Sudanese Artist “Breaks Fear” of Censorship With His Art

Sudanese political cartoonist Khalid Albaih has used his work to uncover social injustices throughout the Middle East and is now utilizing the power of the pen to disclose corruption and violations of free speech around the world. Called “an artist of the revolution” for the prolific use of his art during the Arab Spring, in a recent interview with PBS, Albaih discusses not only his upcoming exhibit “It’s Not Funny” at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, but also what it means to be a political cartoonist today and why it continues to be important that citizens around the world to fight for their right to free expression.

Growing up in a household that was not only very politically active but also being exposed to Egyptian political cartoons and magazines at a young age — magazines that represent a rich history of using cartoons and satire to comment upon social issues — it is no surprise that Albaih would recognize the medium as an ideal form to spread his opinions about the things happening in his home and surrounding countries. Being the savy artist that he is, he would take his art to the next level and start his infamous Facebook page “Khartoon!” where the entire world would become exposed to his art and message.

“Social media and the street art was everywhere because we felt so oppressed that we needed to write on the walls to break that fear,” Albaih says regarding the Arab Spring and the rise in street artist appropriating his artwork from his website. “It was one of those signs. I felt like I was a part of this and still do. There are people doing amazing things, risking their lives on the streets; I just draw cartoons.”

During the Arab Spring, the sudden rise in his art appearing in urban spaces inspired Albaih to continue to produce his work about issues that not only impacted him and his community directly, but also those issues taking place around the world. From Charlie Hebdo, to the silencing of media in Egypt to the FIFA corruption cases being discussed around the world right now, the act of sharing and the reach of social media have enabled Albaih to work towards his goal of educating the local public and the world to incite change:

It’s about education first. I want to tell people what’s going on. I read a lot and then hope to let people know what I think about what’s going on. The second thing is creating dialogue, asking questions.

Is this really happening? What do you think about? I’m not saying I’m right, but if I’m wrong, tell me so we can talk about it.

As Albaih notes, conversation is key not only to maintain non-violent forms of exchange, but also to maintain the integrity of and protect free speech. With regard to his artwork coming to Michigan this summer, Albaih hopes to continue the conversation in a new social sphere. “I hope a lot of conversations happen. I want to meet people that I talk to online; exchange and make the relationship human again. The Internet makes you close to people but it’s not tangible.”

Albaih still recognizes the dangers of his chosen profession. His father was killed when he was a child after a failed coup to overthrow the government, and Albaih himself has been arrested in Egypt for some of his cartoons. Despite the dangers though, Albaih will continue to draw, not be scared into censoring himself, and stand behind everyone’s fundamental right to freedom of speech.

“I don’t think there is anything that is strictly off limits. I think you can talk about anything you want to talk about, but it depends how you talk about it.”

Read the full interview with Khalid Albaih here.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!