Walls across Egypt have become testament to an ongoing uprising. From anti-establishment spray painted writings on the walls, stencils against the regime to more elaborate paintings, street art can be seen in Cairo and other cities. These political expressions have been painted over and repainted time after time over the past year and a half.
“Some artists actually like to see their graffiti being painted over,” says Soraya Morayef, a blogger who has been closely documenting the street art movement in Egypt. “It gives them the feeling that it was so provocative that someone just had to paint over it so they get the drive to make more provocative art.”
There is no doubt that street art boomed during the course of the revolution. Egyptian graffiti artists have been simultaneously celebrated and condemned in Egypt and abroad. Some artists received an invitation to Frankfurt to paint German walls in front of a live audience, and the American University in Cairo moved to protect the murals on Mohamed Mahmoud Street on the walls of the university's Tahrir campus. On the other hand, many concerned citizens intervene to stop the graffiti artists, especially when their work is critical of the Egyptian army.
Writings on the wall developed from anti-Mubarak regime slogans, to art and condemnation of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces’ violations, along with graffiti used as a direct protest tool against the downtown walls blocking streets when artists painted open roads on the walls.
A little over a year and a half after the revolution started, with street art in Egypt mostly revolving around the political sphere, perhaps it is time to ask the question about whether graffiti should and will take a closer look at other aspects of contemporary Egyptian life.
Limit between art and simple expression
Ahmed Naje, 26, is journalist and blogger, and co-founder of the Egyptian Bloggers Aggregator (omraneya.net). Naje, who might be described as a multitasking artist, is currently working on his second book.
Naje expressed little enthusiasm for street art. “Anyone can paint or spray and say something in the street and I respect that, but don’t forget that most of the people who do graffiti use it for political activism and propaganda,” he said.
“This phenomenon of expression is not really free because the message is focused on political issues,” Naje suggested. “You will not find on the walls discussions about the freedom of women or the freedom of sexuality. We could count on our fingers the graffiti artists working on art itself,” he added.
In Egypt not all paintings on walls are focused on political messages, but most are. There are some expressions on social issues that are perhaps overshadowed by the anti-military and pro-revolution works.
Graffiti artist Nazeer, who is responsible for art works such as the iconic one in which the Maspero State TV building is blown up, as well as signs that show directions and kilometres to Tahrir Square, is hopeful. He explained that the revolution is a relative subject, as the revolution means different things to different people, so it is an ongoing process.
However, incidents are what produce these reactions on walls. “If things calm down, the art will evolve with more layers and colours that are more aesthetically pleasing,” he said commenting that even the topics will evolve as more artists get out and do art as so far it has been mostly activists, like himself, working on graffiti.
Mixed feelings about graffiti
Some Egyptians on the street are less than enthusiastic about this new phenomenon. Ola Yehya Ahmad, a student of agriculture in the University of Alexandria prefers art that is centered on the beauty of nature rather than ones related to the revolution. “I have no problem if they beautify my city but I don’t like to see humiliating figures in some paintings. God created us as human beings. I don’t accept depicting some figures as animals. Even my religion [Islam] doesn’t permit this,” she said referring to some graffiti she has seen on the streets.
Hadeel Youssef, an economics student, said that the most important factor is the aesthetics of the graffiti. “Drawing on the walls is not something usual; it is not anyone’s right to occupy our walls,” Youssef said. “Some people draw exactly what we think about, which I find beautiful, while others ruin all of this by drawing in a silly and ugly way.”
Dr. Heba Abu-El-Fadel, an Assistant Professor at Alexandria who teaches Architecture and works in Physical Planning, does not appreciate graffiti because it lacks regulation. “As a professional I don’t like it at all, it is crazy and of course I don’t want it to continue,” she said. However, Abu-El-Fadel does recognise the need for expression born out of the revolution. “Before the revolution it was strict, only the few could express themselves. Now everyone wants to express themselves as they feel part of the revolution,” Fadel said.
Still, other people enjoy seeing graffiti around. “It represents the revolution, I like to see some written slogans like ‘the glorious 25 January revolution’,” said a middle-aged taxi driver from Alexandria.
The street belongs to the people
Art is nevertheless living a new era in Egypt and the artists are participating in a vibrant dialogue about its future. Daniel Stoevensandt, director of the Goethe Institut in Alexandria, explains the revolutionary impact of graffiti as a rupture with the past.
“Although Egyptians love to go out, in the Mubarak era the majority of cultural events did not happen in public spaces,” he said. According to Stoevensandt, the revolution has given people and artists the possibility to express themselves wherever.
“People now feel that the street belongs to them,” he said.
In the pre-revolution era the artistic scene was tightly controlled by the government, especially when it came to expressions of art relating to the political realm. In the aftermath of the revolution, artists have been experiencing more liberty. “People now simply occupy walls with their graffiti, benefiting from the large freedom they have today,” said Stoevensandt, but added that “this is something which is still in process. People are still discovering what they can express using graffiti.”
Naje also thinks that this new way of artistic communication is just starting. “We are still in the moment of exchange, a lot of experiments are going on and people are still learning. They may not succeed at first, but they are learning,” he said.
Creating new spaces for underground art
Perhaps it is not only the learning process that is needed. Sameh El-Halawany, one of the founders of the Gudran Association for Art and Development, believes that street art will continue in Egypt but in a different way. “Artists need to start initiating with people in these places and to make the process more interactive,” he said. Halawany further explained that communities need to take part in the design and choice of colours of their environments.
“It needs to be more public and not just one person expressing himself,” he added.
Gudran has long been creating spaces for underground art to flourish in Alexandria. Through centres in downtown Alexandria such as Al-Dokan (which is focused on nurturing visual arts) and Al-Cabina (a centre more focused on music and literary arts) people meet to discuss and create different forms of art. Before these spaces were established, underground and independent art in Alexandria had a harder time progressing. However, now that artists have these spaces the scene is expanding exponentially in the city.
Much like Gudran helps to develop the underground art scene in Alexandria, over in Cairo an initiative is in the making, attempting to create a similar space for graffiti. An artist who goes by El Mosheer (The Field Marshal) along with prominent blogger Mahmoud Salem, who blogs under the pseudonym Sandmonkey, are working with others to create Egypt’s very own School of Graffiti.
According to Morayef, this school will not merely teach design but will bring together different people interested in the emerging art form to create a space to help in the developing the processes of graffiti.
“The best thing about graffiti is that it's decentralised,” graffiti artist Nazeer said. “However, if there is a medium that offers a work space, documents the movement and has a venue to display the art, it would be beneficial.”
Today, graffiti is done more on an individual level. Some projects have taken place that created opportunities for dialogue on graffiti among artists such as the ‘Mad Graffiti Weekend’ in 2011 where a group of artists got together, designed and implemented the famous work of an army tank facing a bicycle. There were also other moments of cooperation when creating murals for those killed in the revolution on Mohamed Mahmoud street and other cities in the country.
Eva Mena, a graffiti artist from Spain, travelled to Egypt in October 2011 to take part in the Fourth Mediterranean Hip Hop Festival. A few months later Mena still feels admiration for the artwork she saw in Cairo. “They have just began and it is still too soon to see the future development of their art,” she said over email. “The Internet lets them know what other artists are doing. Even though they do not have all the materials we have, their need for expressing themselves and reach the world through the streets is stronger.”
A shorter version of this article was produced during Euro-Mediterranean Academy for Young Journalists in Alexandria in May 2012 as a collaboration between Ahram Online's Rowan El Shimi (Egypt), Oscar Gutierrez (Spain), Alma Hassoun (Syria) and Elena Roda (Italy) through EMAJMagazine