El-Teneen’s revolutionary street art has spread throughout Cairo’s streets ever since the onset of the January 25 Revolution in 2011. However, in his exhibition at Arthropologie Gallery he steers away from his blatantly political messages and instead paints pop culture icons from the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema. Hend Rostom, Ismail Yassin, Fouad El Mohandes, Oum Kholthoum and more stars shine on the white walls of the gallery, spray painted with stencils on canvas, rather than street walls.
In the past week, most of the revolution-related street art that bedecked Zamalek’s walls was covered with a layer of cream-colored paint. But El Teneen’s apolitical works are safely displayed inside Arthropologie.
Black and White is a refuge from the blur of colour on the streets. Taking tiny steps around the gallery, and spotting Zaki Rostom and Mahmoud El Meligy, Egyptians recall scenes from the monochromatic movies that played out throughout their childhood.
The stars summon a different era, and the exhibition becomes a welcome escape from Egyptian's suddenly highly-politicized lives.
Over the past year, bold political messages were painted on streets throughout Egypt, condemning military rule and reminding passersby the revolution is still on. The sprawling street art hasn’t been merely cosmetic; it mirrors the rhythm of the revolution’s pulse on the street.
With the onset of revolution graffiti emerged across the country to mirror the people’s demands and to draw the masses towards a common goal: the ouster of the Mubarak regime. Throughout the first 18 days of revolution, street art was an outlet for expression by protestors, who determinedly spent their days on the streets, surrounded by blank walls begging to bear witness that a revolution had started. “The people demand the ouster of the regime” was spray-painted all over Cairo’s walls.
Protest art moved from the crowds to lampposts, walls and electricity boxes in downtown Cairo. Artists such as El-Teneen and Chico created witty stencils to reflect the demands of the people. But their work was duly tracked and removed by security forces, often a few minutes after their creation.
Once the top demand was fulfilled and Mubarak stepped down, walls and tarmac were designated as a site for celebration. In bright colours revolutionaries expressed their happiness on the streets. Images of flowers, flags and men breaking free of chains appeared on walls across the country. One of the most painfully colourful murals was painted on the walls of the Fine Arts Faculty in the posh neighbourhood of Zamalek. The ecstatic nature of such graffiti felt forced and shallow, contradicting with the revolutionary spirit of street art during the 18 days.
Once the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) violated rights and turned many against it, street art once again served to reflect updates in the political sphere. Graffiti provided contextual visuals that recorded the play-by-play of the revolution. From murals of martyrs by Ganzeer to Keizer’s witty, loaded icons, the city walls have developed as an open book overflowing with socio-political signage.
El-Teneen’s Black and White is not the first time for graffiti to move from the streets to the walls of a gallery. An exhibition dedicated to the art form new in Egypt was held in September in downtown Cairo. Cheekily called This is Not Graffiti, the Townhouse Gallery brought together in this exhibition some of the biggest names in street art: Hend Kheera, Sad Panda, Adham Bakry, Charles Akl Amr Gamal, Keizer, Dokhan, Hany Khaled and El-Teneen.
Ironically bringing street art indoors, the exhibition reflected the importance of graffiti in Egypt’s revolutionary society. Artists assembled murals that expressed their different styles. The cynical Sad Panda painted "Graffiti is street art, and this is not a street," while Keizer stencilled "everything you can imagine is real. Imagine a masterpiece."
The exhibition highlighted that graffiti is a free and diverse art that cannot be confined to a few walls within a gallery.
But painting political messages across city’s walls are still not sanctioned, even after Mubarak’s ouster. In May, Mohamed Fahmy (aka Ganzeer) was arrested alongside two other artists. In October a member of the April 6th political movement was detained by the military and charged with damaging public property and approaching a military area.
Still, attacks and arrest have not killed their spirit. Graffiti artist El-Teneen painted his first piece on 26 January 2011 and has been doing graffiti ever since. He believes street art is needed to keep the revolution alive.
"During times of oppression, like we are experiencing now, political street art points out injustice and reminds people of what we are fighting for,” El-Teneen commented to Ahram Online.
In December 2011, El-Teneen created a stencil of a "super-woman" with a blue bra and a red cape flying over her head, with her fist clenched in determination. The caption reads: "It continues," referring to the revolution. This mural was a reaction to the military soldiers' violent attack against protesters to end demonstration at the cabinet building, which resulted in the brutal stripping and beating of a woman, known ever since as "the woman with a blue bra."
El-Teneen comments to Ahram Online that “There are a lot of things happening these days, and good street art puts a spotlight on unforgettable events.”
While the main platform for activism in Egypt in recent years has been the web, with hundreds of "cyber activists" tweeting their opinions to people with Internet access, some activists are intent on spreading their views through the streets. Here, graffiti artists cross lines between activism and the arts.
“It gives people a chance to think about these events and perhaps re-interpret them,” says El-Teneen.
In order to combat the biased rhetoric of state media, street art has returned with full force this month, says El-Teneen.
A film screening campaign kicked off in December called Kazeboon (Liars) to counter what is portrayed in state media. Kazeboon screen in the middle of public squares video footage of police and military brutality against citizens during the revolution in an attempt to "expose the regime’s lies."
Street artists, in the same line, paint anti-SCAF messages across the walls, bringing the other side of the story to people on the streets.
"Especially after SCAF used the state media to brainwash Egyptians...the revolution had no option but to go back to the streets," says El Teneen. "So street art is naturally used as a weapon here."
Graffiti that emerged with Egypt's January 25 Revolution not only turned the people's demands into art, but the art, in turn, amplified the people's demands.
Electricity boxes and lampposts became the canvas for Egypt's revolution.
Graffiti is also found in Egypt's second city, Alexandria, and even in much smaller cities in various parts of the country.
More artists joined the graffiti bandwagon as the months rolled on and the revolution continued, documenting flagrant violations of rights, glorifying martyrs and revolutionaries and influencing the masses.
A year after the revolution exploded, the walls of Egypt reflect a long journey of struggle as the revolution continues.
The walls of Cairo today reflect a society that’s not on the same page. Revolutionaries resort to the walls in attempt to change the minds of the masses, while anti-revolutionists paint over their messages.
Today, many artists are toying with street art and curators invite it into their spaces, creating an artful paradox that makes you wonder: Does this specific art genre belong on the streets or within galleries?
In Black and White, El-Teneen showcases artwork that is not your typical graffiti; it is spray-painted on canvas, not a wall, and it is apolitical. Because the artists’ stencils depict familiar icons of Egyptian pop culture, rather than revolutionary messages, it is somewhat suited to the gallery setting.
Now until 2 March
13a, Marashly Street, Zamalek, Cairo