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A Space Of One's Own

Yasmine Motawy “Walid Taher having breakfast at Zooba Maadi.” Photograph. 26 Feb 2014.

Yasmine Motawy interviewed award winning illustrator, writer and cartoonist Walid Taher about the use of space.

YM: Your picturebook The Black Dot won the Etisalat Award in 2009 and tells the story of a group of children who wake up to find their neighborhood play area has been taken over by a mysterious gigantic black dot. That book as well as many of your daily cartoons in Al-Shorouk newspaper share the theme of the creative potential of mental and physical space and the destructiveness of a lack of space. So, let’s talk about space!

YM: What is your workspace like?

WT: I have a small workspace at home, but lately I have begun to experiment with the question of space by working on larger canvas that did not fit at home and forced me to find a larger workspace close to Darb 1718 (Contemporary Art & Culture Center) where I was confronted with an unexpected problem: that of too much space!

YM: What do you mean: “too much space”? Is that not every artist’s dream?

WT: Well, yes and no. I am currently trying to find the balance between the noise and clutter I am running away from, and the intimidating emptiness of a large sparse workspace where the emptiness stares back at you. It is like the difference between being on the beach with a group of people then slipping away for ten minutes to look at the sea and be inspired to sketch something, and driving up to an empty beach on your own and sitting there to confront the open sea for hours. Sometimes you just need to allow the noise into your mental space and deal with it as an artist. Some artists move downtown to work while others move out to the suburbs, either way, at some point, each will long for that space or noise that triggers creativity.

Yasmine, your question reminds me of a quartet by Salah Jahin on too much happiness:

My heart was struck by the whip of happiness

It bolted like a horse and raced about the country

It returned at midnight to ask me…

Why are you ashamed of saying you are happy my boy?

I wonder!!

(translation by Yasmine Motawy)


YM: Does the artist need a specific space to work?

WT: I do not believe that you need a specific physical space to work; rather, you need to clear the spaces in your head that creativity operates in.

YM: How does one make spaces in one’s mind?

WT: The spaces in your head are always there, it is you that needs to visit them and protect them from the encroachment of clutter and attempts that mental junk makes to occupy them. Over the years I have learnt to go to this place in my head at regular times every day, and that is working well.

YM: Dubner and Levitt of the Freakonomics franchise tell us that the environment (and genetics) that parents provide for their children just by being who they are trumps what they “do” for them. As someone born into a family of artists and a parent of two teenage boys, do you think that if your home is a space that is conducive to art, your children will naturally partake in artistic explorations?

WT: I am not sure this is the case; growing up in an artistic household will give you a sense of the artistic, whereby you can enjoy art and possibly understand it well and show good artistic taste, but not necessarily have the ability to create it. The Egyptian artist Picard, once made a distinction between seriousness in art and creativity; the first is something the artist can defend by being diligent, flexible, and prolific, the second we leave to the critics, so artists are both born and made. Picard also says that in art quantity [of production] can change to quality, so sometimes hard work trumps creative talent.

YM: You have been teaching an illustration course at AUC for 2 semesters now; what do you think of online space as a possible venue to teach art? 

WT: I am not fully aware of the possibilities of online teaching, but I imagine one could train artisans rather than artists online rather effectively: individuals who know how to mix colors, perspective, shading, lines, etc … However, true artistic explorations that involve the convolution of the soul, history, the present moment and the imagination, need to happen through experimentation and encounters with masters.

Yasmine Motawy is a Senior Instructor in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition as well as a published scholar of children's literature and a translator. Her PhD dissertation (2012) was on ideology in contemporary Egyptian and British Children's Literature.  She is currently researching the visual rhetoric of animated and illustrated children's stories in the Arab world.