The Skin Colour of the Artist

The Egyptian Mohieddin Ellabbad is one of the greatest book illustrators and artists in the Arab world. His work is also published in the West, where he has won numerous awards. Jürgen Stryjak visited the artist in his workshop in the Heliopolis district of Cairo.

photo: Jürgen Stryjak
Mohieddin Ellabbad

​​Ellabbad always wanted to be an artist and book illustrator. "Even as a child, I knew I wanted to do this," says the 64-year-old today. From his answer, it is evident that this profession has given him a huge amount of pleasure in his life.

At the age of 17, he joined the Faculty of Fine Arts in the Zamalek district of Cairo. That was 47 years ago and there is no sign that Ellabbad has any intention of gradually putting down his pens and brushes, and riding off into the sunset.

Today, he is at the pinnacle of his career. International institutes, universities, publishers, and organisations avail of his ability, ask his advice, and benefit from his experience.

He organises workshops – including one for artists and illustrators from several Arab countries at America's Harvard University – writes essays about globalisation for German-language brochures, and designs layouts for international magazines.

The father's disappointed expectations

The formula that brought him to this point was, as he says himself, derived from a formula for survival. He came up with this formula in 1976 when he decided to turn his back on his profession. However, in order to understand how it could come to such a drastic decision, it is important to know what he did in the 1960s.

In fact, we have to go back even further: when Ellabbad decided in 1947 to enrol himself at the Faculty of Fine Arts and live the life of an artist, the shock for his father was phenomenal.

Ellabbad's father had cherished dreams of his son becoming his pride and joy. At that time, everyone in the family – which hails from Kafr El-Sheikh in the Nile delta – was either a Fellahin (peasant), or pursued a religious career, like Ellabbad's father himself, who taught at the venerable Al-Azhar in Cairo.

"He had hoped that I would be the first person in the family to wear trousers and have a respectable, middle-class job." Ellabbad's father had no religious reservations about his son being an artist.

It was not the Islamic ban on pictures that bothered him; on the contrary, as an open, modern man, he had hoped that his son would firmly ensconce himself in the modern world and become a successful doctor.

But after only a short time at the Faculty of Medicine, Ellabbad switched to the Faculty of Fine Arts (to which he had applied at the same time), dashing his father's hopes as he did so.

Maybe it was because he chose this path against the will of one of the people he loved most in the world that he felt he had to be particularly successful in his chosen career; he had to prove just how important – and how right – his decision was.

Ellabbad trained with Hussein Bicar, a renowned Egyptian artist. While studying, he signed a contract with the magazine Rose al-Yussef. He illustrated books for Dar al-Maarif, the first publishing company in the Arab world to publish an illustrated book for children in 1912.

Bicar also did drawings for Dar al-Maarif. Later, Ellabbad worked with his mentor at a weekly magazine for children called Sindbad, where Bicar was Art Director.

The era of political changes

It was the era of Gamal Abd El-Nasser. But Ellabbad is quick to emphasise that his generation had already been shaped by the preceding era. He says that while Nasser was the great patriarch, the father of the people who was above everything, he had no cultural plan.

This meant that Nasser aroused suspicion in people like Ellabbad. As a young man, Ellabbad had experienced political activity in the pre-Nasser era: the anti-government demonstrations, the exciting debates, and the national movement of the 1940s. Ellabbad considered himself to be slightly to the left – and he still does.

This meant that while he had problems coming to terms with Nasser's anti-democratic domestic policy, he was at least able to accept some elements of his foreign policy.

Ellabbad drew caricatures about the global political situation, about the policies of the USA, about the Palestinian problem. His caricatures now fill several volumes because to this day, he regularly draws cartoons for Egyptian newspapers.

Within the country's borders, the world was a restricted place. When Sadat came to power, however, Ellabbad's world became even more restricted.

Politically, everything was taboo: not only was criticism of Sadat's domestic policy forbidden, so was criticism of the USA, criticism of economic changes in Egypt that were born out of Sadat's policy of opening up to the West and market economy reforms, and later on, criticism of Sadat's rapprochement with Israel.

"We are still suffering from the consequences of these processes today," says Ellabbad. "Only now, we also have loneliness; the terrible lonely suffering of the Palestinians."

Artistic freedom

In 1976, Ellabbad considered giving up his job, at least for a few years. Friends persuaded him not to. Out of this decision came the aforementioned formula for survival, which he still applies today.

He decided to make all of his graphic and artistic talent available to those who appreciate sophisticated design. To this day, his visual expertise is highly prized. The International Red Cross got him to design their brochures, and UNESCO made him Art Director of a newspaper supplement project that lasted four years.

The result of this project was Kitab fil-Dscharida (book in the newspaper), which was published in 22 Arab newspapers and opened up the world of sophisticated literature to the average newspaper reader.

Ellabbad also recently designed the layout of a Lebanese environmental magazine called The Ecologist. In addition to all of this, he draws caricatures and writes essays.

Some of the most beautiful jewels in his creative crown have been the children's books in the series that includes The Artist's Notebook (Atlantis verlag pro juventute, Zürich 2002).

For this book, Ellabbad turned memories and mementoes into fantastic collages, and complemented them with hand-written notes, drawings, and illustrations. Picture postcards, family photos, stamps ... the book is an entertaining and surprising journey through the inner world of an artist.

Why does a postcard of Berlin remind Ellabbad of the smell of floor polish? Why is a paint imported into Egypt called "Skin colour" even though it is pale and doesn't even remotely resemble Ellabbad's dark skin colour, or that of his compatriots?

The book is modern; it's as if Ellabbad has entered into the visual, television-moulded world of today's children. The Artist's Notebook has won many international awards. Ellabbad is proud of this fact, but he doesn't let it show.

He speaks with a firm, albeit gentle and quiet voice. His manner, the volume of his voice, and his movements all give the impression of economy. After all, Ellabbad's energy, which he channels entirely into his creative work, has to last for many years to come.

Jürgen Stryjak, © 2004

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan