohammed Qotub, Adel Al-Batrawi, Zakaria Ibraheem, and Naseem Georges in various Saudi newspapers and magazines has gained Al-Shaibani an important experience in this field. He also worked in the Saudi Gazette and Arab News .  He now makes several daily and weekly caricature contributions to various Yemen publications. He participated in several Arab exhibitions and won many awards, both in Yemen and abroad. He is currently the main cartoonist and the Art Director of the official Al-Thawra daily. Mr. M. Bin Sallam of Yemen Times held an extended and interesting talk with Mr. Al-Shaibani. Excerpts:  
Q: What messages do your cartoons carry? A: I mainly address social issues such economic hardships due to price increases, high dowries, the accumulation of rubbish in the streets, sewage overflows, women issues, administrative inefficiency, and many other issues of concern to the ordinary citizen. My images also try to entertain. For a caricature to be effective, it also has to be both catching and amusing.
Q: Do you draw cartoons which have no comments? A: I do prefer cartoons without a caption, then the image can become universal and understood by people of all languages. However, this type of cartoon is not easy to do. It needs some time to concentrate on and contemplate the idea, something which is not readily possible in this very busy life of ours.  Cartoons represent an independent art that should attract the attention of readers of any publication. It is a universal means of communicating by expressing complicated ideas with a simple sketch and a few words. It is a naughty sort of art which appeals to all people irrespective of their age, gender, or class. Cartoons can easily express what words or even photos cannot. No good publication in the world is without its special cartoonists or caricature contributors.  There are worldwide networks and agencies for the distribution of cartoons
Q: When did this art first appear in Yemen, and how has it developed? A: Like many other arts, cartoons first appeared in Yemen in late 1960s. It was then in the form of individual attempts, some of which continued and developed considerably while others did not. Cartoons in Yemen are still somewhat underdeveloped, compared to other countries in the region. This art only started to gain real ground in the 1980s when artists became able to express the political and social developments taking place in Yemen at the time.  But the major milestone was achieved after unification. This is partly because of the large growth in publications (especially newspapers and magazines), and partly because of the more free atmosphere in which cartoonists were able to address more issues without fear of reprisal. Thus the recruitment of novice cartoonists also started. A new form of journalism has dawned on us.  
Q: Who are the pioneers of this art in Yemen? A: As acknowledged by many cartoonists, my colleague Adnan Juma’an and I are considered the pioneers of cartoon creation in Yemen. I was the first one to establish a permanent space for cartoons in Al-Thawra and Adnan did the same in October 14th newspaper.  
Q: Are there outstanding Arab cartoonists? A: Of course, there are. The best cartoonists are in Egypt, and some in North Africa. There are also some in the diaspora, especially in London and Paris. Some names immediately stand out, like George Bahjoori, Naji Al-Ali, Mahmoud Kihail, etc.
Q: What does it take to be a successful cartoonist? A: A successful cartoonist must first and foremost be honest with him/herself so as to represent his/her people and society in an accurate and constructive manner. Talent is, of course, another major prerequisite. A cartoonist should be able to often convey complicated ideas within a simple context. The main thing is that the picture has to immediately relate to the reader.
Q: Do you think the general political and social climate is conducive for the development of this art in our country? A: There are two very important and essential conditions that have to exist for this art, or any other art for that matter, to flourish and develop – democracy and freedom of expression.
Q: Have Yemeni cartoons reached a good stage of development? A: I am afraid that cartoons in Yemen have not developed a lot. Public awareness of this art is still somewhat limited. Still the majority of the people regard cartoons as some sort of mere superficial jokes. They do not see it as a serious contribution.
Q: How does the idea of a cartoon drawing develop in your mind? A: An idea would develop out of personal or collective feelings and suffering. It draws from the interaction with realities every day, whether positive or not. An artist is a reflection of what he/she sees and feels. He/She actively affects and is affected by his or her society. The idea comes from the artist’s circumstances, and conscience as a reflection of society’s collective conditions. An idea may come suddenly and out of the blue. This is often triggered by a situation or something I witness. Or it could simmer and develop over time. I find that qat chews often help me in tapping people’s ideas and then making something creative and interesting out of them.
Q: Have you ever faced any trouble because of a cartoon you published? A: I certainly faced many problems and troubles because of the political and/or social positions my sketches represent. But these problems have only made me more solid in my stance. I will continue to be a cartoonist despite all obstacles and frustrations.  Unfortunately, cartoonists in Yemen are not regarded as artists, but as ordinary employees whose job helps amuse part of the readership. Neither the officials nor the general public sees caricatures as a serious business. Thus, here in Yemen, cartoonists have yet to get the recognition accorded to other professions such as sports people, actors, singers, etc.  
Q: Is there any kind of association or syndicate for cartoonists? A: Unfortunately, there is no such forum. I honestly don’t feel optimistic that it will ever come into existence. If it ever did, it will just be ineffective like many other syndicates or trade unions. The syndicate of journalists, for example, has not done much for its members. There are many journalists who suffer in silence. I consider every artist is his/her own syndicate. He or she can clearly and eloquently express his or her interests. The ‘pen’ is the word of honor among us.  
Q: How about finances. How well off are cartoonists? A: That is another headache. We are not adequately paid. To add insult to injury, some newspapers reprint cartoons previously published elsewhere, without paying for the job or giving credit.