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|Ihab Shaker, Profile by Youssef Rakha,
Al-Ahram weekly, June 16, 1999
Invinting the wheel
Those who say that gifted people are tormented souls who lead destructive lives are wrong, and this is the man to prove it. lhab Shaker is as well-disposed as ever an artist was, his harmonious life in perfect balance.
There is something Sufi about lhab Shaker's cyclical perception of the events of his life - he is fond of rotations, and his vocation (a word he defines as "one crazy idea you're dying to realise, which keeps coming back to you again and again, demanding to be put into shape") relates to the mystical passage of time, that strange music which sets the three dimensions in motion.
With the homely elegance of their flat lending the scene its distinctive panache, Shaker's lifetime companion, journalist Samira Shafiq, serves coffee and cake, while Shaker casually and unhurriedly reminisces about the periodic re-appearance in his life of people who left a mark on it. Giving three specific examples, he speaks frankly, wittily, with abrupt bursts of emotion that he seems unable to control. Later, when you gaze at the paintings decorating his walls and inspect samples of the countless books and magazines he has illustrated - trying to make sense of his long career in journalism, the voluntary research work he undertook and his triumphant achievements in animation film-making in France and Egypt - you suddenly realise that it is these three anecdotes, rather than facts and figures, that bring this exceptional artist to light.
The first dates back to the mid-1940s when lhab, following in the footsteps of his brother Nagui (another distinguished artist and the principal founder of the Egyptian puppet theatre), took private lessons with Carlo Minotti, an Italian whose specialty was painting royal palaces. "In 1988, when I had an exhibition in the Palace of Aisha Fahmi, I found one of Minotti's paintings there." Shaker's expression is incredulous. "And I thought, I am exhibiting together with my first teacher, whom I hadn't seen for nearly 50 years. Isn't it strange the way these things happen?…"
The "recurrent appearance of all those who taught me" was to be confirmed concretely a second time, when a friend unexpectedly gave Shaker one of the works of Anelia Daforno, another Italian who had taught him at the Leonardo Da Vinci School of Art, which he attended while pursuing his prep and secondary education in the 1950s. "The days pass, it is true, but they also revolve, rotate, and Daforno must return to me after so many years. It feels as if someone is telling you something, that what happened to you at these early stages was not arbitrary or haphazard but carefully planned."
The 'third anecdote would not occur until 1957, when Shaker graduated from the Art Academy but the academy years form a seprate saga in their own right.
Due to their training at Leonardo Da Vinci, the Shaker brothers had stood out in the aptitude exam and, despite occupational detours prompted by the family's opposition to art ("my uncles marvelled at the madness of my father, a civil servant who allowed his children to study art and sang in an amateur choir at the opera, a conventional man who had subscribed to an illustrated French magazine from 1914 to 1925, thus giving his children the chance to scamper up to the top of the wardrobe, where the magazines were kept, and spend hours poring over them"), by the be-ginning of his second year Shaker had been summoned by graphics designer Abdel-Salam El-Sherif to Al-Gomhouriya, and was being employed as a caricaturist for LE20 a month. This was fortunate for his friends. "It was far more than I could ever spend on my own in a month and we lived like kings..." Nor had the story started simply.
"One morning I woke up and said to Nagui, I dreamt of our friend so-and-so and in the dream his face was rectangular. He didn't pay attention so I made the drawing to convince him. It looked exactly like our friend, except it was hilarious. And in the Heliopolis government school where I was transferred to finish my secondary education, I vented my anger at my teachers through caricature. I would make the whole school laugh at the people who punished and humiliated me, and this gave me a special satisfaction - it was a way of realising my own power. So when they created a wall journal in the academy I thought I'd use this gift of mine and immediately contributed to it. And Abdel Salam, having known some of my subjects and seen the work, decided to summon me to Al-Gomhouriya."
“The language that we speak over here is an inferior language; it is a language of shadows and contains too much that is wrong. But there is another language out there, a much more effective language, and it is only when you learn that other language that you begin to see. It is a long arduous process and takes you a whole lifetime, and you never in the end learn to speak it fluently. But the process of learning itself is enough; even knowing of this other language’s existence is enough.”
In 1954, poet Kamel El-Shinnawi had become editor-in-chief and, for the first time in the history of Arab journalism, he decided to publish an original political cartoon every day - so it was Shaker who, with the help of lyricist Ma'moun El-Shinnawi, Kamel's equally celebrated brother, chose a political subject to comment on, producing a new picture every day. Another well-known figure, artist Hussein Bikar, supervised Shaker's graduation project three years later. "I went up to Bikar and said, I want to paint music,"
Shaker explains as we inspect three large depictions of the circus which occupy two of the living room walls, "and he immediately retorted, 'What do you mean paint music, this is a near impossibility, and if you start on music now, you will never finish, it will remain with you for the rest of your life. Now you need something to graduate with.' So, as you can see, I did the circus instead."
It was with these words that Bikar, like Minotti and Daforno, reappeared posthumously in Shaker's life. But, his 1990s work on musicians and musical instruments aside, it is no coincidence, Shaker feels, that the thesis he submitted to the Canadian animation artist Norman McLaren in 1968, and which prompted a recommendation letter to the UNESCO offices in France, concerned the idea of music in art. "These were studies about movement in art. How you can employ time in manipulating the three dimensions. And my breakthrough would be the idea of music as architecture in motion." Animation and comic strips are but two examples of the search for this. "But I still haven't resolved it all and I don't know enough to explain. Still, isn't it strange how Bikar was right? At the age.of 66, I still haven't finished..."
