Sherif Dhaimish on artist Hasan “Alsatoor” Dhaimish: Checking In
Please tell us a little about your project on your late father, the Libyan artist Hasan Dhaimish.
When my father, Hasan Dhaimish, passed away in August 2016, he left behind a powerful legacy. He had been producing satire for years under the alias Alsatoor (the Cleaver), which promoted human and civil rights in Libya, and staunchly opposing the Gaddafi regime and the corruption that followed his deposition. As well as that, he was an artist. He painted, he sketched and made videos. You would rarely not see him creating something. His love for music and colour often influenced what came out in his art. You could say this side of his work is lesser known and completely different to his satire; but the common denominator is that it was all produced by him under the same conditions - as an exiled Libyan living in northern England.
Naturally, I have been doing what I can to celebrate his life and work. This started in 2018 with a local exhibition in our hometown in east Lancashire. Now there’s the exhibition in London in August, an online growing archive of his work, a forthcoming book and other exhibitions in the works too.
It hasn’t been easy working closely with his work. He was my dad at the end of the day, so the emotional connection is about as strong as it can get. But it’s also cathartic, and I’m blessed he left behind not just art but a lasting impression on a lot of people in a lot of different ways.
This isn’t my job, it’s much more of a passion project. And I have relied on the help of others who are much more familiar with the political side of my father’s work. Unlike a lot of the Libyan diaspora, my father settled in Burnley, Lancashire where there wasn’t a Libyan or Arab community; in fact, I can’t ever remember another Arab living for miles around. So while his work as Alsatoor was something I was aware of, it was not something I felt close to because Libya was just a country I knew he was from. He often reminisced of his childhood on the Mediterranean, but it just felt like an abstract place to me and my sisters.
The intention is to ensure his legacy lives on, and doesn’t just stop at an exhibition here and there. I’m by no means preciously holding onto the project and trying to retell his story on my own; I understand the subjectivity of it to me, as his son, trying to do so, and I also accept the imperfections I may introduce because of this, but I’m trying to knock on as many doors as I can, and allow others to get involved however they want to. He dedicated his life to the Libyan cause, and whether you agreed with his work or not, there’s something admirable in what he did, and worthy of being celebrated.
How was his artwork affected by the events in both Libya and the world during his lifetime?
His art outside of the political realm was a form of escapism; he painted for himself. There were times he took a step back from satire for weeks or even months on end, and he’d concentrate on his artistic techniques and experiment with different mediums - this was when he was in his element. I guess you could interpret his art as therapy for him, a coping mechanism.
In terms of his satire, as the exhibition hopefully demonstrates, you see how Alsatoor rode the waves of events in Libya for years and years, and never failed to comment on the latest events. He took it as his duty to call out corruption and criticize those in power, both before and after the revolution.
It wasn’t really until 2011 when he moved to Doha, Qatar and met fellow Libyans working for Libya Ahrar TV that he started to fathom the impact of his work and his popularity. When his work became interactive via his blog and especially social media, this changed everything as he was no longer playing to an audience from behind a curtain. He thrived off reaction.
In 2012 he said: “I want perfection. I want democracy.” I think this shows that he was never going to stop. I’m sure even if democracy was installed in Libya, he’d still be at it.
Please tell us about some of the projects that you are currently working on that celebrate his life.
The book is something that goes hand in hand with the exhibition. I wanted to produce something more substantial than a leaflet for those who visit and want to take home a piece of the show, and provide those who can’t make it with something to browse through. I work in book publishing, so I value physical books. There’s something personal about it. It’s a limited run of 500, and once that’s sold out, I’ll be working on a much more in-depth biography. At the moment, there’s no way I can class myself as my dad’s biographer, there’s still so much to learn, many people to speak to and work to uncover.
We’ve also got an exhibition at Left Bank Leeds (in Leeds, UK) this November. I have a lot of love for that city. I was an undergrad there. It's a city bursting with creativity, which is why I chose it. Manchester, Glasgow and back to Burnley are also coming up down the line. Obviously Libya too once Covid restrictions ease up, as well as other spots around the globe. All in good time.
Why do you think your father’s artwork is important today?
Well, first and foremost, as far as I know he was the most prolific Libyan satirist, and his body of work serves as an important commentary on modern Libyan politics and culture. So for Libyans and non-Libyans alike, there’s something to learn here. I’ve been quite careful on how his satire is presented to audiences. Yes, you can look at his cartoons individually and laugh at Gaddafi in some heels, or drooling, or looking like a rat, or some radical Islamists with lizard tongues, and all the rest of it; but it’s bringing all that into context and telling the story behind the creator, and the conditions in which it was created. My dad lived in exile from the age of 1975, and never got to return to Libya. Think about that for a second - I still can’t fathom it. Artists all around the world face similar torment, and many are much worse. The fight for liberty is very real, and those who sacrifice to do it deserve to be celebrated. He was one of them.
As for his artwork outside of politics, it’s fun, vibrant and makes people feel good, which is needed more than ever in the world today. It is an introspective study on his own life in exile, but sometimes art should just be enjoyed for what it is.
I also think his way of thinking is equally as important as the work he produced.
What are some lessons that can be learned from his life that can benefit us today?
In a nutshell - to think critically.
If people can look at my dad’s work and think, “Yes, there’s someone who spoke their mind and thought about things independently,” and add a bit of that into their own perspectives, I think that’s value added to anyone’s life.
To me, he was a fine example of someone who stood up for what he believed in and stuck to his morals, even if that meant sacrifice. Let’s be real - most people can’t do that; many claim to or at least set out with the intention to, but once money’s waved under their noses things soon change. Not Alsatoor.
He was a proper critical thinker, and encouraged others to do so. He once said to me, “Just because I’m your dad doesn’t mean I’m right.” I dig that. Today we live in a world of misinformation. Propaganda influences people’s behavior, feelings and thoughts in all sorts of strange ways. I’m sure we all know at least one person who is too far down the rabbit hole of Covid conspiracies, right? With that in mind, if people can learn to think individually about the world around them a little more as a result of his work, then it’s a success.
The fact his work was always humorous too, is a lesson in itself, as he didn't take life too seriously. Those who knew him will attest to that.
Sherif Dhaimish is a publisher and curator based in southeast London, UK. He is the son of the late celebrated Libyan artist and satirist Hasan Dhaimish (known in the Arab world of satire as “Alsatoor”), who, in exile, produced thousands of cartoons against the Gaddafi regime, and other political players. Sherif is working on numerous initiatives to present his father’s work to the world, including curating exhibitions and writing a book about him.
Sherif can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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