“I no longer am satisfied with simply documenting a culture. Cultures that I have documented and researched serve as a starting point of my work. I think it is more important to show how these cultures interact and intertwine with one another. I am personally very fond of folktales and folk religion. I find that many cultures share similar elements under superficially different appearances. While I do want to encourage cultural exchange, I am quietly trying to point out that people have much more in common with each than they realize and that the threshold between one culture and another can be easily crossed.”
Palestinian artist Azim Al Ghussein’s work deals very closely with our human tendencies towards storytelling, preserving our cultures and histories, and relating them back to daily struggles and experiences. In the UAE, Azim’s often unorthodox contributions to the local art scene and his dedication to providing creative and stimulating work (often for free) sets him apart as a true artist – someone who understands the need to bring people together, and who uses art and storytelling to do so.
You’ve been quite active in the art and design scenes in the UAE, from working as a freelance designer, to independently publishing comics which you often give away for free – how did all this begin?
When I was in high-school I wanted to get into medicine. Through a series of unexpected events and a few college rejections, I found myself applying to a Visual Communication program in Dubai. When I finished my first undergrad in Dubai, I knew I was on the right path, but I was still not quite doing what I wanted to do. I then went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I accidentally took a comic class. It really opened me up to a whole new mindset of making things. I’m really happy things turned out the way they did.
Growing up in Abu Dhabi, when did you realise your interest in design?
I’ve been told I started drawing before I could walk. I even have a few of those drawings in a box somewhere. I cannot say that I really appreciated design until my university years, but I’ve always had a love for drawings.
I was always into animated films and comics, even when there was a language barrier. I would always ask my parents to buy me a copy of ‘Majjalet Majid’ even though I wasn’t able to read them, just so that I could stare at the drawings. Same goes for Arabic dubbed cartoons on TV.
How did you supplement that desire to create?
My parents were always supportive of my creative needs. I was always supplied with sketchbooks and drawing tools. My mother was particularly influential with daily crafting sessions. She made all my toys when I was an infant, and used them as characters for bedtime stories.
Apart from my parents, school had a huge role to play in my creative growth. I was so captivated by the heartwarming illustrated textbooks in my English classes and the elaborate scientific diagrams in the science textbooks. I still read children’s books for inspiration.
I recently rediscovered the craft shop my mother bought her supplies in Abu Dhabi. Green Branch, it’s very well known. It’s a magical place, you never know what you’re going to find tucked away in those shelves. From fashion pattern template books from the 70s to embroidered patches to children’s activity books, every object in store inspires me to make. I make it a point to visit whenever I’m in Abu Dhabi.
Were you into comics as a kid?
Yes, very much so. I was buying comics wherever I could find them. Mind you, distributors were inconsistent back then, and issues would often be missing, but I bought the ones I could find nevertheless.
What kinds of comic books are you most drawn to?
Even though I like comics it doesn’t mean I’m into Spider-Man and Batman. Not that they’re bad but I veer away from the superhero genre. I like comic books that are about everything. I like to change my subjects every once in a while. It’s kind of difficult to independently publish so I try and participate in art fairs or other publications that allow my comics to work in tandem with whatever’s being published. It’s been great so far, I think the industry is growing here and I don’t think many people do what I do.
You’ve taken a more nuanced graphic novel-esque approach to your work which captures life’s off-the-cuff moments. Why exactly?
I think comics are great for capturing casual culture. You put together folk tales and a few other bits and pieces related to fantasy and stories that fit into some of the smaller aspects of life. I think the medium is great for life here because most artistic depictions focus on the larger aspects of life but less so the smaller things.
The UAE is famously diverse. Has this found its way into your work?
Absolutely. I love folk tales, I love hearing other peoples stories and putting them together. Offering a slice of something I’ve heard or felt. This is what has largely drawn me to the medium.
In the UAE you have people from all over the world. You experience so many different things. My group of friends is made up people from different cultures, religions and countries. Yet we all share these stories that we all relate to and this is a big reason I make comics, they’re almost always folk tale-based and combine the elements of a number of stories. I try and package my comics in a way that is accessible to many. You’re able to make people see that we’re all essentially the same, going through the same struggles. It’s the outlet for sharing a story.
What interests you about documenting culture?
I no longer am satisfied with simply documenting a culture. Cultures that I have documented and researched serve as a starting point of my work. I think it is more important to show how these cultures interact and intertwine with one another.
I am personally very fond of folktales and folk religion. I find that many cultures share similar elements under superficially different appearances. While I do want to encourage cultural exchange, I am quietly trying to point out that people have much more in common with each than they realize and that the threshold between one culture and another can be easily crossed.
I cannot say one particular culture interests me, I go through phases in which I am very captivated by new information, but that only adds to my list of interests. At the moment, I am very interested in Persian and Arabian (GCC) sources and I honestly cannot imagine what direction that would lead me to.
It’s very interesting to see your work range from Arabic folk stories to character illustrations from shows like Game of Thrones or Disney animations, what interests you about traditional or historical tales?
