25th January Graffiti
Dina Kabil - 16/02/2012
The 25th January 2011 Egyptian revolution did not produce its own music and songs, as the 1952 revolution did; but it did cause a new and truly artistic means of expression to burst forth, namely graffiti. This new art of refusing, rejecting, protesting and crying freedom has coloured the city’s walls and became a vivid documentation of the revolution, commenting with authentic Egyptian irony on its dreams, its break-downs, and its overcoming of passing defeats.
During one of the million-strong demonstrations in Tahrir Square last year – on the 9th of April, to be precise – an artist made a piece of graffiti on the walls of the square in the style of an advertising poster, for a product he called the Freedom Mask. The contraption depicted transforms its wearer into a monstrosity: it is a blindfold, as well as a gag consisting of a small ball strapped into the mouth, and a harness attaching two wings to the sides of the head. The point being made is that gagged mouths and the toxic tear gas the revolutionaries were exposed to were the price of freedom. The ad-style caption on the poster reads: ‘New. Available for an unlimited period. Liberty mask. Gift presented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the sons of the dear country’. The work was by Ganzeer, which is the pseudonym of Mohamed Fahmy, who has since become one of the icons of the 25th January revolution.
This graffiti, which emerged in the context of the rejection of military trials for civilians, seemed to be an early prophesy of the repressive events that took place in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, seven months after the revolution broke out. The Freedom Mask seems to reference, in advance, the contrast between the gas masks worn by the state security forces and the simple medical face masks or cloths which was the revolutionaries’ only protection. These works of protest art have worried the authorities, and many graffiti artists have been arrested, accused of distributing leaflets and fly-posting on public buildings.
Another artist, Ammar Abu Bakr, has graffitied the walls of the Lycee school, in that same famous street, Mohamed Mahmoud. His work salutes all the faces and eyes that were lost or injured during the bloody events of November 19th, as if the graffiti were writing the revolution’s diary, day by day, with letters of light. The street has become an open-air art exhibition since the January 25th revolution erupted in the squares of Egypt; young graffiti artists and revolutionaries vie with each other to fill the walls with writing and images, using their artistic instincts to roar out their rejection of the regime. Even iwhen some ‘hidden hands’ come to erase these traces of protest, painting over them to whitewash these revolutionary messages of refusal, the walls are just transformed into fresh bright white pages, asking to be graffitied all over again. It is an ever-continuing revolution.
This is not graffiti!
Yes, all the slogans from the first days of the revolution have now disappeared, and all traces of the graffiti which accompanied the eighteen-day demonstrations leading up to the fall of Mubarak have been painted over. That was the graffiti that reflected the people’s determination to topple the regime: ‘Get out’ or ‘Go away – I want a shower!’ or the image of Mubarak looking like Hitler. Many other critical drawings and slogans that accompanied the initial stages of the revolution have also disappeared, but they are still the focus of numerous websites, blogs or graffiti photo albums on Facebook, which saw the importance of this vivid popular documentation of the revolution. Proprietors of art galleries also realised the importance of this emerging revolutionary art. For example, the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, which specialises in contemporary arts, organised an exhibition in October of the work of a group of graffiti artists called ‘This Is Not Graffiti’, in a clever reference to the suppression and censorship this protest art faces. It also meant to imply that this form of art belongs first and foremost to the street rather than to indoor galleries. Its identity is solely derived from being exhibited in the street for the general public, in the midst of events, subject to constant addition and deletion. Graffiti was also the cornerstone of a huge photo exhibition held in November 2011 in the Gezira Arts Centre, Zamalek, called ‘The people: a red line’. The photos reflected the interaction of graffiti with people’s daily life and the changing balance of power – to the extent that today’s slogans have come to revolve around the rejection of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and its policy and its practices, such as ‘the people want the fall of the Field Marshall’ or ‘all together against SCAF’.
Graffiti: documenting the revolution
Ganzeer’s graffiti depicts the bloody clash between the people and the army which revealed the ugly face of SCAF only days after the initial honeymoon period – marked by slogans like ‘the people and the army are one hand’ – was over. But it was not a prophesy. Rather, it was a true artistic expression which sprang from living through the events moment by moment, and from the young graffiti artists’ foresight and sensitive intuition that enabled them to read the events correctly. For example, one of them drew – immediately after the 25th January demonstration – an armed forces tank, in all its might, bearing down on a bread seller riding his rickety bicycle.
Graffiti in Egypt has gone from being merely a social means of propaganda(1) or an insignificant artistic form(2) , as was the the case before the revolution, to being a truly political means of expression, spreading the blazing revolution all over the country. In the graffitied murals on the Corniche at Alexandria, or in Dokki Square in Cairo, a group of artists persisted in narrating their revolution experiences. Similar murals could be found in Champillion Street, Mohammed Mahmoud Street and, more recently, Maglis al-Wizaraa Street. Every time you looked and traced the drawings on the wall, they would take you back to the events they depicted – here is the July demonstration, and there is the attack on the martyrs' families, and the Maspero events in October in which more than twenty people lost their lives. On several walls the picture of the martyr Mina Daniel stood like a Coptic icon adorned with flowers. Here are 'No military trials for civilians' slogans – trials that took hundreds of lives – alongside portraits of the victims, the most famous of whom were Mikael Nabil and the blogger Alaa Abdek-Fattah. And there you see the earth-shaking clashes of Mohammed Mahmoud Street, which were not spared the stinging irony of the people, such as a slogan mimicking a famous line from the story of 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves': the original 'Gold, ruby and coral – thank you God' becomes 'Gas and live bullets – thank you God'.
