I’m 44. British and I live in Cairo, Egypt. I’m a father of two sons. When I was young, I liked art. I can’t say I was creative then. I spent most of my time with pencil and paper, copying images. That started when I permanently borrowed a book from my school library titled simply, Ideas.1 It was old book, large, rather like an encyclopaedia, that listed ideas and gave fairly deep summaries of them. It was a fascinating book for me, and within it I remember three or four full page black and white images of some of the figures behind these ideas. I copied these as best as I could. I was probably 12 or 13.
I didn’t greatly know the figures at the time, but it is curious to me now to know that they included Marx, Nietzsche, and Bergson. They would each arise in my life later. Especially Nietzsche. My aim at the time was to copy them exactly. Somewhere in my parents’ attic these reproductions still exist. What I later did with them philosophically was different, but driven by the same mix of respect and care.
At 17, I flirted with the prospects of art school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. From a very early age that question appeared bizarre to me. By 17, I was a senior art student in Sixth Form. I was part of a group of around six or seven young artists who would escape the bitter cold of northern England in the lunch breaks for the art room. We were all good for our age: A grade students. But we were also isolated, all having grown up in a tiny border town. We had little to no guidance from any adult.
Fate had it that our art teacher — who was himself an accomplished artist — abandoned the school, perhaps for several reasons, leaving us high and dry one year before our final exams. The substitute head of art that was drafted in was, in contrast, a bureaucrat, and not a good one at that. When the results of our A Level art exams came, we discovered that he had submitted to Cambridge work that followed the syllabus of the University of London (or perhaps it was the other way around). We all failed — straight Fs across the board.
“Design, in a way, became an antidote — and perhaps a coping mechanism — against the death and violence I’d had to confront or analyse and understand in the political field.”
No one defended us. The substitute was fired, but all our plans changed. I dropped art from this time and never returned to it. I had the minimum points to study politics at Newcastle Polytechnic. From here I started a life of concern with politics, that led me through my undergraduate, masters and PhD degrees. Along the way I took up a Fulbright, taught at Brown University, and ended up, in 2001, moving to Cairo to take up a post as assistant professor at the American University in Cairo. By 2003, I was pushed out, in part because I made the mistake of being the only non-tenured faculty member to open their mouths about the bombing of Afghanistan, the destruction of Palestinian cities in the West Bank in 2002, and the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. I joined Al-Ahram because I wanted to remain in the Arab world. On returning from teaching in Palestine in 2005, I became involved with The BRussells Tribunal and its work on Iraq. This led, four years later, to a legal case filed under laws of universal jurisdiction in Spain for responsibility of genocide against four US presidents and four UK prime ministers.
This effort obliged me to get more serious about web development, which I had played with on and off since 1996. But it also, steadily, pushed me in another direction: the need to have beauty in my life, or to create beauty. Slowly, but with much enjoyment, I started to return — but now with digital art — to this love I’d had in my childhood. Design, in a way, became an antidote — and perhaps a coping mechanism — for much of the death and violence I’d had to confront or analyse and understand in the political field. This also linked back to the kind of work I had done in my academic career prior to arriving in Cairo, which, in a word, was abstract and philosophical, though practical. Rothko, Bill Viola and others were a constant point of reference to me in these years. Returning much later to design was also a way of returning to some of these formative influences, and re-opening conversations I had alone with them.
Dr Ian Douglas
[ + ]
|1.||↑||Ideas: A Volume of Ideas, Notions & Emotions, Clear Or Confused, which Have Moved the Minds of Men, Geoffrey Grigson, Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith (Hawthorne Press, 1956).|