Award-winning Egyptian children’s-book author and illustrator Walid Taher (The Black Dot, A Bit of Air, Balad: Voyage sans bagage) has been working out of Marseilles since 2016, where he has been doing his most experimental work yet:
By Yasmine Motawy
Even as Walid Taher’s work gains the attention of niche artistic audiences, it has not alienated him from his first audiences. Taher’s workshops with children in Paris, Marseilles, Cairo, Dubai, Munich, Sierre, Annemasse, Geneva, Tetouan, and Oujda show that children are just as excited about his recent works as they were about his more traditional early ones.
Le Port a Jauni is the bilingual Arabic-French publisher of Taher’s quietly dramatic bilingual work Les Danseurs, which first came out in October 2018. I met with Walid Taher to talk about this unusual book.
Yasmine Motawy: I’ll start with the traditional question: How did this book come about?
Walid Taher: The title came to me first; as it occurred to me one evening that everyone misses dancing, but because they are so focused on achievement, they put off “the dance”until after they’re done achieving everything they set out to in life. I began sketching dancers of all sorts, and then I began to notice that with every successive sketch, I was trying to get closer to the essence of dance itself, and that any simile involving dance likened the dancer to something else; she dances like the wind, he dances like fire, like a horse, like a boat in the sea, like the trees, like smoke, like a happy heart, and I immediately stopped sketching the imitators and began thinking of ways to express the original dancers of Nature.
I thought about the sea first, and played with how to express it: Should I paint blue waves crashing violently on the shore? No, I wanted to illustrate the wave’s dance itself! The waves in their state of perpetual dancing, so I played a great deal with that first. It was as though I wanted to express screaming, so instead of painting a screaming girl, I tried to paint the scream itself.
I made hundreds of sketches and ended up with paintings that were often significantly different from one another, so I used motifs to pull them together for the purpose of the book. These motifs that recur in my works include: Turkish coffee pots, bottles, bicycles, and horses are all heavily infused with familiarity and probably a bit of sentimentality; I don’t drink Turkish coffee but I love Turkish coffee pots.
YM: Were you concerned that your young audience might not understand what this was all about?
WT: Yes and no.
First off, this book is still part of the experimental trajectory that I’ve been on in collaboration with my French publisher, Mathilde Chèvre of Le Port a Jauni. When I first thought of the book, I told her, “This time I’ll be making a book with no conditions attached to it,” meaning, I did not want to be required to ensure that the book had features that made it “for children.” That was part of the experiment; to make a book that was as free as its subject matter.
In any case, when I write, I consider everyone to be a child, I speak to the child inside every person I am addressing, so the child-aged person is never my only reader.
On the other hand, I was tremendously concerned about how children would receive these images that were unanchored to narrative, and that instead of being direct visual representations, expressed mainly movement and joy. This is when the poetry that appears alongside my illustrations came in. Some paintings never inspired poetry, so were discarded from this collection, and some poetry never matched an image and was also abandoned.
YM: This is the book where I feel you have exercised the most control over the layout; Why do you still think that this is a children’s book rather than an art book?
WT: I am convinced that any art in existence comes from the world of childhood; it is the skill to finely execute it that comes from the world of adults. Like any art, the creatures that can comprehend the joy of dance the most are children. As adults, we try to shed the weight of our age until we are able to return to our free dance state, where our inner state matches our outward physical expression.
YM: I trained as a dancer when I was young, and when you express dance as joy and abandon, I wonder… because for me, dance is also a great deal of discipline and timing.
WT: There is an old story of a man who wanted to play the violin at the circus. He went to the circus people and told them he wanted to play the violin. They told him he would have to learn the trapeze first. He asked them: “Then will I be allowed to play the violin?” and they said, “Yes, then you can play the violin.” So he trained for a year and when the year was out, he asked again if he might play his violin, and they told him he had to train for another year to become part of the human pyramid. After that year of training, he performed with them, and as he stood at the very top of the human pyramid, he pulled out his violin and played.
The happy dancer is a well-trained dancer who is grounded in his discipline but can let go of the shackles of his training and play the violin with abandon at the top of a human pyramid.
Artists have always expressed the desire to forget all they have learned so they can arrive at a moment of childhood, where they can drink from the fount of creativity. They travel to other countries looking for this “innocence lost.” After they reach the pinnacle of their skill, they notice that the power of expression is tipped in favor of those who need to say something, not necessarily those who can perform with skill. This burning need to express, I always argue, comes from the world of children.
YM: What do you have to say about travel and the artist?
WT: For me, living abroad and traveling around was largely about interactions with new audiences. This has galvanized my performative faculties and rejuvenated my experimental energy. The mental state of wonder that comes when traveling, which I try to touch on in Balad: Voyage sans bagage, is starting to give way to a sense of re-attunement to new lands and places …
YM: One of the reasons that traditional Arabic calligraphers made their work challenging to decipher was so that viewers would slow down and make an effort. You have a signature font that your readers recognize — even from the book covers you did for Al Shorouk Publishing House a long time ago, but the ‘grape bunch’ calligraphies you use in Les Danseurs are new — tell me about them.
WT: In the 1980s, there was a spurt of picture books that were inspired by the Masters. The idea was that the picture book was a great medium with which to teach children art appreciation. The art that was selected for these books was obviously extremely Eurocentric, but that was not the only criticism of this movement. It also turns out that since children are the ones expected to create new artistic solutions, not just regurgitate old ones, these books were a little limiting.
My publisher was concerned that I too was becoming increasingly influenced by the artistic modes I was coming in contact with during my stay in France and I, in turn, was concerned that she might be trying to Orientalize my work! So we sat down for long creative talks into the night at the villa Ruffieux residency in Switzerland where I ultimately ended up making most of this book, discussing our dilemma. We never came to any definitive solution, but it was during this period that I was inspired to make the grape bunch calligraphies, and I made hundreds of them at villa Ruffieux.
YM: You have been travelling around doing a lot of workshops with children; how are you finding those?
WT: I split the “work” I do at these workshops 50/50; half of the work I do, and the other half the children do. I change story scenarios from my books and ask them where they would have taken the stories if they were their own. I am reassured, especially with my newer books, when they grasp the concepts quickly, because I often worry about the reception of books in countries where I do not speak the language.
Speaking of translation, I once went alone to a workshop in Montreuil without a translator, and so I used Google Translate to pull sentences together, and I sketched with the kids, and it went quite well for about two hours. Little was lost in translation. I also do readings and discussions in both French and Arabic and find that the school art programs in many of the countries I have visited put the children in a good place when it comes to responding to abstract images and using materials and colors to produce their own artistic responses. I used the pictures produced by one children’s workshop in Oujda, Morocco as the end pages of my book with an acknowledgement.
YM: Where *are* you now?
WT: I feel like I am at a station where I’m being asked after 25 years of working what it is that I know. The answer to this is constantly changing, but I feel that I am consolidating and reflecting on what I have contributed to humanity, you know what I mean?
I think that I am communicating all I that I know by writing and drawing, and I will continue to do this as long as publishers will allow me. I say this because the transference of your entire self into art is not really in demand in the Arab world, especially in children’s books. The focus is more on what you want to say to children, morally and educationally.
Other interviews with Walid Taher in English:
Yasmine Motawy. “A Space of One’s Own.” Rhetoric Today. The American University in Cairo. 2014.
Yasmine Motawy is an educator and a children and young adult literature scholar, translator, editor, consultant. She is a senior instructor at the American University in Cairo.