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Exhibition pays tribute to prolific Lebanese cartoonist

The Sursock Museum in Beirut is displaying thousands of cartoons by Pierre Sadek, who inspired many Lebanese satirists and created space for the next generation.

Pierre Sadek, Lebanon’s pioneering satirist, acquired indisputable fame over 53 years of working for Lebanese newspapers and television. Sadek, armed with a sharp eye and an even sharper pen, used his caricatures to reflect his political analyses until his death in 2013. “Picturing History,” an exhibition at the Sursock Museum in Beirut created in partnership with the Pierre Sadek Foundation, displays 720 of his drawings. The exhibition opened on Feb. 8 and runs until April 30.

The drawings on display are just a small selection of the 30,000 illustrations, TV animations and book covers that Sadek left when he died five years ago. His family created the foundation to maintain his legacy.

“We never thought of his work locked in a closet,” Ghada Sadek Abel, Sadek’s daughter and founder of the foundation, told Al-Monitor. “It’s still relevant today. I can see that when I post drawings online people really identify with them. The foundation’s objective is to preserve his work and pass it on to the next generation, because it depicts not only our national history but the history of the whole region. His drawings reflect what has happened in the country, region and the world, with big events, elections, wars and key personalities.”

The exhibition contains a “censorship room” for Sadek’s censored work. “He was one of the pioneers of freedom of expression,” his daughter said. “He was also censoring himself, was threatened and arrested by the authorities and almost kidnapped in 1975. But he kept pointing his finger toward problems without being insulting.”

The foundation also aims to familiarize the younger generation with Sadek’s work by organizing discussions and conferences about his life and work at universities. Lebanese students of art and design can enter the annual editorial illustration and caricature competition La Plume de Pierre (Pierre’s Pen). “Last year we received 164 applications. This year we have 250,” Sadek Abel noted.

Last year’s winner was Priscilla Bassil, a 21-year-old graphic design student at l’Universite Saint-Esprit de Kaslik in Jounieh, Mount Lebanon. In her award-winning cartoon, Bassil drew Lebanon circled by six sharks, each representing a sect ready to grab a bite. “My message is that I hope we have a country one day — a secular one,” Bassil told Al-Monitor. “I liked the idea of expressing my feelings through drawing, so I decided to participate in the competition. I was glad to reach out to people.”

It was her first cartoon, but she has now decided to spend more time drawing cartoons alongside her studies and hopes to make a career of it after she graduates this year. “I think that some of my peers still don’t understand politics,” Bassil said. “They follow the traditional parties, but they don't know a lot about global politics, nor do they want to change things.”

Sadek Abel sees young Lebanese as split in two categories: those who ignore the news and politics, and those who are engaged in what is going on in the country. She feels, however, that the concerns of the second group are not reflected in current politics. “The government [is not in line] with this group’s aspirations and needs, as these young people are very different from me or my parents. They are more informed and more conscious than people my age.”

The political satire of the young Lebanese artists is often very different from Sadek's. They were born at the end of or after the civil war and represent a new approach in style and form. One such example is Karl Sharro, an architect based in London.

On his blog Karl reMarks, he address the major regional and Lebanese issues through humor. “It started as a hobby during the 2011 Arab uprisings,” Sharro told Al-Monitor. “There was a lot of interest from the West about the Middle East, but also contradictory analysis and stereotypes. So I tried to confront it with satire.”

His satire is not limited to what he called “Western misconceptions,” but also takes on the ills in the Middle East, particularly Islamists and dictators. His blog includes guides to the Syrian parties in the civil war and how to understand the war in Yemen. He writes in the style of "The Onion," a satirical American newspaper, and his headlines take a dig at various countries' self-importance, such as “Study confirms that Lebanon is indeed the centre of the universe." He often compares the issues of his host country, the United Kingdom, with those of the Middle East, such as in his article, "How would we report the EU referendum if it were happening in the Middle East?"

Sharro doesn’t consider himself a follower of Sadek, as he believes cartoons are only one medium for conveying ideas in a satirical way. However, he recognizes the influence of Sadek and similar caricaturists. “I started to understand why we need blunt and straight messages like this, but for my generation it is a little bit different. Pierre Sadek was part of these people who created an atmosphere of freedom of expression in Lebanon. It is not great but better than in the neighboring countries. Even if I don’t always like what he said, for me the most important part is to have different opinions and points of view. They fought to get that space that we have now, so their role was essential,” he said.

Other bloggers such as Elie Fares, a US-based doctor who started his blog, "A separate state of mind," in 2011 are more critical than satirical in their writing. “I started my blog as a way to express what was on my mind about things in Lebanon, and it morphed into what it is today as a platform for me to express an opinion,” Fares told Al-Monitor. “The subjects I focus on are things that I feel strongly about — and also topics that I feel I can have a say in. It can be politics or social injustice.”

Bahij Jaroudi, an illustrator inspired by British satirists, has chosen Instagram as his preferred medium. His work “is not very politically correct,” Jaroudi told Al-Monitor.

“I like British dark, absurd humor,” he said. “I like experimenting with shapes and communicating something from my own feelings, experience, without thinking that art can change anything.”

He drew political satire during the 2015 garbage protests in Lebanon. “I did it from a social perspective, reflecting people’s point of view. But when the movement died, I stopped, because I was too disappointed when I realized how corrupt the power is. But I think there is demand in our society for a satirical approach to the news.”

Sharro talked to Al-Monitor about Nadim Koteich's satirical news analysis show “DNA” on Future TV. Koteich uses still another medium: video, created both for this TV show and additional content he posts on YouTube. Koteich comments on the latest political events in Lebanon using current and archived TV content to analyse the news and expose contradictions.

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