Ondřej Sekora: Ferdy the Ant creator and rugby promoter

Ondřej Sekora and Ferdy the Ant, photo: archive of Moravian Museum Brno

Ondřej Sekora is perhaps best-known as the author of the beloved cartoon character Ferda Mravenec or Ferdy the Ant. But Sekora was more than just an illustrator and comics author. He was also a journalist, an amateur entomologist, and one of the first propagators of rugby in Czechoslovakia. The Moravian Museum in Brno will mark 120 years since Ondřej Sekora’s birth with an exhibition and a new monography.

Ondřej Sekora and Ferdy the Ant,  photo: archive of Moravian Museum Brno
Ferda Mravenec or Ferdy the Ant started to appear regularly in the 1930s in a series of comic strips published by the daily Lidové noviny. He went on to become a hero of countless children’s books, cherished by generations of Czech children. Later he also starred in a puppet and animated TV series, released in the 1960s and 1980s.

The creator of Ferdy the Ant, Ondřej Sekora, was born in 1889 in Královo Pole near Brno. He enrolled to study law, but soon quit to pursue illustration. In the early 1920s he offered his sketches to the daily Lidové noviny and was hired by the Brno office as a caricaturist, a columnist and a sports journalist.

In 1923 he was sent to Paris as a correspondent, which had a major influence on his later career, explains Eduard Burget from the Institute of Czech Literature of the Czech Academy of Sciences:

“There was a large community of Czechs, mainly artists, living in the French capital at the time, and Sekora got the chance to meet many of them.

“But what was most important was that he got acquainted with top French and world magazines, which all published comic strips at the time.

“Sekora carried this tradition over to his home country. He was not the only Czech illustrator to create comic strips, but he could be considered one of the first founders of comic stories in Czechoslovakia.”

Ferdy the Ant  (1936) | Photo: Moravian Museum Brno
In Paris, Sekora mainly worked as a sports correspondent, covering the Olympic Games and the famous Tour de France. He also brought home a rugby ball and a set of rules, which he translated into Czech, coining the Czech rugby terminology, which is still being used today:

“We all associate Sekora mainly with illustrations and with Ferdy the Ant, but he was actually one of the first promoters of rugby. Already in 1926, he published Czech rugby, the first rules of the sport written in Czech. He also worked for some time as a coach and referee for two rugby clubs in Moravia. So this is just a small, but an important aspect of his life.”

In 1928, the office of the daily Lidové noviny moved from Brno to Prague. Sekora, who was a self-taught artist, used the opportunity to complete his education and applied to study at the Academy or Arts, Architecture and Design.

“Sekora applied to the studio of Arnošt Hofbauer, a painter of the Art Nouveau generation, and under his guidance he learned and tried to use new techniques.

“We know him mostly as an illustrator, but at this time, he created lots of watercolours, landscapes and sketches from nature and from his journeys. This aspect of his work is not very well-known.”

During the 1930s and early 1940s, Ondřej Sekora created a number of popular cartoon characters, including Kuře na Pipi and Brouk Pytlík or Pouch the Beetle, but none of them gained such fame as Ferdy the Ant.

The first comic strip with Ferdy the Ant was published in 1927 in a magazine called Pestrý týden, but he became better known in the 1930s, after he started appearing in a regular comic strip in the daily Lidové noviny.

“The topics Sekora addressed in the adventures of Ferdy the Ant were often political. Sekora reflected the onset of Nazism in Germany and the Spanish Civil War, as well as other events stirring the European continent.

“So I would say the comic strips in Lidové noviny are something like an illustrated glossary of what was going on in the world, and Ferdy himself is politically engaged to a certain extent.”

'Sedm pohádek',  photo: archive of Moravian Museum Brno
In the mid-1930s, Sekora started publishing children’s books centred around the character of Ferdy the Ant and his adventures in the insect world. The first book, called simply Ferda mravenec, came out in 1936. Another one, Ferdy the Ant in Foreign Services, was released three years later, followed by Ferdy in the Anthill in 1938. The books gained him enormous success among generations of Czech children.

After the war, Ferdy the Ant became increasingly committed to the new socialist regime, helping to build the new republic and fighting the American beetle.

Sekora’s political attitude stemmed mainly from his war-time experiences. His second wife, Marie Roubíčková, was Jewish, but he refused to divorce her, and as a result lost his job in the newspaper.

In 1944, his wife was deported to the concentration camp in Terezín, while he spent a year in German labour camps. Luckily, the family, including their son who spent part of the war with relatives, reunited after the war.

“After the war Ondřej Sekora identified with the ideals of the Communist Party. Even before the war, in the books for children, Ferdy was presented as this industrious and diligent ant, taking pride in moral virtues, diligence and justice.

“These values, such as collectivist thinking and unity, were proclaimed by the Communist Party, at least during the first years after the war. So for Sekora, the early 1950s were about building the new republic and a new social order, and he engaged Ferda the Ant as well.”

After the war, Ondřej Sekora helped to establish the popular satirical magazine called Dikobraz. He was also one of the co-founders of the State Publishing of Children’s Books, known as SNDK, where he worked as an editor.

This is how Sekora described his philosophy of writing books for children:

Ondřej Sekora - Rugby how to play and its rules | Photo: eSbírky,  National Museum in Prague,  CC BY 1.0 DEED
“I always believed that a story for children cannot be too long. My rule was that by the sixth line, children need to be engaged by the story. I was always inspired by traditional fairy tales. A story starting “There was a king and he had three daughters” was the best example for me.”

Ondřej Sekora died in Prague at the age of 67. In 2015, his estate was passed on to the Moravian Museum in Brno, which is currently preparing a major exhibition dedicated to the famous Czech writer and illustrator. Tomáš Prokůpek is one of its curators:

“There have already been several, even more extensive, exhibitions dedicated to Ondřej Sekora but this is the first one focusing on all aspects of his work, not only on his drawings.

“We will showcase, for example, his collection of insects. Apart from his illustrations, we will also present his paintings from the early 1930s and 1940s, which have never been published and which are largely unknown.

“He was also connected to theatre and audio-visual media. Not many people know that Sekora was involved in the beginnings of Czechoslovak television broadcasting for children.”

The exhibition dedicated to Ondřej Sekora, the creator of Ferdy the Ant, is due to open in the Moravian Museum Brno in December this year. Tomáš Prokůpek is also preparing an extensive monography of the famous writer and illustrator, which is to be published before the end of the year.