While illustration often finds its place at design conferences, comic book illustration is one form that often remains overlooked.
Identical Egyptian twin brothers Mohamed and Haitham Raafat El-seht, who go by the name of Twins Cartoon, are revolutionising the field in Egypt, having given up their permanent jobs as designers to pursue their own comic magazine Garage, and coordinate a collective of underground and commercial comic artists from the Middle East.
The pair use their work to fearlessly question religion, politics and social issues such as sexual harassment, while also injecting humour and satire into their brave and reflective drawings.
We catch up with the pair at Design Indaba 2016 – where they have unveiled the first ever-English copy of their magazine Garage – and talk to them about being cartoonists in Egypt and how they got to where they are today.
Design Week: How do your cartoons depict the current state of Egypt?
Twins Cartoon: After the Arab Spring revolution in 2010, everyone wanted to be free – but this freedom was both good and bad. There had been a great artistic revolution, and the thing we focused on most in our work was the diseased aspects of society.
We drew cartoons on the streets, looking at things like sexual harassment and disrespect by young people for their elders. We found bad stuff like sexual harassment, which became so common, and young people not respecting old people. We weren’t trying to offer advice or stop the problems – just focus on them.
DW: You’ve said that many illustrators in Egypt focus on two topics of the Arab Spring and sexual harassment, but that Egypt stands for more than this – what other topics do you draw about?
TC: I think that artists don’t have to place themselves inside one or two topics – they should be free, and should do anything. So we talk about politics, sure, mostly through caricatures rather than comics, and the social life in Egypt, but we also draw about the social life in other countries such as when we hold our workshops in Jordan and Germany.
We don’t like to say we focus on specific topics – I’m not good at drawing everything, but I like to draw everything.
DW: How long have you been creating cartoons?
TC: [Mohamed] We’ve loved comics since we were young. Haitham started drawing before me, on paper, walls, everywhere. I didn’t want to be an artist at first, I wanted to be a dentist like my uncle. But soon I found that dentistry sucked, and I copied Haitham instead.
We studied animation at Minya university in Egypt, then started out as professional artists. After time, we made a small team together.
We felt that a publishing house in Egypt would want to control its artists – that’s why we made our collective Kawkab el Rasameen [translates to Planet of Artists], where we try to catch underground artists and help them produce their work.
DW: What is it like being a cartoonist in a country like Egypt, where freedom of speech is limited and censorship abundant?
TC: I don’t think the Egyptian government is interested in comics. Maybe they are interested in movies and music, but not comics because it’s not a big industry in Egypt.
We didn’t care about this when we started making comics though – we just do our workshops and follow institutes that focus on comics, such as the American university in Egypt. We received support from them for Cairo Exhibition for Electronic Communications festival, but not for our own magazine Garage.
I think that it’s not just the fault of the government, but also the artist – they shouldn’t w ait for help, they should keep going and try to make workshops and collectives, then the government may be able to support them.
DW: Has your work ever got you in trouble?
TC: We had trouble during the revolution, because sometimes we like to draw on public transport – but I think it’s crazy to jail artists for their opinions. There’s 20 million people in Cairo – if you just take public transport, you will hear people telling stories and will find a lot of comic references.
We’ve had people yelling at us because of our drawings, and the cops were called, but let it go. This was directly after the revolution – if it was now, I feel we could have gone to jail.
DW: How did you set up your magazine Garage?
TC: We set up Garage by making a collective workshop of 20 artists, from Egypt, Syria and Jordan. We would just meet in our own small studio, or in some cultural hubs. We would talk about how we needed to make a comic magazine of underground artists mixed with professional artists. We pooled artists together and chose 10 who really wanted to become comic book artists – and then we made it from our own money, me and Haitham.
We have now quit fulltime work and gone completely freelance, as we didn’t want to be under the control of anyone – Haitham was working as an art director for a company, and I was working as a concept artist for a Swedish publishing house.
Being freelance is good for us to attend festivals such as Design Indaba, and also have time to make magazines like Garage and our collective workshop.
We are so focused on the streets of Egypt, and on Egypt’s social life, and now have artists not only from Egypt, but from countries such as Columbia, Germany, Tunisia, Morocco and Russia.
The fact that Indaba has now printed the first ever English version of Garage is great.
See more of Twins Cartoon’s work at www.behance.net/twinscartoon.
We spoke to Twins Cartoon at this year’s Design Indaba conference.