The fine artist, George El Bahgory, said that he enjoyed the freedom and practiced it during the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser and he considers President Sisi to be an extension of Nasser. By contrast, he rejected Sadat's rule and described Mubarak as having been working for 30 years to preserve the chair.
In his interview with Majalla, he stated that the early deprivation of his mother prompted him to paint in search of her. He also revealed his close friendship with Ihsan Abdel Quddous, his relationship with Abdel Halim Hafez, the reason for Umm Kulthum's anger at him, the story of his last meeting with her, and the famous dispute that occurred between him and Salah Jahin, as well as the crises he fell into because of his bold drawings.
During the interview, El- Bahgory talked about his long trip to France and the world's celebration of his work. Furthermore, he mentioned the honors he received from Europe and some Arab countries and concluded his talk by saying that he is close to a hundred years old and fears that people will forget him after his death.
George El Bahgory is considered one of the prominent figures in Egyptian art and one of its pioneers, especially when addressing the art of caricature in which he excelled. He succeeded in creating a uniquely artistic way for himself with distinctive lines and colors, which make his imprint clear in all his works and reveal him even if his signature is not shown on the artwork.
El Bahgory was born in the city of Luxor in southern Egypt in 1932 and studied fine arts.
Afterward, he traveled to France on a long journey that combined study and creativity in a climate of artistic freedom. He set out in Paris to present many distinctive works in bright colors in which the expressive sense is mixed with cubism, and his artistic philosophy is mixed with his political beliefs. His caricatures also combined political criticism, calls for national reform, and the defense of women.
He started his artistic life early as a painter in the "Rose al Yusuf" literary institution, known for its boldness, and worked among a group of great creators in the art of caricature, led by Salah Jahin.
In his early days, El Bahgory was famous for his political caricatures. He is also considered one of the Egyptian artists most associated with the street, as each of the faces he draws in his works is connected to a fertile memory of the place with which he is associated.
Bahgory's art is characterized by a unique way of holding the brush. When he paints, he keeps holding it, expressing his simple and intersecting lines on the paper's surface without stopping until the faces are complete and the features are revealed.
George El Bahgory enjoys international attention for his artworks, which have been hosted in major galleries in France, Italy and Spain. He ranked number one in the world in portraiture competitions held in Italy, France, and Spain.
His oil paintings were also displayed in the Corsol Pavilion in the Louvre in 1990 to represent the Egyptian pavilion at a special invitation by the Association of Fine Arts Lovers in Paris. His painting “The Face of Egypt” won the silver medal, and his name was written in the Hall of Fame.
El Bahgory won many awards, including the first international prize for caricature in 1985 and 1987 in Rome as well as international prizes in Yugoslavia, France and Spain. In addition to being awarded the Honor Award for Arab Caricature in Damascus in 1980 and the King Abdullah II Prize for Arts in Jordan, French newspapers called him the "Picasso of Egypt."
In addition to art, writing was part of El Bahgory’s endeavors although he began writing at a late stage of his career. For example, he published many illustrated books during the last decades that tell his biography, which he started with the book "Felts Icon" in 1997. Members of his family are the heroes of the novel which was followed by other publications, including "The Icon of Paris," and "Icon of the People." He is currently preparing to publish a new book that includes parts of his life inside and outside Egypt.
Despite reaching the age of ninety, he is still active and energetic. He participates in the fine arts movement by setting up his own exhibitions or opening exhibitions of other artists.
He also pursues his favorite hobby of going daily to his studio and office in the downtown area in Cairo, above one of the famous cafes in which we hosted and had this meeting with him about his memories with celebrities and his career.
In the beginning, George Al Bahgory told Majalla:
It was thanks to my late mother that I took my first steps towards painting because depriving me of her early prompted me as a young child to search for her in the faces of other women to draw them until I find the features that I longed for and look for in all women's faces.
My mother died after she fell from the top of the bed when I was two years old, so I cannot remember seeing her. When I became a little older, I started to grab a pencil and a brush to draw someone who looked like her, like a child looking for his mother.
My father worked as a teacher in an English school in Luxor in Upper Egypt, then he moved to work in Menoufia Governorate to make extra money. My father was a teacher for me in all aspects of life, not only a father.
Q. Did your father object to your study of fine arts?
A. No, he didn't object, and I joined the faculty of fine arts.
Q. Why did you choose the art of caricature in particular?
A. Since my childhood, I have been drawing everything around me in a caricature style, even my family. I used to draw them differently. I painted my stepmother, my aunt and the rest of the family. But I often hid the drawings for fear of their anger because of the caricatures they contained.
Q. How did your career in journalism start?
A. I started before graduation when I was still a student, and I worked directly as a cartoonist at "Rose Al Yusuf" when the late writer Ihsan Abdel Quddus commissioned me to draw two pages a day under the title "Their News on Their Faces." A friendship developed between us. He was my best friend during his life, and I saw his mother, the great artist, and journalist, Rose Al-Yusuf, and I felt she was like my mother. She was very affectionate with me.
