By Mike V. Derderian

Last night, May 7th, 2012, I attended the opening of Yazan Khalifeh’s Humorous Portraits solo exhibition at Zara Gallery. Below is an interview I conducted with Yazan for the November/December Vol. 5 2012 issue of REVIEW Amman.  

A man wearing horn rimmed black shades can be seen smiling a Cheshire smile. The eyes are a little smaller. The nose is quite enlarged. The cheeks bloated yet human and shelter lips that are of a prize fighter: Swollen like a blimp.

In spite of the disproportioned yet proportioned measurements of the face one can easily tell it is Foad Al Mohandes.

This humorous portrait of the late Egyptian actor, thespian and comedian is one of dozens illustrated and digitally painted by Jordanian Cartoonist Yazan Khalifeh.

“The secret is not just in expanding the proportions of the face. It is about capturing the spirit of the drawn subject and for viewers to be able to immediately tell who its owner is,” explains Khalifeh with whom I met (in person) a few weeks ago.

Thanks to Facebook the life of freelance writers and journalists like yours truly is made easier. You can now contact anyone. However, in Yazan’s case there was only an e-mail and it didn’t go through so I had to contact a friend asking for his number.

So I called Yazan and a few days later we met at books@café where an hour and half was spent on talking about cartoons, comics, illustration, the lack of art education in Jordan (Middle East) and his beginnings as a cartoonist that took us back to the 1990s.

The Art Director at Jeeran Khalifeh showed up wearing black training trousers and a black t-shirt that reflected an affinity to graphic design—he graduated from the Applied Science University with a BA in graphic design in 2001.

On how he picks the faces that he wants to turn into humorous caricatures Khalifeh said it is all about feeling the presence of the person he is about to illustrate.

“I always choose individuals who have a strong presence and charisma. Some are good people and some are villains,” Said Khalifeh whose gallery of portraits also includes the faces of dictators, presidents, politicians, actors and musicians.

Khalifeh, whose specialty is humorist caricature portraits, is quite passionate about his work and subjects.

“I’ve been drawing all my life. I started out with drawing superheroes until the start of the 1st Gulf War, when I switched to drawing caricatures and political drawings. I started publishing in Addustour’s cartoons supplement,” Khalifeh says, adding, “I discovered painting (and its different styles) at university when I studied graphic design. I simply fell in love with painting.”

Here are some of Khalifeh’s achievements since 1998: He won the 2nd place award in a local universities cartoon contest. In 2000 he won a Traffic Day poster award and Philadelphia University cartoon award in 2000. He held his first solo exhibition in Blue Fig Amman in 2006. In 2008 his work was featured in Ballistic Publishing’s book Expose’ 6: the finest digital art in the known universe- 2008.

“After holding my exhibition at Blue Fig the cartooning bug bit me again and I found myself gravitating back to caricatures. I started drawing caricatures for 3ala Rasi.com that was launched by my friend Cartoonist Omar Al Abdalat, where I have an extensive archive. I later on returned to drawing humorist portraits with emphasis on faces. With Facebook and social media growing big I gained a lot of exposure and gained a lot of following; both locally and internationally.”

Looking at his lines, colors, texturing and details one would think the moment his pencil/digital pen hits the surface of the paper/digital pad Khalifeh almost immediately comes up with a humorist portrait. Well that is not that case as Khalifeh explains!

“Some faces are easier to draw than others. There are faces however that I struggle with. One example of such a face is that of Bashar Al Assad, Syria’s president. He has distinct features that give the impression he is easy to draw but he is not. The style that I am working with at the moment is almost realistic, however, when I see the work of others I am tempted to switch styles,” Khalifeh states.

In the past few years Khalifeh, and very distinctly, drew the following people: Duraid Laham (Syrian actor), Haifa Wahbeh (Lebanese singer), Abd Al Halim Hafez (Egyptian singer), Um Kulthom (Egyptian singer), Moamar Al Qaddafi (Libyan president—now dead), Zein Al Abdeen (deposed Tunisian presiden), Pablo Picasso (Spanish painter), Fairuz (Lebanese singer), Mahmoud Abbas (Palestinian president), Ali Abdalah Saleh (Yemini president), Mohammad Sobhi (Egyptian actor), Hosni Mobarak (Egyptian president), Adel Imam (Egyptian actor) and Elissa (Lebanese singer).

“I first come up with a sketch that reflects the likeness of the person I am drawing. It is a balance. I am talking about exaggeration and not distortion. Humorist caricaturing is all about capturing the realness of a feature and exaggerating it,” Khalifeh, who spends three hours on drawing every day, elaborates on the process with which he works.

If the illustration is funny but there is no likeness to the drawn person than the humorist portrait/caricature Khalifeh believes failed. “People should be able to say, ‘yep that’s him/her alright!’ I don’t just draw anyone. I have to be emotionally affected by the individual I am drawing, however, it is doesn’t matter if I hate or like the person I am drawing,” he reveals.

Khalifeh acknowledges that his father—a humorist portrait of whom is found in one of his many Facebook albums—was very supportive. “He used to take my work to Addustour to show them to Caricaturist Jalal Al Rifai, who used to tell them ‘your son is imitating my work.’ However, when Al Rifai saw my other work he was impressed and had me on board the Addustour cartoons supplement,” Khalifeh says.

The young artist sights Iraqi Caricaturist Moyad Ne’meh, who passed away in 2005, and American Caricaturist Jason Seiler, as two of the important caricaturist who influenced his work.

“Ne’meh used to draw caricatures and faces. He was amazing. Jason is the teacher with whom I took a humorist caricatures course online. Of course there are other artists who influenced my work but it is hard to name them all,” Khalifeh says, adding that Mad Magazine also had a deep impact on the way he draws.

Being on Facebook and in contact with a lot of artists from all over the world pushed him to work harder and produce more.

“You have a lot of artists out there who are fast and up to date. It takes a lot of practice and discipline to produce on a daily basis and that’s why I like being on Facebook. It helps me connect with a lot of artists and at the same time find more motivation,” he adds.

Moments before we concluded our get together at Books Khalifeh, who is a skilled traditional and digital artist, told me that a solo exhibition at Zara, that will comprise all his humorist portraits, is in the works.

“I am working on a very special humorist portrait. I won’t reveal who it is. It is a surprise and you will find out at the day of the opening. At the moment I am trying to maintain the humorist portraits style to make sure that the exhibition reflects a unified style. I will God willing switch to a different style in the future,” Khalifeh said with a smile that you can only see on the face of a kid holding a pencil he is mischievously passing over a piece of paper.

Interested in learning more about Yazan Khalifeh and his art than visit his following links: http://www.yazankhalifeh.com & http://yazankhalifeh.blogspot.com/

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