The works of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist, have become an unlikely star of the Arab spring – and, more recently, of protests and conflicts around the world including the recent UK riots.
Latuff, 42, shunned the traditional platform of newspapers and magazines, and turned instead to Twitter – where his pictures, reacting in near real-time to breaking news, are rapidly disseminated among campaigners and held aloft at rallies across the Middle East.
"I'm not producing artworks to illustrate news articles," he says. "My cartoons are directly geared towards activists who can share them and use them for free. They have a message, they support a cause, and they're designed to be spread widely."
Latuff's career in cartooning began in the early 1990s when, while working for leftist publications in Brazil, a TV documentary about Mexico's Zapatista insurgency prompted him to change tack. He wanted to support the movement so faxed two cartoons to them, which received a positive response. However, he soon realised that it was more effective and immediate to put his art on a website, which would allow the group to download and use the images.
Fourteen years on, Latuff now exploits the ever-growing possibilities of the web and social media to the full, responding quickly to Twitter messages from activists worldwide. These might be requests for some artwork supporting their cause, often taking a provocative stance that might be too dangerous for local artists. Sometimes, a tweet alerting Latuff to an issue in North Africa will be converted into a cartoon in Rio, sent out over Twitter and then appear on the streets of Cairo – all in under an hour.
Graham Fowell, ex-chairman of the Cartoonists' Club of Great Britain, says an increasing number of cartoonists now scour the 24-hour global news, looking for hotspots and then speedily present the view from the street – or at least as conveyed through Twitter. "I like Carlos's cartoons," he says. "They depict the ridiculous ironies of our imperfect civilisation, only much quicker. In some ways, they reflect the globalisation of everything – money, commodities, language and perhaps humanity, too – which, in my opinion, is not a bad thing."
Latuff has also turned his attention to police abuse cases in Brazil, and lately has focused on political upheaval in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt, which has irritated some Egyptians who claim that young, local artists like Ahmad Nady and Amr Sleem are being sidelined. "Latuff's effort and willingness to put his art in the service of revolutionaries is definitely praiseworthy, but I think there might be better ways to do it," says Egyptian lecturer and activist Soha Bayoumi.