Q. Do you remember the first work you did in Rose Al-Yusuf?
A. Unfortunately, I don't remember. But I remember well that I drew an exuberant caricature in that period about the appearance of Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Q. Were you really the first to dare to draw President Abdel Nasser on the cover of the magazine?
A. Yes, of course, and it is one of the things I will never forget.
Q.Why did you draw Abdel Nasser on the cover?
A. Because I saw him as the leader of Egypt and the symbol of patriotism.
Q. Did that cover raise any controversy or objection from the censorship at the time, especially since it had caricatures?
A. Never, because "Rose Al-Yusuf" was a progressive magazine by nature. Sami Sharaf, the bureau chief of President Abdel Nasser, told me that he was not angry but rather liked my drawings.
Q. What do you think of Abdel Nasser's reign?
A. Abdel Nasser was a great personality, he was the teacher for us, and his period was very significant and better than the era of Sadat because he played his national role to the fullest until he died while still a leader. And if death had not kidnapped him early, he would have remained a leader until this moment.
Everything was beautiful in the era of Abdel Nasser because he was the hope for Egypt. I consider that the appearance of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi compensated for his absence because he loves Abdel Nasser, and he is an extension of him.
Q. But some believe that the era of Abdel Nasser lacked freedom
A. Freedom was taught to us by Abdel Nasser, and it continued with us for some time.
Q. In your opinion, what is the difference between Abdel Nasser and Sadat?
A.I think Sadat was hiding and was the second man, and he could not appear except through his opposition to Abdel Nasser. The opposition embraced him, and he said that he was the one who saved Egypt from the Brotherhood and then went back on his words when he released them from prisons. Then, they killed him in the end.
Q. What do you think of the era of Hosni Mubarak?
A. Hosni Mubarak was "on the side" because he was just a president who only kept the chair warm and was very small in stature, but his wife was more active than him, especially in the cultural fields. I see that Mubarak's period was a state of silence and calm, and he could not change the country. Therefore, I believed in the June 30 revolution.
Q. Was that the secret of your keenness to draw President Sisi even before he took the presidency?
A. I always had nostalgia for the years that enjoyed the great victories of Egypt during the era of Abdel Nasser, and I always hoped that they would return every time I drew him. I had the feeling that he would return in another person, President Sisi, whom I felt was the hope of Egypt. So I painted him with the features of the ancient Egyptian existing on the walls of ancient temples with the eagle, which is a beautiful symbol.
Q. Did you get into crisis with censorship in any of those eras because of your drawings or writings?
A. Too many writings and a lot of drawings were banned and subjected to many problems during the era of Sadat. I was terrified of clashes and was dismissed from several jobs, yet I insisted on my opinions.
Q. Did you really collect your banned drawings and publish them in a book?
A. Yes, these are drawings that express my feelings about some events, especially after the Camp David Accords.
Q. What are the most famous of these prohibited drawings?
A. Drawings of many characters, especially President Sadat, who was angry with my drawings.
Q. Is that the reason why you fled to France?
A. After completing my studies and working for some time in the press with Rose Al- Yusuf, I traveled to France. I felt that I would not be able to bear the conflict after the 1967 setback, which affected all of us and caused me frustration and disappointment. In France, I had my second birth, which took place of my own free will, unlike my first birth, in which I had no power! That's why I like to travel to Paris a lot, and I was there last summer. But now I can't travel there due to the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Q. How was your friendship with Salah Jahin, and what is the truth about your disagreement with him?
A. He was my friend, and I had a strong relationship with him. I quarreled with him, but he was a very great personality, and I could not stand in his way. So, I stepped aside and made him a leader, and Louis Gris, Kamel Zuhairi, and others joined me.
Q. Was Ihsan Abdul Quddus really a supporter of women as his writings were?
A. Ihsan was my close friend and the only person I could talk to. He was a great personality and a supporter of women in fact, as his writings were. He defended all freedoms fiercely, but he had no voice because the atmosphere around him was crowded with opponents.
Ehsan was suddenly kidnapped by death after his writings flourished in the cinema, and I was very sad on the day of his death.
Q. Did your friendship with him help you get close to some artists?
A. Of course, especially cinema actors and artists such as Salah Abu Seif, Hassan Youssef, and Abdel Halim Hafez.
Q. How was your relationship with Abdel Halim Hafez?
A. A coincidence led me to get to know him and meet him several times at Ihsan Abdul Quddus's office until we became friends, and I remember that he used to come at night to the Rose Al-Yusuf magazine and watch me draw.