Blocked by the Nasserite bureaucracy, the research grant fell through. "The UNESCO imposed only one condition, that I get official approval from my embassy. Of course the approval never came and it was this that prevented it from happening." From 1969 to 1976, Shaker and Shafiq, determined to compensate for the loss of the grant, lived in Paris from hand to mouth. "And it was Samira's perseverance that kept us going, she was the first to get a job," Shaker emphasises. They had married in 1964, four years after Shaker transferred to Sabah El-Kheir, the magazine with which he is still affiliated. (He met novelist Ihsan Abdel-Qudous, head of the Rose El-Youssef organisation, through the Shinnawis, and when the latter asked, "What are you doing in Al-Gomhouriya! Don't you think it's time you came to Rosa?', Shaker's half-joking response was, "Not until you give me a raise.")
Their stay in Paris was thus preceded by five years of propitious married life and several ventures out of Egypt with Sabah El-Kheir, as well as numerous commissions to illustrate books, notably for Dar Al-Ma'aref ("it was really exceptional that our own teachers, like Bikar, would ask us to go and work with them, and this is how I did my children's book on ants"). Of course, there was also the "long-drawn-out love story which began seven years before we got married but brought us finally, perfectly together".
These developments were crucial. Shaker's involvement with Sabah El-Kheir, besides forcing him to make his own decisions about the work he did ("unlike the Shinnawis, Ihsan made me come up with the ideas and take responsibility for them myself, and if I objected he would say, Either you come up with something or I run a blank page on the cover this week'"), switched the emphasis from caricature to journalism, while his marriage to Shafiq led him increasingly away from "the many kinds of fun that you could waste your time on in those days".
Rose Al- Youssef eschews photography. Instead of photojournalists, the institution employs caricaturists and art journalists - a policy that provided Shaker with tremendous scope for reportage and commentary through drawing. In 1961 a tour of Europe on a cargo ship with journalist Mufid Fawzi proved to be ground-breaking in the sense that "as young men, through our work on what we encountered on the Mediterranean and North Sea coasts, we managed to show other Egyptian young men that Europe was a place like any other, that it wasn't the dream-land everybody made it out to be, nor as superior as people thought".
The next year, suffering an existential crisis, Shaker was the first to volunteer to go to Yemen during the civil war. "I actually annoyed Saleh Mursi by beating him to it, since he considered himself the magazine's foremost adventurer, the Alexandrian sailor par excellence. But when I told him that, unlike him, I had volunteered out of despair rather than courage, we grew closer. And that was how we became friends." It was their close encounter with the horrors of war, however, the many near-death situations which they experienced ("we were comic enough to be characters in one of [the celebrated comedian] Isma'il Yassin's army films"), that Shaker found life-changing. "When I didn't have time to draw, I recorded what I saw with the camera, and the photos would simply serve as reminders later."
Two more journeys, to Abu Dhabi (directly be-fore the unification of the Emirates) and west Africa (with journalist Louis Greiss) would challenge Shaker's draughtsmanship and further acquaint him with the rich diversity of human existence
It was in this way that he came to embody the quaint and endearing notion of an art Journalist - an artist who travelled and brought back visions of what he saw. But what is even more remarkable is his relationship with his wife - the perfect realisation of an arduous ideal. "The in-destructible bond of Christian marriage frightened us both at first, but we realised what was involved in two people complementing each other for the rest of their lives. It is the most in-escapable, the most fulfilling feeling in the world. And since the very beginning we learned how to give each other the space necessary for doing our work. In fact it's rather worrying," Shaker jokes. "Samira enjoys my company only when I've been working, as if I wasn't the same person when I didn't work..."
Here too, Shaker's penchant for cyclical recurrences finds expression: "Before I decided I wanted to draw too, my hobby was to watch Nagui drawing, challenge him to do something different, and egg him on. And when we first married I came back to my atelier one day and smelled paint. I had been lazy for months and wasn't working. But when I saw Samira, brush in hand, using my paints and canvasses to try and make her own picture, this made me think, now I'll show her. And I took the brush away from her and started working again..." Indeed, their collaboration on one of the most popular Egyptian comic strips ever created, Shamsa and Dana - still a regular feature in Maged children's magazine - testifies to the fact that they are a constant inspiration to each other. "There is a great artist in her," Shaker asserts. "And, well - maybe there is a writer in me too."
In France, Shaker would eventually establish himself as a popular illustrator (he even wrote the rhymes in French for a children's book he was commissioned to create), but his most remarkable feat was his collaboration with Paul Grimault, "Walt Disney's French counterpart, a left-wing and progressive man always at variance with the government", on a widely ac-claimed short animated film, Un Deux Trois, which received the national Prix de Qualité and represented France in four festivals world-wide; "Not until the early 1990s did the centre for animation here realise that there was some-one called lhab Shaker. They asked me for work and I made one film..." The fact that it took him three years to complete, though, and the lack of any significant financial reward, has made it difficult for Shaker to go through the experience again. "I got the best animated film prize in 1996. This is all that matters to me, but in order for such projects to be viable, practically speaking, one would have to be compensated materially for such strenuous labour, it must be made possible financially too for an artist."
Animation notwithstanding, Shaker has been exhibiting regularly, if infrequently, since his re-turn from France, and with regard to book and magazine illustration, he has been as active as ever. But it is his continual rediscovery of such ancient wisdoms as Yoga, the Egyptian folk psyche and the Sufi poetry of Ibn Arabi, as well as his continuing research on the music of forms ("throughout our time in France I was also collecting a library, there was nothing cheaper than books"), that compose the harmony of his daily life. In France - "the seven hard years during which we really grew up" - he and Shafiq had also started learning to be the beloved parents of two daughters. Now that both have left home, leading their own successful lives, there is time for reminiscence, too, and meditation - "to spiritually see how it all fits together."
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