Art galleries can often feel like intimidating places, full of people stroking their chins and whispering earnestly to each other about things the rest of us couldn’t possibly hope to understand. The Cartoon Art Gallery, which re-opens in Al Quoz in Dubai this week, is the antidote to all that nonsense. Owner and founder Melvin Mathew hopes it will be a space where people come to have fun – and the tone will be set by the artworks on display.
The opening exhibition, which is free and runs from August 16 to 22, is called Show Your Best. It features cartoons – as well as a number of paintings – in a wide variety of styles and mediums by more than 70 artists from across the Middle East. All the works have one thing in common, though. “They make you feel relaxed and happy,” says Mathew. “The overall theme is very light-hearted.”
Which is not to say, of course, that the art is in any way disposable. The quality is impressive and consistent, particularly so when you consider that the works in Show Your Best are a selection of those submitted after Mathew put out an "open call" to artists – amateur or otherwise – in the region earlier in the year. Show Your Best is, if you like, a much smaller version of the Royal Academy's annual Summer Exhibition in London, where anyone can enter their work.
Highlighting up-and-coming artists
Ahmed Rukni, who lives in Dubai, manages to convey real emotion with the simplest of lines in his inky, washed-out portraits. Indian artist Jesno Jackson takes familiar characters, such as Mickey Mouse, and peps them up with pop art flourishes, creating a conflict between feelings of nostalgia and the impression of modernity.
Perhaps best of all, though, is Abu Dhabi cartoonist Khaled Al Jabri’s affecting image of a man sweeping up discarded WhatsApp logos off the street. It is a damning critique of our technology-obsessed age, which manages to be both amusing and powerful at the same time.
“We are trying to highlight up-and-coming artists,” says Mathew, whose own works – large-scale canvases, sometimes of comic book characters, which nod to street art – will also be on display. “We want everyone to feel that they can have their work exhibited and perhaps in the future, some will have solo shows.”
Mathew opened the Cartoon Art Gallery, the first in the Middle East dedicated to cartoons and animation, six years ago not far from the new, much larger, premises in Al Quoz. "The first place had more of a showroom lay-out," he says. "This new place is like a warehouse, so we can accommodate more artworks."
A love of cartoons
But Mathew’s love of cartoons goes back much further than the Cartoon Art Gallery. He was born in India and raised in Qatar during the 1970s. An only child growing up in a household without a television, he began to draw from a young age to alleviate feelings of boredom and loneliness. “There were no other children around, no parks, hardly anything. I would just draw characters, so that I didn’t feel alone,” he says. “When I first saw the animations from Disney and Warner Bros, I knew immediately that I really liked them. That is the thing I remember most as a kid. They still make me happy, even at this age.”
When he was 26, Mathew, who has a master’s degree in animation and visual effects, moved to San Francisco, where he worked for Cartoon Network in the pre-production department (“laying out the scenes and deciding which characters will be in this or that shot”) and then a series of video games developers. He returned to the Middle East eight years ago and now, nearly 40, he juggles working for his father’s restaurant business in Dubai with managing the Cartoon Art Gallery. “I always wanted to have a gallery,” he says. “But I never wanted it to be serious. I wanted it to be accepting to everyone, even unknown artists.”
Mathew is softly spoken and sparing with his words, but he comes alive when talking about cartoons. His heroes are Jim Davis, the man behind the Garfield comic strips, and Eric Goldberg, who is perhaps best known for creating the genie in the Disney version of Aladdin. "The genie is short, fat and bald, but he is such a loving guy, full of energy," Mathew says.
It is this sense of fun and mischief that so appeals to Mathew. He is less keen on political cartoons, which he says are too time-sensitive to be truly inclusive. “I understand the point of them, but if I see a political cartoon two or three years after it was drawn, it won’t make any sense,” he says.
“But cartoons like the ones made by Disney and Warner Bros are timeless. They share themes that are common to all human beings, whatever culture they come from. Love and fear and exploring, these are the things that anyone can relate to.”
The best cartoons, he explains, should do the same thing as stand-up comedy. “Comedy is basically about deconstructing the society around you, picking up on some of the smaller elements, and then reconstructing it more humorously,” he says. “This allows the comedian to represent a complex thought in a simple way. That’s also what a cartoon does.”
But this inherently comic quality can mean that cartoonists are not always taken as seriously as other artists. This, though, is something Mathew relishes. “Cartoonists are very under-represented in the art world,” he says. “In a way I like that, though, because we are always seen as the underdog. As soon as we are accepted, there will be no hill to climb.”
Cartoon Art Gallery re-opens on August 16 with Show Your Best, running until August 22. Visit www.cartoonartgallery.org