And when he found Ihsan busy with writing, he said to him: "I will let you write and go sit with the painter who stays up to paint." He was referring to me, and from here, the friendship formed between Abdel Halim Hafez and me. He resembled me in orphanhood and an early deprivation of the mother, and he loved my drawings and did not get angry from them.
Q. Have you experienced a period of rapprochement between him and Soad Hosni? Are they really married?
A. I don't know details about this topic, but all I can confirm is that there was a state of mutual "liking" between them, and they always went out together at night, but I didn't know where they were going. There was a beautiful love story between them.
Q. Which is better, a journalist's friendship with artists or politicians?
A. This is a difficult question. I cannot flourish in the presence of politicians. Freedom was the most crucial thing in my life because caricature lives as an art of incitement against the bad and encouragement for the successful. It also ignites revolutions. For this reason, I loved freedom and paid for it dearly when they expelled me from many places.
Q. Did you choose a different path from the other cartoonists by creating the one-line style from the beginning of the drawing to the end?
A. Never, the issue came very spontaneously, and I am the one who chooses the faces that I draw.
Q. Did you really say about yourself that you are the most critical artist in the Arab world?
A. I am the most important painter in the Arab world, but I am not the most important thinker. I consider George El Bahgory an outstanding painter who adores drawing, and he succeeded in building a bridge between himself and France after traveling to Paris, hoping we will become like them.
Q. Aren't you afraid that some will consider you arrogant?
A. I am a good and humble man. I meet all people. I welcome everyone, and I am pleased when someone asks for me in a press or television interview because lately, I feel that no one is asking about me.
Q. Do you think you have been celebrated abroad, especially in France, more than in Egypt and the Arab world?
A. I do not know!
Q. Do you feel unjustly treated because you did not get an appropriate position for your art and artistic value?
A. Yes, because I was an opponent, and no one cares about opponents!
Q. Are you satisfied with the honor you received?
A. I am satisfied with the honor in my life, but I am concerned and dissatisfied with the reactionary in Egypt.
Q. What countries have honored you during your career?
A. I have been honored by almost all the world, and it was the most beautiful phase of my life when I received the Franco Prize in Spain for feeling free to express my opinions and ideas.
Q. Have you met political leaders abroad?
A. I met King Abdullah bin Al Hussein, King of Jordan, and I love him very much. In England, I entered the royal palace with the Queen. I was accompanied by patriotic characters, and I said dangerous words at that time, very objectively and without prejudice.
Q. What is the secret of your paintings about women?
A. I always draw Egyptian women inspired by the pharaonic civilization, and perhaps I am affected by my wife Nitocris, who has Egyptian pharaonic features.
Q. On the mention of women, Umm Kulthum was the most famous woman you painted with your brush many times, and you held special exhibitions for her. What are your memories of her?
A. I loved her so much, and still have a great love for her. I see Egypt in all its complicated and good conditions. Her remarkable role appeared after the setback of 1967 in her assistance to the war effort and her desperate defense of Egypt in Europe, so I drew her dozens of times.
Q. Have you met her in person?
A. Yes, I met her, and when she saw me, she used to say: "Stop the childish jokes!" because of her anger at my drawings of her!
Q. What was making her angry?
A. I used to draw jokes about her with caricatures, and she was upset by the way I drew her face in a distorted way, and she asked me to stop drawing her this way. I will not forget the last meeting with her at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Cairo.
I was with my friend, who is very dear to my heart, the composer Kamal Al-Taweel, the most incredible musician, and I knew that Umm Kulthum would come to meet him in the same place. When she arrived, he introduced me to her as a great painter, but she did not pay much attention to me and said coldly, "Welcome." But I am a fan of hers, and I am still keen to listen to her. She is always with me when drawing, and I wrote a book about her called "The Icon of Umm Kulthum."
Q. It seems that the people you drew were angry with you. Why?
A. Perhaps because as a caricaturist, I differ from the portrait painter. For example, I look for certain things in the face, the largest of which are the nose and the like, in a sarcastic manner, which makes them angry. That's why I painted myself "so that I made fun of myself" so that no one would get mad.
Q.You said that Kamal Al-Taweel is the greatest composer. Do you mean that he is better than the musician Mohammad Abd al- Wahab?
A. Yes, he is actually better than Abd al-Wahab and more important than him in that all the melodies were composed by him, and he did not copy musical motifs.
Q.What do you wish and dream of achieving after this long creative journey?
A. There is nothing. I almost finished my life as I am close to 100 years old. I am delighted with this long life. For example, I may live for another 5 years, and I am currently not painting, but I listen to the words of the fans and the sweet people that I love and find around me. I am currently busy with a new book project dealing with a written and illustrated autobiography about my life since my early beginnings in the art journey.
Q. I noticed you were affected when you talked about death which kidnapped your loved ones. Do you fear death?
A. Yes, I am terrified of death, and I am afraid that people will forget me after I die.