I am very drawn to how traditional stories can get reinterpreted and trigger one’s imagination. I really like that no two readers visualize a story quite the same way. In my work I show what I imagine and hope that others too will share what they see as well.
What motivates you to distribute your work?
I have an ethos which states that if you have something people want you should give it away. I don’t see the point in making this art and keeping it to yourself. I have boxes of my work which I give away. I sometimes have a space in an art fair and this is where I distribute my work. I also don’t want to sell them because I’d then have to go through the channels of governmental approval which may force my work to bump up against censorship and other hassles which waste time.
I just want people to have them. I don’t care if they know who I am. I do it for the love of creating the work and sharing it.
Do you give your work away for free to protest the commercialisation of art (locally and worldwide)?
There are various reasons to why I give away my work for free, and various reasons for when I don’t. I have given away comics in the past and hope to continue doing so when I can. I make my work so that I can share stories with people and that’s really all I want to do. When I am funded to make a comic for an exhibit, I find that the best way to go about it is to make it easily accessible for the audience. Their consumption of the book is what is important for the work. A pretty book with a story isn’t really all that valuable if it can’t be consumed. I say consumed because I like to think that it nourishes the reader.
Sometimes, when I have no funding, I would charge a minimal fee to cover the cost and time it takes to make each comic. If I am commissioned for an illustration or a comic, I do charge because the client has their own goals regarding the work. Having said that, I often contribute freely when a client and I want to share the work with an audience for cultural exchange.
Who do you most often give your work away to?
I’ve definitely given more work to strangers at art fairs (where hundreds of copies are available for people to take) than to my family and friends. Those who work around me usually get the first copies of anything I make.
It seems like a lot of people are popping up in the UAE art scene are motivated mainly by money. Having grown up in the UAE, do you see something more to be gained from the local creative scene than money and fame?
Yes! I find that people want to gain wealth and fame in the UAE have two particular reasons for doing so: They either want to increase their own social status or they want to make as much fame so that they can go abroad to retire luxuriously when the time comes.
My problem with these reasons is that they lead to fleeting contributions to the local creative scene; both are determined by the contributor’s (artist, gallery, etc…) time within the UAE. A local art scene should shape and be shaped so that it grows with it’s community. And a community is much larger and older than any individual.
The UAE is my home, though I am not local. I was born and raised here and I wish to stay as long as I can because there is no other place I want to call home. The local art scene, still young and growing, is part of my home. Any contributions to the scene can still be noticed and can influence. I have the opportunity here to make things that will be part of my home and, if I’m lucky, make my home grow just as I have.
What is your opinion on the local art scene, and where do you think it will go from here?
I think there are too many people in the local art scene who are all flash and no substance, with huge egos, and questionable intentions. There is no shortage, however, of amazing community driven, hard-working artists and foundations. The flashy guys will eventually fade away once this young scene matures and the dust settles. The other guys, though, they’ll do things that will make the UAE stand out as a creative hub.
Which work inspires you?
Habibi by Craig Thompson is always near. It’s the best thing I’ve ever read and is actually banned here due to the religion and sexuality. It’s 700 pages and I read it one go, couldn’t put it down. I was so captivated. The paper and the binding had to be just right, but he released it for quite cheap, an idea I love. It’s very inviting to potential readers.
I was inspired by lots growing up and I’d like to share the feeling. I think the best way to make that happen is to freely distribute my work. I’ve encountered lots of great comics that I never thought I would have found. I do have to dig for these things here but they’re available. And I still may only find 10 a year but it’s an improvement on the two I found just a few years ago.
Whose work do you admire in the comic book world? Any local comic book artists or places/shops you would recommend for people looking for inspiration?
I am a huge Marjane Satrapi fan. I am also very much influenced by Craig Thompson, Zeina AbiRached, David B., and Emily Carroll. I’m always looking for any locally made comics but that is always tricky. The Lebanese comic scene is the closest I get. I was an avid Samandal reader. I once bought a comic by Sarah AlHazmi called Hijab-Girl and it was spectacular! It was a pleasant surprise to find that at the local Comic-Con where so few regionally made comics are sold.
I usually go to Kinokuniya for comics and whatever I don’t find I usually buy online or when I go abroad. I am hoping that this will change soon and I will get to buy locally-made comics easily.
What do you have your sights on currently? Are you working on anything new you’d like to share with us?
I am exhibiting at the local Comic-Con for the first time this year, so I’m pretty excited. Other than that I’ve been focusing on going to grad school so that I can give my work the attention it needs to grow without the deadlines and client-based restrictions.
If you’re in the UAE, head over to the Middle East Film & Comic Con from 7 – 9 April where Azim and artist Khalid Mezaina are sharing a booth titled “great + everlasting”. While you’re there be sure to check out the latest issue of “Fade Away and Illustrate”, issue 2 of Mezaina’s illustration zine, which Azim and Khalid collaborated on.