Interview by Jack Raffin / Illustrations by Laila Ekboir
In Buenos Aires—on the corner of Scalabrini Ortiz and Paraguay—there’s an old-school café called Varela Varelita. When I say old-school, I mean a place where you can sit around drinking a café cortado, with a glass of soda water and a little biscuit, and flip through the newspapers all day; where the old-timers come and play chess at night; where the taxi drivers hang out, sitting on the window sills for a quick smoke and coffee in between shifts; where they still play tango from an old speaker. That kind of old-school. The type of old-school café that tourists probably see as “like a Parisian Café” – but it’s not really that. It’s something very unique to Buenos Aires. In other words: it’s a very porteño-type cafe.
Around the place, there are sets of small square tables and pink-cushioned chairs that have probably been there since it first opened, back in 1950. Old school. The gigantic wide-screen TV constantly playing the 24-hour Cronica news channel is new, I think, which contrasts nicely with the Argentinian movie posters on the wall and old Fernet ads—those types of old ads with that ‘50s retro modern-type of cartoon art. Which made me think a bit of my buddy Laila Ekboir’s art—where it’s old-school but new, it’s familiar but not.
Laila and I took a table by one of the windows. Due to our bodies being adjusted to different time zones, Laila was having breakfast—a selection of fruit and toasties and coffee. And I was having dinner – a beef milanesa and mashed potatoes, punctuated with several orders of ‘El Especial’, a tall drink made with Fernet Branca, Cinzano vermouth, and soda water.
On our way here, I’d been sort of ranting at Laila, about how important it is for artists (or writers, or painters, etc) to be constantly working. Even if it’s not a paid job. But the importance of constantly making stuff. That artists should be, I think, like sharks, constantly swimming. Make art or drown. Make art that moves us forward. Anyway.
We were quiet for a bit now. Eating, chewing happily. Thinking about the cheery old liquor ads on the walls, I was reminded of 1950s American animation—that modern style, I think it was called. Or retro, as it’s known now. And thinking about the background artists who worked on shows like Yogi Bear and The Flintstones—those hand-painted trees and clouds and leaves and grass, done with different techniques, like sponges and spatulas, achieving different textures. Artists like Art Lozzi.
Jack Raffin: Hey, you know Art Lozzi?
Laila Ekboir: No… I don’t think so…
He was the guy that did a lot of the backgrounds for the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Kind of like those Fernet ads on the walls remind me of him. But his style also reminds me of your work, a bit. That…style, those colours and stuff. This. [I showed her on my phone.]
Oh, I love this shit. So gorgeous.
Yeah, pretty cool, huh. Dig those colours. What is this, modern animation?
I don’t know what it’s called. Mid-century modern vibe. It’s so interesting because I feel like I see this replicated in a lot of digital illustrations these days. But this was all handmade. All done…a mano!
A lot of your work reminds me of childhood. I guess because you mainly illustrate kid storybooks, and so there’s that sort of style going on. Another thing I’m reminded of—and I hate making any comparisons or anything—but I also think of Tenggren. You know that guy?
[I look him up on my phone too, as Laila shakes her head at me again. Gustaf Tenggren did a bunch of stuff; from working on the early Disney films, like Snow White, to those series of Little Golden Storybooks, like Tawny Scrawny Lion, and Pokey Little Puppy. Everyone knows Tenggren, even if you don’t know the name. Then Laila says something like:]
Next year, me and my partner will be in the UK. I’ll be starting a Masters in Children’s Book Illustrations.
Oh, yeah really?
Yeah, I’m really excited. Because I feel like all this stuff… I’d love to have more fundamentals. And have more, like, a wider knowledge…And be like, “oh of course, Tenggren” (pulls a snooty face) or whatever. I would love to have more tools to draw from.
[It was around this point of our chat that Javier, the owner and main waiter at Varela, took our empty plates and cups, and—like several younger patrons who frequent the place—me and Laila took out our pens, and pencils, and pads, and got to doodling and drawing as we kept talking.]
I think about that sometimes—art school. You ever think you’ll get bogged down by studying technique, and then get stuck thinking about that, and not just drawing stuff? Like… I always hear, say with musicians who’ve gone to music school, and how they later declare that they had to unlearn everything they were taught to not get stuck thinking about theory?
Yeah, I don’t know what this school will be like. But my sense is that this program focuses less on technique and more on developing a personal voice. I’m hoping to come away with a clearer understanding of the stories I want to tell, and what my personal creative process is. I get it… I hear more often than not that art school is a waste of time, but my sense is that it’s not a typical visual arts program—it’s for children’s storybook illustrations, which is pretty niche.
It’s interesting, no? Because it’s real specific, right. It’s not art class.
Yeah, and, dude… the reason I like illustration is that it seems different from a lot of other visual arts. The line is blurred, and different people will have different definitions of what illustration is. My sense is that—and this is my sense from the community in Argentina, I don’t know what it’s like around the world—but I sense there’s more commitment to craft maybe? The whole idea of an artist that hires other artists to produce their work is non-existent, or nearly non-existent. There’s definitely rubbing shoulders and meeting the right people, too. But getting your foot in the door seems more possible. I’ve heard of people investing thousands of dollars to get their first show and sell art in galleries. The way I see it, don’t fucking pay anybody! I don’t know. [The world of illustrations] just seems a little more honest.
Laila Ekboir is an illustrator from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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