"I am from the Internet"

Khalid Albaih, Photo: Niels Larsen

Copenhagen has its very own ICORN / PEN-cartoonist: Khalid Albaih, and I interviewed him not long after his arrival for the Danish online comics magazine Nummer9. The interview in Danish can be read here. The interview is to be read at the Norwegian comics specialist site empirix.no here as well and soon in Sweden, and so it is high time it can be read in English as well.

The interview is already a few months old and one of the ideas, Khalid expresses, will soon be a reality. Such is his presence. He creates change, wherever he is, and without further ado let us go directly to his own words:

Let us take off in the midst of your joy: You have found your space

The day before yesterday was the first time I was using a public library. I had never been to a library before I began working at the Qatar Museum [Khalid is Head of Installation and Design - Art in Public for the museums in Doha, LCL]. We have a very good library, but it is highly specialized in Islamic art. And we have one in the museum of modern art, but it is very specialized too. Nothing there is open. I mean information inviting to be used.

The library is located in our neighborhood; It is a neighborhood function. It invites you sit down and work, and it really opens my eyes. To research styles, research illustrators and cartoonists. Until now, I have been going online to see artworks, and online it looks as if it has a lot, but it does not really. Here, however, you can actually hold the physical books in your hands, different styles and different ways of printing. I have as yet but come here regularly for a few days, but it has opened up a lot of spaces in my head.

My next project is to try to establish a cartoon library in Sudan. Not a bookshop, because I want free knowledge. Those who have the economy are not the ones with whom I try to make contact. At the moment, I speak to Egyptian and Lebanese publishers, they are also the only ones who publish graphic novels in the Arab language market in addition to a few in the Emirates and Qatar, and today I was in [the Copenhagen shop specializing in comics, LCL] Fantask with Dennis Rosenfeld, where I told them about the idea, and they immediately asked how they could help. I have a vision of reaching out to many people like me, who have never been to a public library before. In my opinion, it is a human right to have access to something as unique as graphic novels or cartoons; all that has to do with art and culture.

Khalid Albaih at his local library with his sketchbook on a
subject, which is a classic in the streets of Copenhagen: A mother and child
 on bike braving the weather. Photo: LCL.

A library specializing in graphic novels...

To me it is THE art form. That was the one I grew up reading. It was not only hard to get the books; it was also a niche thing. My dad used to buy Superman and Batman for me, which had been translated into Arabic. So I try to give back and create a diversity so you have access to read what you want. I do not think there is a library for the graphic novel in the Arab world.

Graphic novels contain it all. Seeing other things really opens your eyes and the same goes for politics. When you look outside, you discover that Mugabe is not the only choice, or Bashir is not the only choice; that there is a choice besides the one who ruled the country for 30 years. In the region, we feel that if someone takes power, he keeps things under control. Yes, but he does it by killing everyone else. We must see that change is possible and realize that there is no absolute right or absolute wrong.

I'm working on another project: Portholes, and Niels Offenberg is helping me with contacts. I always take the metro everywhere here and it is nice and clean in contrast to the trains in Egypt or in Sudan or in India. So I thought people should see how it is over there, and I wish people over there could see how it is here. Imagine going to Nørreport Station, and a screen will lead you into a transport area in Uganda or Sudan, where you will hear and see those who are there right now. Like a Skype-meeting, but with people you do not know.

Maybe we should put a microphone there. I know that in places like Sudan it is not legally possible to set up a screen, but we could do it in a guerrilla kind of way and it would be a point in itself to experience from here that you cannot even put up a screen.

It is the same type action I am trying to create with my cartoons. I try to break these barriers or just have curiosity, so my head is brewing with ideas on how to do cartoons in a physical way. Part of being here is that I have got a bigger space to think and it's also a chance to do things on a larger scale. My political statement is that you have to keep pushing for things.

It has been an inspiring beginning to have you with us

I've been here for a month and I have ideas about establishing relationships and spending the time I am here to do something that I can learn from and find ways too so that Danes can learn from my experience. It is the purpose of the program besides giving my family and me a place where we can think and work without worrying about other issues as well.

I do not want to be considered "the artist we saved". I want it to be an exchange of knowledge. Of course, I know that, in order to continue my work, I need protection and I am grateful to PEN, ICORN and the City of Copenhagen for their invitation, but again I think about what to do while I am here.

