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No art form has expressed the exuberance of feelings unleashed by Egypt’s 2011 revolution as vividly as graffiti. As central Cairo became the scene of protests and clashes between police and demonstrators during the turbulent first two years after the uprising, street art splashed on the city’s drab walls offered a powerful commentary on the unfolding events.
The art took diverse forms, from large, colourful murals to small, monochrome stencils and scribbled slogans that boldly celebrated “martyrs” felled by police bullets. The artists all mocked the country’s interim military rulers and exposed hypocrisy and deceit in the media and politics. The blood, hope, anger and pain of those days took shape on the walls in an explosion of creativity that captured both local and international attention.
That moment has long passed, the walls have been painted over and drawing messages of defiance on the streets has become too risky for the young artists who made their names during the revolution. Space for public dissent has shrunk since the widely supported coup in 2013 that ousted an elected Islamist president. But while that era of Egyptian graffiti art appears to have ended, its impact lives on. It has helped establish the reputations of some artists at least and opened the door to international recognition.
Soraya al-Morayef, who has chronicled the rise of Egyptian graffiti in her art blog Suzeeinthecity, says the result for individual artists has been both positive and negative. “Everyone has felt it, whether in terms of career, fame or even a change in direction. There have been different levels of success and also trauma, and even depression,” she says.
The satirical artist Ganzeer was among the first street artists to gain public recognition after the revolution. Since 2014 he has lived in Los Angeles after a presenter on an Egyptian television programme claimed he was a member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, causing Ganzeer to fear for his safety. His mural in Cairo of a face-off between a tank and a bread delivery man on a bicycle in May 2011 was an eloquent visual comment on the tensions that had quickly emerged between the then ruling military council and the young activists at the forefront of the uprising.
Ganzeer is now working on The Solar Grid, a serialised sci-fi graphic novel. He says he is seeking to create an effect beyond the immediate hit delivered by street art: “For me it was important to take a step back from work that is immediately urgent and to put effort into something that might have a slow impact over a longer period.”
His novel presents a dystopian world set in a distant future in the wake of an environmental catastrophe that has depleted the world’s clean water supplies. The planet depends on a grid of solar panels that bask it in sunlight round the clock and have abolished night. “This is good for production because factories can work 24 hours a day, but it has horrible effects on the environment,” says Ganzeer. “The story revolves around two children who destroy the solar grid and save the planet. But on the other hand there are the people who benefit from the solar grid who you may see as the villains. I wanted to make the point that there are no bad guys, only people with different ideas of what is good and what is bad.”
Ganzeer says he produces art “from time to time for a cause or an exhibition” but turns down offers to produce the same kind of work he made in Egypt, which was tied to the revolution. “I don’t see the point of placing this work in a New York gallery for rich people to buy,” he says. “The work I did was in Egypt for Egyptians.”
Ammar Abo Bakr, another prolific street artist, painted huge, expressive, richly detailed murals often depicting “martyrs” with angel wings. His work packs a strong emotional punch with its vibrant colours, overlaying of motifs and use of irony. For him, a former art lecturer at South Valley University in Luxor, the revolution might have suffered a setback, but it is not over and, he says, graffiti will have a role once again.
“I used to draw the martyrs to point at their killers,” says Abo Bakr, speaking in his flat in the centre of Cairo where the walls are covered with multi-layered painting, objects, symbols, insignia and calligraphy celebrating the revolution and its icons. “I did not go down to the streets to paint to prove that I am an artist. I had a skill and I used it to document something I believed in.”
These days Abo Bakr is often invited to Europe to paint in street art events but stays away from revolutionary themes there. While abroad, though, independently he has painted murals of Sanaa Seif, a young activist who was jailed for suggesting that Egypt’s judiciary was not independent. “She is an icon of the revolution,” Abo Bakr says.
Other graffiti artists in demand internationally include Alaa Awad, another art lecturer from Luxor whose celebrated murals, inspired by Pharaonic Egypt, shared wall space in downtown Cairo with Abo Bakr’s paintings. Awad, who does not view himself as an opponent of the regime, says he was moved by the violence and polarisation to produce work that reminded Egyptians of their roots in an ancient civilisation. Elegant, enigmatic and moving, his murals reference ancient temple paintings while appearing to comment on the modern conflicts that unfolded on Cairo’s streets.
Similarly, Aya Tarek works in the port city of Alexandria and took up graffiti in 2007 long before the revolution. She makes a point of underlining that her work is not political and that she is not a “revolutionary artist”. Having received numerous commissions in Europe and the US, including for a music production house in Los Angeles and the USF Contemporary Art Museum in Tampa, Florida, she says the spotlight that revolution art focused on Egypt has raised her profile.
“I don’t use art as a propaganda tool,” she says. “I no longer do graffiti. I paint murals. Graffiti is quick and has to be witty and instant. But it is a different approach for me now. Things have to move on.”