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Khalid Albaih

Sudan

Status: In Exile

Khalid Albaih is a Sudanese artist and political cartoonist who has gained global recognition for work that incisively depicts life in the Arab world and interrogates themes of social and political injustice. Describing himself as a “virtual revolutionist,” Albaih’s cartoons convey sharp and poignant criticisms of authoritarian and repressive regimes, while also expressing solidarity and hope for the future.

Khalid Albaih was born in Romania to a Sudanese diplomat and social justice activist and raised in Doha, Qatar, where he lived for many years. Albaih began his journey as a political cartoonist when he was a 21-year-old university student studying interior architecture and engineering. During student elections at his university, Albaih drew cartoons depicting each candidate. His fellow university students were immediately drawn to his artwork, identifying with his witty visual commentary on the candidates and their respective platforms. 

By 2008, Khalid began applying for newspaper jobs as a cartoonist, but was met with rejection from most editors, who either didn’t understand his style or feared that sharing his provocative work would put their publications at risk. After receiving rebuttals from traditional media outlets, Albaih began promoting his work on social media. Coincidentally, at the same time that Albaih translated his voice to the internet, other young people in the Arab world were doing the same to vent their political frustrations: it was the beginning of the Arab Spring. As Albaih began drawing about the protests and uprisings in 2011, his cartoons started to appear stenciled on walls in Beirut and on shirts in Cairo. Albaih’s Facebook page, Khartoon! -- a word-play on cartoon and Khartoum, the capital of Sudan -- amassed numerous followers, skyrocketing from several hundred “Likes” to over 60,000. Today, the page has over 87,000 followers and Albaih’s cartoons are still used by protesters in Sudan and political activists in Yemen, Tunis, and Syria.

After establishing his massive online audience during the Arab Spring, Albaih continued posting work on Khartoon!, recognizing that in sharing cartoons online he was also welcoming public discourse, inciting dialogue, and creating a space for his followers to exchange opinions, listen, and learn. But Albaih’s stratospheric reputation as an artist has not gone without its challenges. Besides trolls and hackers, Albaih has faced a range of threats because of his artwork. In 2014, he was invited to be part of an arts residency in Egypt but was arrested upon arrival and interrogated for several hours about his work, including, insidiously, about whether he would continue to draw after he left the room.

In 2016, after waiting seven months for his U.S. visa to be approved, Albaih participated in the CULTURUNNERS program, an independent arts organization that supports and collaborates with traveling artists to create art across contested borders. As his influence and reach grew, however, Albaih’s satirical cartoons drew the ire of Omar al-Bashir, the authoritarian president who had ruled Sudan for nearly thirty years. No longer safe in his homeland, Albaih became an Oak Human Rights Fellow in 2016 at Colby College’s Oak Institute for Human Rights.     

While an Oak Fellow, Albaih published a cartoon of the American football player Colin Kaepernick kneeling, his Afro in the shape of a black fist. This cartoon, one of his first to tackle an issue central to American politics, quickly went viral and was printed on t-shirts worn by activists, celebrities, and sports fans around the U.S. Albaih claims that his mission was to evoke the historic images of other African-American athletes who also took a firm stance on civil rights. Albaih’s work continues to engage political issues beyond those in the Middle East, demonstrating his belief that victims of social justice and those fighting for civil liberties are battling the same war all over the world, in different forms and variations.

In October 2017, Albaih moved to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he became an artist-in-residence as part of the renowned International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) program, which provides two-year fellowships for artists and writers who have experienced persecution. The Open Society Foundation named Albaih a Soros Arts Fellow in 2018. In June 2019, the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), in collaboration with ArtX, granted Albaih the inaugural Freedom artist’s residency -- a new initiative focused on raising awareness about the field of artistic freedom of expression. The residency coincided with Albaih’s first major U.S. exhibition at MOCA Jacksonville. Besides Jacksonville, Albaih’s work has been and continues to be shown around the globe, including in Canada, Belgium, Germany, Qatar, India, and Japan.

“Art is about disturbing the comfortable. Cartoons are the best way to accomplish this because you don’t have to be a professor, an intellectual, or attend a museum to understand the meaning of a cartoon.”

— Khalid Albaih, in an interview with HuffPost

In support of the protests in Sudan that ultimately led to the ousting of Omar al-Bashir in April 2019 and against the violent military repression that followed, Albaih, along with many other artists and world influencers, has been leading the #BlueforSudan social media campaign to show solidarity. In November, Sudan Retold, an illustrated book conceived and edited by Albaih that tells a collaborative history and future of Sudanese art, was published. He is also the founder of Fadaa, a non-profit platform that helps people temporarily donate unutilized spaces to a community of their choosing. In his increasing reach as an artist and activist, Albaih continues to combat political injustice in his homeland and around the world, proving the ongoing importance of art in the fight for free expression and human rights.

By Lucia Canton, February 2020. Lucia is a law student at American University Washington College of Law.

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