Umm Kalthoum was a famous Egyptian singer in the 1950s and '60s, singing a poem by a Sudanese poet, Al-Hadi Adam Al-Hadi: "I'll see you tomorrow." It is a love song; but yesterday, its philosophical weight struck me: "Tomorrow will be great, tomorrow will be fantastic, tomorrow will be better. Tomorrow we are looking forward to, but today is the best for now." I really want to use that, that Yes, tomorrow... but right now I am here, so right now I am preparing.

You have a new slogan: Bring the Internet to life

I am from the Internet. That is where I feel where I am really from because growing up we did not have the chance to do many things, but the Internet allowed us to do that. We could not get visas as young kids, it was hard for families to travel, but the Internet became our access to chat rooms, websites and blogs. I am not from Romania, where I was born. I am not from Sudan because I am a 36 year-old man still getting lost, when I am home. I am not from Qatar because I cannot come from Qatar. The only place that was home to me was the Internet.

This is the living Internet in physical space while still involving the Internet. Everything is about establishing communication, how we can use all of these things in a way that creates.

Khalid Albaih, September 9, 2017.
The kneeling Colin Kaepernick to which Khalid Albaih added
the glove of the Black Power-movement. The khartoon took off immediately and can be found on any t-shirt and mobile cover, neglecting the copyright of the cartoonist.

Many cartoonists talk about financial censorship because they are having trouble living on what they do and you have a cartoon in circulation yourself, which you are the only one not making money on 

You cannot be a dictator on the Internet. People will find a solution and crop your cartoon for example, so it is best that you give your cartoon for free, because then it will give back. I would like to be accredited for my work, so I ask for, for example, the Kaepernick-drawing that they just mention my name. People begin reacting, when others are showing it: Oh, this image is of that person, and for me that is the culture of the Internet.

If it doing its effect, as in the case of the Kaepernick drawing, and I experience that when I talk about my work, I see it on people that they recognize it immediately. It is huge. I want to get the point where you know that a drawing is made by me when you see it, even if it does not have my name on it.

You are refer to cartoons as speech

My work process is to read a lot, I read a LOT. I try to read as much as I can from different sources, which is really hard, because nothing can be taken for granted and we need to know where the sources come from and how. I talk to as many people as I can and then form an idea, form a question that I want to talk about. I try to form questions the simplest way possible and I get deeply frustrated when I can not make it simple. I need that myself when you speak to me, it must be simple for me to understand you and I think most people are like that, academics or not: Tell me what it is. What are we talking about here.

That is what I want: Something simple and straight to the point that looks good. It should look good that is part of it. I come from the 1990s and 2000s, and I like to use pop culture. I like to mix. In the beginning I would do stencils. I loved Banksy, and when you compare Banksy and Naji al-Ali, they both work in black and white, they look at the world from a question mark, and they are both sarcastic in a very sad way. I wanted to be a mix of them. Make street art because I wanted to use public space and the only public space I had was the Internet.

I am not a good artist. I do not draw well so I use graphics and with pop culture it is easier to deliver a message. And because there are great artists out there like Emad Hajjaj, Osama Hajjaj, Marilena Nardi - she is amazing! Doaa Eladl too. They are so beautiful, pure art. Because I work on the Internet things go very fast so I need to attract attention, so I would mix the two things, street art stencilling and cartooning. Just mix and see what happens.

It's really just about making things simple. Many people understand pop culture and relate to it, and occasionally I make drawings about what crosses my mind, such as "Trump did this or that" or this happened in Saudi or Lebanon. Information. And then in between, I will talk about Muslims or Sudan, places that you never see in the headlines. Different layers of types of drawing, and I try to work on it in the style I like; experimenting a little each time.

Khalid Albaih, November 7, 2017.
The Saudi crown prince as the opposite of what civil disobedience
and the civil rights' movement represent.

The last word should be yours too

Many wonder why I do it. I do not work for anyone, so why do you do it, I sometimes wonder myself. Especially when it began getting me into trouble, it was kind of worrying: "What is the use?" I was really thinking that this is not making anything better and it is certainly not making my life better, but it IS making my life better because I have to keep questioning. And my kids, the many people following my work and if I just step down, what does that mean?

I have that moment. On the Internet it is always that now, you have that moment. You know what to do with it.

The cartoons shown are courtesy of Khalid Albaih and must not be reproduced without his permission. To see more of his works, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/KhalidAlbaih/.

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