A Political Circus by Alexander Saroukhan is one of the cartoons that shaped Egypt’s political environment. Water colors on paper 45 x 65 cm. Image: Al Masar Gallery
CAIRO, EGYPT- The important role cartoonists play in many societies cannot be over estimated. From taking jabs at politicians and people in authority, they also address topical issues in the most exciting ways. In Egypt, one of the most celebrated cartoonists is the late Alexander Saroukhan 1898-1977. A famous visual artist and photographer, Saroukhan was a pioneering Egyptian cartoonist.
Presently on display at the Al Masar Gallery in Cairo Egypt is a retrospective exhibition celebrating the achievement of Saroukhan. This outstanding cartoonist was unrelenting in addressing current issues of his time while also criticizing Egyptian politicians. Titled Political Comedy, the show provides an insight into the art of political cartoons in Egypt in the early thirties and forties. Many of the works in this show have never been seen before. They include photographs, cartoons and caricatures.
One of the artworks on display titled A Political Circus, borrows from this popular phrase to reveal the disturbing aspect of politics. The water color painting shows politicians in a circus atmosphere having the time of their lives. While some ride on horses, others ride unicycle and jump through hoops. The painting is cogent in revealing that politicians are strange creatures.
In another cartoon titled Egyptian Effendi and Ali Maher Pasha, Saroukhan captures the conflict of interest between politicians and ordinary Egyptians. Ordinary Egyptians are represented by Egyptian Effendi, a character Saroukhan created when he was working at Rose el- Yusuf. Ali Maher Pasha is the signifier for politicians.
Standing behind Ali Maher Pasha in the cartoon, dressed in a Western clothing, is Egyptian Effendi. He appears to be urging the unimpressed Ali Maher Pasha to sign the papers in front of him. With one hand under his jaw and the other on the documents on the table before him, Ali Maher Pasha seems disinterested in whatever Egyptian Effendi was saying. His face and expression shows his disgust for this ordinary Egyptian.
Although the issues under discussing between the Egyptian Effendi and Ali Maher Pasha are not articulated in the cartoon, it brings to light an important period in Egyptian history. Ali Maher Pasha was a celebrated Egyptian political figure. He served as Prime Minister of Egypt for four terms. His term ran from 1963 through 1952. He was, however, forced to resign during his fourth term because of his opposition to the Egyptian Land Reform. Ali Maher Pasha’s opposition to the Land Reform meant ordinary Egyptians would continue to be subjugated and exploited by the rich and powerful. Ordinary Egyptians would not hear it and he was forced to resign.
Some of Saroukhan’s cartoons allow for a deep introspection of phony political promises. Before politicians get into power, they promise everything under the sun. However, when they get into power, all promises are thrown into the trash. In Funeral of the Ministry’s Promises, Saroukhan depicts a procession, marking the funeral of all the promises made by a Ministry in Egypt. While the politicians in the procession celebrate, ordinary people look dejected. In the corner of this water color on paper painting are miserable Egyptians whose hopes will be buried with the unfulfilled promises. The confluence of thoughts and ideas inherent in the cartoon gives it the necessary credence.
Like the works of many editorial cartoonists, Saroukhan’s political cartoons are poignant and thought provoking. They address political events in Egypt in a way that tormented Egyptian politicians. Yet, they illuminated important issues in the Egyptian society. In one of his editorial cartoons titled Cabinet, Saroukhan depicts politicians engaged in personal business instead of doing the people’s work. While the people wallow in abject poverty, the politicians enjoyed, rubbing their wealth in the faces of the suffering people.
Born in 1898, Saroukhan is considered one the best and most famous caricaturists and cartoonists in the Arab world. He was a gifted and enterprising cartoonist. When he moved to Egypt in 1924, he brought with him more than 125 of his art works. His drawings were published in the satirical magazine called Armenia Cinema.
Saroukhan moved to the Ottoman Empire in 1908 when he was just 10 years old. There, he studied language. In later years, he published a magazine with his brother Levon Saroukhan. His caricatures were published in Armenian magazines and newspapers, including the satiric paper Javroush. After establishing a root in Turkey, Saroukhan left for Europe and studied art in Brussels Graphic Art Academy. He was an excellent student, and graduated two years ahead of his 4 year program.
Saroukhan was not just an exceptional cartoonist; he was also an outstanding artist. During his career, he had many exhibitions in Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt. It was during his many exhibitions that he met the Egyptian journalist Mohammed El Tabii. For more than two decades, they formed a bond that elevated journalism in Egypt. Through their relationship, they became the most important and influential journalists in Egypt.
Alexander Saroukhan went on to work at Rose el-Yusuf magazine where El Tabii was editor. Working at Rose el-Yusuf marked a pivotal point in the career of this celebrated Egyptian cartoonist. In 1928, his depiction of Rose el-Yusuf on the cover of the magazine brought him instant success, as Saroukhan became well- known as a political caricaturist. Adding to his fame was El Masri Efendi, a character he created to represent ordinary Egyptians.
At different points of his career, Saroukhan worked for Akher Saa (Last Hour), Akhbar El Yom (Today’s News), La Caravane, La Presse Egyptienne, Image, The Honorable Beggars, Comrade Panchoonie and Arev among many others.
During his career, Alexander Saroukhan published several books of political cartoons and articles. In 1945, he published Cette guerre (This War), a book in which he warned about the outbreak of World War II. Beyond the warnings, the book also showed his outstanding ability to use humor for criticism. His other book, The Political Year 1938 was also well- received. It featured a collection of political caricatures. Other publications include Our Seven Deadly Sins and a thought provoking article titled How I Came to Egypt.
This retrospective exhibition presents the history of caricature and cartooning in Egypt. Political Comedy also tells the history of an exceptional artist who jumped over many hurdles to achieve his dreams. When Saroukhan died in 1977, he had created more than 20,000 caricature and cartoons. Many of the cartoons are political in nature. They reminded the politicians that they were not above the law. Other cartoons address social issues and were absolutely humorous.