These works were done by unknown soldiers who did not care much about signing their works. They sometimes used pseudonyms for fear of the reprisal that could befall them at any time, as happened to Ali al-Halabi, whose 'Dancing to the rhythms of the revolution' stencil got him arrested in October for the same old charge of 'fly-posting and desecrating public buildings'. Even though they were already famous be-fore the revolution, it seemed as if artists like al-Halabi, Ganzeer, Sed Banda, Charles Aql, Tennin – who painted Occupy Maspero – Zeft and Ammar had been born of the revolution.
Ammar Abu Bakr was a teacher at the College of Fine Arts in Luxor, who was particularly interested in graffiti and other forms of protest art even before January 25th, but only began practising it with the onset of the revolution. He began to do graffiti on the walls of the Municipality and of the College of Fine Arts. He then moved to Cairo and would do his graffiti at every large and small demonstration. “I wasn't interested in politics before,” says the artist who did the famous graffiti of the sniper bearing the words 'Wanted dead or alive'. “But after January 25th I wanted to participate as much as I could, and graffiti was what I could contribute, especially with the setback witnessed in the mainstream me-dia at that time, controlled by the dregs of the former regime. So I would go down to Tahrir and then back to Luxor to write phrases on the walls and trains – phrases calling for resistance and for holding ground, and to reassure people that real change is drawing near.”
An innately interactive art
Text- or image-based graffiti is not limited to artists alone, which is what distinguished this type of art and makes it unique. Everyone can take part in it – revolutionaries, protesters and passers-by – whatever their artistic abilities may be. What matters is the strength of the political message. It's to do with what Ganzeer prefers to call ‘street art’, rather than graffiti. It can be done with chalk or a luminous marker pen, or a printing technique such as silkscreen, or with a professional artists' paintbrush. What determines its success are a combination of elements such as courage, the critical spirit, and a joyous use of stinging irony. The ease with which it can be done, coupled with the possibility of its rapid and effective dissemination, are what motivated Ammar to organize a workshop on graffiti techniques for young people. For example, using Photoshop to manipulate images, print them out on paper, and cut them out as stencils, ready for use on any solid object or wall using the famous Duku spray car paint. Ammar says: “We were thinking of organizing a workshop when myself and group of friends went to show solidarity with Ali al-Halabi after he was arrested for doing the 'Dancing to the rhythms of the revolution' stencil. I wanted to spread this technique as fast as possible, so that the graffiti revolution would not die out with the arrest of its leaders. It was a kind of solidarity: 'We are all Ali al-Halabi', like 'We are all Khaled Said'.” (3)
Graffiti is also distinguished from all other modern forms of art, which attempt to be a bridge between the arts and the spectators, in that it is an interactive art by nature. It is based on the idea of layers, like a white page of history on which each passer-by leaves something of their experience and their life. The graffiti artist writes anti-regime slogans, then someone else comes along to paint over it. Someone may write 'The Field Marshal must fall', then a follower of the old regime comes along and adds 'Not' before 'must', thereby changing the statement from protest to support. This is just like what used to happen in the old days, when the purpose of graffiti was more about propaganda. Election campaign posters would be defaced or embellished with drawings or comments. Or radical religious messages would force themselves on to the walls of the metro or the sides of trains and bus stations, urging women to wear the Islamic veil to accomplish their Islamic duties; then someone would come along and comment on them either with swear words or with exaggerated over-supportive comments. The city thus turned into a democratic parliament in which all citizens were par-ticipants.
Today graffiti is not only synonymous with freedom of expression and the right to protest. After decades of repression and silencing the voice of dissent, it is now hand in hand with the revolution, walking alongside it on the same path. Ammar depicts more than eighty people who have lost one or both eyes and does not settle for anything but justice. So a piece of graffiti addressing the Field Marshal bears the message: 'Your eye'.
Graffiti has become so firmly linked to the revolution that if you go to visit Mohammed Mahmoud Street today, after the clashes have finished and the demonstration has moved over to Maglis al-Wuzaraa Street, a mysterious shiver seizes you. You realise that the graffiti-covered walls which witnessed Egyptians being shot dead with live ammunition or losing their eyes are what gives that street a solemnity, and a magnificence, that remind whoever tries to forget that we were here.
1) - Graffitis. Quand les murs parlent. http://hebdo.ahram.org.eg/arab/ahram/2004/3/17/null0.htm
2) - An official graffiti festival has been organised by the Ministry of Culture since 2008 at the Mahmoud Mukhtar museum, where various graffiti techniques have been demonstrated. At the same time the exhibition emptied graffiti of its protest art content outside of offiicial frameworks and galleries. See http://hebdo.ahram.org.eg/arab/ahram/2010/8/25/arts1.htm
3) - Khaled Said was the young Alexandrian man who was beaten to death by two officers from the Interior Ministry at an Internet cafe. The Facebook page called 'We are all Khaled Said' that Wa'el Ghonim set up was one of the sparks of the January 25th revolution.
Translated from Arabic by Alice Guthrie