Talal Nayer is a cartoonist from North Sudan. The country has witnessed a lot of violence and political turmoil in the last decade. The conflict in Darfur, the separation of South Sudan, to name just a few. Last week, many Sudanese took to the streets to protest against the government’s cuts to fuel price subsidies. The government responded with the use of force, resulting to deadly clashes between protesters and security forces. According to human right groups in Sudan, at least 50 people were killed in the last week. We talk to Talal about being a politically engaged artist in Sudan.
What's the situation for cartoonists in Sudan currently?
'Honestly, it’s horrible from any perspective. In 1989 the National Islamic Front - currently National Congress Party – came to power by a military coup; a few days later the Islamists opened countless detention centers where many civilians were tortured and killed. All the newspapers were closed and many cartoonists lost their jobs. Some of them retired, some emigrated, and the rest are working in miserable conditions.
Newspapers of Khartoum are controlled by the government; journalists are working under the pressure of military forces, police and security, in a single-party state ruled by General Omar al-Bashir. The International Criminal Court accused al-Bashir of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. The ICC issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir. So, the president is a red line. In fact, he is THE RED LINE.
It is forbidden to draw the face of al-Bashir, even if the cartoon is a compliment of the president. Editors-in-chief receive a list of unwanted subjects for publishing, directly from the National Security Agency. In this polluted environment any free-thinking cartoonist will not survive.
The government forced many cartoonists to run in circles, many of them unable to escape out of ready-listed duplication subjects. If any cartoonist challenges the government, he will find himself jobless, just like what happened to me. I worked for three newspapers in Sudan as a cartoonist; the government closed two of them by force, permanently. Anybody can imagine the rest of the story. Free political cartoonists are not welcome in this country.
I feel sad and angry when I see some of my colleagues legitimizing the genocide and racist crimes of the military government in the Darfur region. They are also supporting the war on my region Kurdufan, where I currently live.'
You also work for the Saudi Gazette, an English newspaper in Saudi Arabia, not a country particularly known for freedom and tolerance. Are there any subjects you cannot draw about in this publication?
'Frankly, I haven't faced any problem in my work with the Saudis, at least until now. In general, I draw about international affairs and issues of the Middle East and Africa; this may save me from a direct clash with internal Saudi policies. I draw freely two cartoons per day for Saudi Gazette, and they choose a cartoon, put the second on in our 'Cartoon Bank'.
Saudi Arabia is the leading country of the so-called 'Islamic World', and religion is the most sensitive subject in all countries that are ruled by Sharia Law. When I desire to express my opinion about religion I publish what I want on my personal blog where I can freely express myself.
Publishing my cartoons in Saudi newspaper is not a new challenge for me; I think it’s even better than Sudan where I faced worse. In Sudan, in addition to censorship, my cartoons have been distorted by editors-in-chief to gain the satisfaction of security officers by re-editing my works and changing my comments of my cartoons.'
How do you work, and what materials do you use?
'I use very simple materials: 2H pencils, black pens with different thickness tones, mainly I prefer Uni Pin pens. I was coloring with watercolors, or wooden colors, but now I'm working with Adobe Photoshop to save time. I prefer old fashioned coloring, but drawing three cartoons per day doesn't allow me to spend a long time on coloring by hand.'
How did you develop your style?
'In my early beginnings I was impressed by Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat. We exchanged a few phone calls. I saw some of his cartoons in an old magazine (from 1995) for the first time in 2006. Ali Ferzat was a shock for me at that time, because we were isolated in Sudan, and we are still isolated from the current movement of art. I was shocked because the ideas and his artistic style were something completely different for me.
Also I liked cartoons of Cuban artist Arístides Esteban Hernández Guerrero (ARES) who gave me good advise that helped me a lot. I tried from the beginning to be independent in my ideas and my style. I tried very hard not to adapt anything from Ares or Ferzat; I tried my best to develop my own style slowly but steadily. I am working hard on ideas. I think I haven't achieved yet what I want, but I guess I am going in the right direction.'
Why do political cartoons matter?
'For me drawing cartoons is a positive way to express my ideas about life. The main inspiration sources for my cartoons are my political believes, and my mission is to carry the message of awareness to my people, and show them the way back to democracy and social equality. Sudan is so politicized and polarization pervades everything. It’s very difficult to be yourself in Sudan, but I take responsibility and voice my opinion. I know it’s risky but it is part of my duty as cartoonist.
Political cartoons are very important for me. I wrote a, as of yet unpublished, book about the relationship of politics and religion in Sudan, but I feel the cartoon is my strongest weapon. It’s stronger than writing, because it is easier for me to attract the tension of readers by my drawings. Cartoons are more popular than articles, and drawing is an artistic way to record history in very simple ways. In my opinion, any political cartoonist is a historian. Collecting cartoons from any newspaper is like a timeline of political events and social changes in the state, and all around the world.'
In what way can political cartoons/cartoonists contribute to the future of Sudan?
'From a very personal view, and based on my life in this country: there is no future for art in Sudan. Sudan is a single-party state; the totalitarian state always wants to control every activity in the country, even the personal life of any citizen.
I was a co-founder of the Sudanese Cartoon Association in 2009. When we tried to establish something we found ourselves facing a 'carrot and stick policy'. We were surrounded from everywhere; the government wanted SCA to support the ruling party (NCP) in the 2010 Elections. I was surprised when I saw ministers and some high officials in the government sitting and speaking in our first constituent meeting, I didn’t even know who invited them. Two days after the meeting the government controlled the SCA, and the founding members were marginalized.
I faced many challenges during my time in the executive office of the Sudanese Cartoon Association, I did my best to do something good, but everything was politicized and out of control. Finally I chose to resign permanently in the early 2011. Now the SCA is clinically dead. The current members don’t want to make any radical changes for themselves, or for Sudan.
Besides that, Sudan is a very conservative country, and many religious Sudanese think drawing and music and sports are “Haram” or “Forbidden”. The Salafists have a following of hundreds of thousands people, and they say to them that all artists and painters will face Allah in the Day of Judgment.
The Salafists say that Allah creates all creatures in a perfect form, and art is a distortion and a simulation of God’s creation. Challenging God is a crime, and according to the Salafist view all artists deserve to burn in hell. I can see that Sudan is drowning slowly in the Somalization and religious hysteria. Someday this country will be a nightmare for the rest of the world; it will be more dangerous than any current crisis in the world. In this gloomy environment, there is no future for anything.'