Revolution Graffiti: Street Art of the New Egypt
In one image is an old fashioned television set with an aerial, only the newsreader has been replaced with Pinocchio, his long nose stretching out beyond the screen; in another a gun and video camera face each other as if suspended in the middle of a duel. Though small in size and created with a simple black outline, the pictures have a strong message. Revulsion at the role state-owned media has played in promoting ruling regimes.
These depictions have been sprayed onto the walls of Egypt’s streets. They are part of a much wider graffiti movement, which is manifesting itself on government buildings, police barricades and people’s houses across the country. The revolution and the fall of Hosni Mubarak in early 2011 ushered in a new era of freedom in which artists felt more able to express their social and political sentiments in the form art. This may not have been the beginning of creativity in Egypt, but under the old regime graffiti at least was heavily censored under the orders of the Ministry of Culture.
In the Egypt of today walls of the government building Mugamma, the bureaucratic arm of the former President’s repressive regime, has become a canvas on which to make fun of him. His portrait, which once hung in cafes, offices and schools, has been replaced with a simple outline of his features dotted across walls in the city. In some places the stencils have been adorned with devil horns, in others they bear the slogan, “who protects the tyrant?” In one he appears with his wife, both of their heads on the body of snakes.
It is images like these that Mia Gröndahl has documented in her upcoming book, Revolution Graffiti: Street Art of the new Egypt, which will be published by Thames & Hudson on 15 April. Swedish photographer and journalist Gröndahl, who lives in Egypt, has travelled across the country to photograph the diverse, developing street art that has mushroomed there. Her beautifully produced testimony to this blossoming scene is comprised of over 430 images and a collection of interviews with artists who have established leading, original work. Gröndahl’s other published work includes Gaza Graffiti: Messages of Love and Politics in Tahrir Square: The Heart of the Egyptian Revolution.
Gröndahl’s simple writing style provides a very accessible introduction to the artwork, as does the layout of the book. Revolution Graffiti is split into the following four chapters – Revolution and Freedom, Egyptian and Proud, Cross and Crescent and Martyrs and Heroes – under which she has loosely grouped the graffiti according to its theme.
Depictions of old film stars in the chapter ‘Egyptian and Proud’ are reminiscent of the golden age of Egyptian cinema in the 40s and 50s. According to one blogger, the images represent “the life that I wish to see in Egypt.” Under the chapter ‘Revolution and Freedom’ there are many satirical images of the army. In one, a military puppeteer controls the strings to which five headless politicians are attached. Another image is simply the M of the McDonalds with the words “SCAF eat this” painted underneath it.
Within these chapters, Revolution Graffiti breaks down whom the different artists are and how they operate; street art emerges as a diverse movement. Sometimes the aim of the artists or graffiti teams, like Nas Underground, is to encourage political appreciation amongst Egyptians. Others are highly organized groups that use graffiti as just one of the ways to disseminate their message. The Ultras – a portion of Egypt’s football fans – also use the Internet and songs to speak out. Nothing is painted without the consent of all the leaders in the group.
In some cases, the art has become a way to lighten up Cairo’s drab neighbourhoods. The walls of the city, which have turned grey through constant exposure to pollution, have been transformed into colourful mosaics, portraits and written messages. In a particularly interesting section, ‘Beauty is a Right’, Gröndahl describes how some residents “beg the painters to bring some beauty to their house.” In Imbaba, a deprived area of Cairo, over 60 artists came together to paint the walls.
Through Gröndahl’s interviews it is clear she has connected with the artists she has interviewed. Many of them have chosen to stay anonymous. This is not, she explains, because they fear political reprisal today. The idea is that if, or when, the revolution moves forward, they will be able to tackle other more controversial social issues through their work without the fear of retaliation from others.
Some of the artists are already tackling social issues. Hanaa el Degham, a painter in both Cairo and Berlin, believes the ideals of the revolution – that is bread and social justice – have not been fulfilled. In one of her pieces she created the ‘Pyramid of Crisis’ in which Egyptians carrying gas canisters are piled on top of each other. Newspaper clippings pasted on top read “one year since the Revolution”. There have been several problems with shortages of cooking gas over the last few years in Egypt; many women queued to replenish empty canisters after the revolution instead of voting in the parliamentary elections.
Whilst many people were talking about social media as a tool to mobilise protests and revolutionaries in Egypt, graffiti artists were spreading their messages on the walls of the ancient city and across the country. Here, people’s words did not undergo the censorship of the government like films and books had done for years, but they were painted for everybody to see. People finally had an avenue through which to express their political and social aspirations; they were able to offer their personal interpretations of the truth.
Revolution Graffiti introduces this diverse art scene that exists in Egypt today, a scene that is comprised of many people with dynamic messages and styles. It is a reflection of a country that has long had many different voices, and is now finding more and more ways to express them.
Published in Book Reviews, Egypt