Plenty of illustrators have found an endless source of inspiration in the world’s biggest cities. Remember how, years ago, a man called Stephen Wiltshire attracted international attention with the meticulously detailed, meters long panoramas he drew after a glance over London lasting mere minutes. With earplugs in and with stretches of white, spotless paper at the tip of his black pen, he did not draw one building wrongly. Zineb Benjelloun and Mohamed Wahba, illustrators from Morocco and Egypt respectively, have a similar yet individually distinctive drawing style. In Tanger and Cairo, they have found their muse.
First, a who’s who. Twenty-eight year old Mohamed Wahba, born and raised in Cairo, with roots in Sharqeyya, started drawing when he was four. He learned how to draw comics eleven years ago through studying Korean comics. Zineb Benjelloun, born in Rabat in 1984, has a background in visual arts and cinema. After working for a Parisian company that produced documentaries focusing particularly on North African culture and history, and for Moroccan TV in Tanger, she has been focusing on drawing for the last two years.
“I have taken part in several collective exhibitions, organised workshops for children, and I have made illustrations for children’s books, posters, and international publications such as Soulala and Fields Magazine,” Zineb starts. “This year I’ve had my first solo exhibition.” Her latest project was the creation of the visuals for a festival about Tanger in Paris. “My drawings were widespread in the city: in the metro, cafés, bars… It was a pleasure that my drawings were accessible to all passers-by. It’s a lot more interesting for me to see my work in the streets or in books than in galleries that are a bit too elitist for my taste.”
Wahba’s bond with Egypt’s biggest city is unmistakable. “Every day, I start walking around town at six o’clock”, he tells. “I look at what people do and take off to the places I know. Then I draw my view of the city. I like to sit down at any place you can imagine: a coffee place, in the middle of the street or a market place, in the metro, in buses or micro buses…” He has several favorite spots in the city, he adds. “I like Cairo Tower, Old Cairo, Muqattam… The highest places are the ones I like the most.” There is a reason why getting up at six is worth it. “I adore sketching,” the independent artist admits. “Going to places, just drawing. I’m always on the road and I learn something new every day. It makes my thoughts develop, which wouldn’t be the case if I would stay in one place.”
“I draw cities because they are my immediate environment. It’s a fascinating, ever-changing , and inexhaustible topic,” his Moroccan counterpart explains in turn. “The city is so rich in unusual details that it tells a lot about the lifestyles of its inhabitants, and about how they think.” She tries to tell stories based on a common history and tries to bring out the details that characterise a city. “It’s a little bit like trying to captivate an expression in a portrait. My drawings are portraits of the city.” Zineb has a personal relationship with Tanger. “I have been living here for two years and it’s a beautiful city I love a lot. It’s a city of millions that has seen many influences passing by, whether we’re talking about its population and architecture, or its lush vegetation,” the Moroccan illustrator says. “On top of that it’s the culmination point between Europe and Africa, with all of the beauty and toughness that come along with it.”
Both illustrators have an eye for detail and draw everything by hand. What you see is what you get. Zineb Benjelloun uses Chinese ink, aquarelle and acrylic on Bristol paper. Her illustrations offer a bird’s perspective, mostly black and white, sometimes with hints of colour. “Adding colour to the many details my drawings already have would be too much. I only accentuate certain elements with colour to highlight them,” she describes. Created with tools as simple as a thin, black pen and a basic sketchbook, Wahba’s drawings usually depict the illustrator in person, surrounded by a panorama. Some are sketched with a fisheye effect while others are divided over cartoon-like frames. “I’d draw on any paper,” he laughs. One time that paper came in the shape of a cheese wrapping. “I went to Sakakini Palace with a friend of mine. This place is stacked with details so we had to go several days in a row. I put my hand in my bag to grab my sketchbook only to find that I didn’t bring it. We were having breakfast, so I ripped off the paper from a cheese can and started to draw on it. I still have it.”
Wahba has been drawing cities for two years now. This year included a first as his debut ‘القاهرة’ (‘Al-Qahira’ – Cairo) was published. “The book shows the city from its highest points,” he describes. “It’s a collection of sketches and will be the start of a series about the capital.” In this book, the Egyptian capital is seen through Wahba’s glasses. His illustrations transport readers to the metro, a café surrounded by Wahba’s friends, the highest floor of an apartment building, or at the top of historical sites such as the Ibn Tulun mosque, by day and by night. The strokes of his pen give away his passion for comics and manga every now and then, yet he has a style of his own that truly reflects Cairo’s dynamics. The colours of his highly descriptive artworks are also limited to black and white, for the simple reason that colouring takes a lot more time. “I can do three coloured drawings a day, yet about twelve in black and white,” the Egyptian illustrator puts forward.
The Egyptian artist is currently working on a graphic novel about Siwa, one of Egypt’s Western oases. “To me, this place seems to unite past and present. The book will talk about an adventure that is taking place in the oasis and will portray how people live in Siwa at the same time.” Two other books are in the pipeline: one based on Naguib Mahfouz’s books, which describe iconic places such as El Moez Street extensively, and a second work about Cairo. This sequel will tell the history and more contemporary state of certain places in the Egyptian capital, in addition to what Wahba personally saw when he went there, in both Arabic and English.
Zineb Benjelloun names the collective image as what inspires her most in the end. “It goes from the city where everything is linked to the urban, to the expression of individuals in their living environment, to decorations on trucks, patterns on clothes, to arches on rooftops. Nothing is built, worn, or decorated coincidentally,” she says. “The social intelligence, the creativity of my compatriots, the humor and perkiness, traditions and contradictions… It’s everything that lies at the base of the expression of urban culture and certain elements that make us into beings that eventually belong to the same cultural community that I try to celebrate in my drawings.”
“What I like about this work is that it allows me to deepen my grasp of various subjects and better understand the society I live in. Or at least to question it,” she continues. “It is definitely a tool to express myself that I want to share with others. I want my drawings to speak to people. I want to remind them that our imagination is rich, and that there is a lot of sensitivity, beauty, and contradictions. Our culture deserves to be known. First of all by ourselves; in order to know ourselves.”
Wahba has a motivation of his own. He dreams of Egyptian comics being widely published in his country, as those published now are mostly foreign graphic novels translated into Arabic. He laments that too many people can’t name any Egyptian illustrator, although there are plenty. Wahba does not blame local publishers however. “The problem lies with the illustrators themselves. That’s my opinion. Some might disagree, but there’s no Egyptian illustrator today that takes up a project and finishes it. They either work for a magazine or a newspaper. They focus on cartoons and ads because it’s fast money. It’s not good for the future of our illustration scene. Personally, I prefer to remain independent and work on projects I can represent myself with.”