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Public space negotiations: Art continues despite struggles

Having received a boost with the 2011 revolution, art in public space receded in 2014 as authorities insisted on security permits while issuing few

Rowan El Shimi, Sunday 28 Dec 2014
El Fan Midan
El-Fan Midan event in June 2013 (Photo: Monica Elashy)
Views: 3934
Views: 3934

Since the outbreak of the 2011 revolution, the question of public space has continued to be a hot topic: Who controls it, who defines the boundaries of what can be done in it, and who gets the final say.

In 2011, and in the following two years, there was a relative openness to public space — Cairene public space especially. The absence of security forces on the streets, along with the thirst of the public to reclaim public space for protests, informal markets, cyclists, runners, graffiti or street performances, was characteristic of the impact of the January 2011 uprising.

The end of 2013, along with most of 2014, saw not only a change in governance and a strong return of security forces to Cairo's streets, but also new challenges to public space and renegotiations on what is acceptable and what is not.

Gradually, with the return of the authorities' tight grip — especially in line with “Egypt fights terrorism” rhetoric — a clampdown on public space took shape. Street vendors were removed from most of Downtown Cairo and other neighbourhoods; photographers are questioned, journalists are arrested on duty, protests are attacked and protesters are imprisoned. There was even a famous incident where a mime artist was questioned by the police and where he responded in mime.

Not only did the challenges come from security personnel, but also passersby showed suspicion of anything out of the ordinary taking place on streets and sidewalks.

While it might feel like Egypt entered a dark time, and it arguably did, some artists continue to contest the situation and present their work in public space, despite everything.

Obituary for El-Fan Midan

Launched in 2011, El-Fan Midan (Art is a Square) set up a monthly one-day street festival for art in Abdeen Square in Cairo, and in other governorates.

Run by volunteers, the event was financially supported by the Ministry of Culture at its start in April 2011, but the amount offered kept shrinking until it was completely withdrawn leaving the initiative running on donations. Though in July 2014, current Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour announced the ministry would support the initiative again, according to one of the organisers of the initiative, Safaa Fekry, a security permit was not granted.

Security forces in Abdeen cited concerns that street vendors or the Muslim Brotherhood would attack the event and further requests for permits were refused.

After trying and failing to receive permits to host the event in Dokki, near the Agriculture Museum, the organisers suspended their Cairo events indefinitely, but continued in other governorates.

“That was until a halt came on our funds from the culture ministry,” Fekry told Ahram Online. She added that since they do not have a legal umbrella as an entity, they were receiving funds through the Sahara non-governmental organisation.

She added that they would be focusing more on documentation of past events. As organisers they feel very little support from the public, artists and media in the issue, they felt any “fight” with officials would be fought on their own.

Graffiti and street visual culture

Unlike the impression given by international media, Egypt street art was not born with the 2011 revolution. Graffiti art was present earlier, particularly throughout the 2000s, and duly chased by authorities. During the Mubarak era, graffiti was booming in Alexandria, as captured in Ahmad Abdalla's 2010 film Microphone.

However, graffiti witnessed a definite boom following the 2011 revolution. The temporary freedom obtained during the 2011 uprising allowed for artists to take to the streets and engage the public.

Many graffiti artists dropped their quick stencils and spent days publicly painting the streets. When in early 2012, the Mohamed Mahmoud Street wall and other barricades were erected in Cairo's Downtown, several artists, joined by non-professional volunteers, painted scenes of open streets to confront the walls erected by the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Luxor artists Ammar Abo Bakr and Alaa Awad painted murals on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, and returned to paint over them whenever political events demanded, reflecting the artists' political consciousness. Ganzeer also called on volunteers on several occasions to help him paint murals for the revolution's fallen martyrs.

While 2014 saw few to no additions in the graffiti scene, some artists, such as Ganzeer, El-Teneen and the Mona Lisa Brigades collective, painted a still standing mural on Kasr El-Nil Street in Downtown opposite the new club/art hub Vent.

Sameh's sandwich kiosk as exhibited during Heytan Graffiti space opening (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)

For the launch of graffiti-dedicated art space Heytan, artist Mohamed El-Moshir and Amira El-Asmar showcased their street art project 'El-Kefahteya' where they worked with Downtown street vendors to use art in helping them brand themselves, adding portraits of them to several walls near where they work.

In May 2014, The Guardian published an article on several international graffiti artists along with Egyptian ones,creating works against Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi when running for the presidency.

Television presenter Osama Kamel commented on The Guardian piece on Al-Qahira Wal Nas satellite channel, highlighting artist Ganzeer, showing his photograph and revealing real name. He accused the artist of being a Muslim Brotherhood member and questioned whether these artists should be left to “do as they please.”

Ganzeer responded with a blog post demanding an apology from the channel and that Kamel's show be cancelled, a demand which was not met.

El Teneen
El-Teneen's 2011 graffiti (left) and 2014 graffiti (right). Photos: Courtesy of El-Teneen

Anonymous graffiti artist working under the pseudonym of El-Teneen (The Dragon) painted his last piece as a graffiti artist — at least for the time being — in September. The artist altered in a new version of one of his most iconic pieces. The original, painted in early 2011, featured a chessboard with pawns standing together, and the king on the opposite side upside down, showing his defeat. In the 2014 version, the artist puts the king in the middle of the board, strong, with the pawns around him.

“Eventually I felt anything you put out on the streets has little impact,” El-Teneen told Ahram Online. “People don't want to stop and think in a different way as much as they simply stop and label whoever did it as a Brotherhood member or something.”

“Perhaps the only highlight of graffiti this year has been the publishing of Walls of Freedom,” he added, referring to the crowdfunded book on graffiti in Egypt by Don Stone and Basma Hamdy. The book was widely supported by Egyptian graffiti artists.

On performance art and rising suspicions

Street performance arts enjoyed a greater presence in Egypt's earlier decades, a phenomenon later diminishing. The 1990s saw such art frequently in public space, such as puppetry and musical performances, mainly in the countryside.

The post-revolution years saw a revival in this art form, as well as keener understanding of its importance. While some performing arts continued in public space in 2014, the numbers were lower compared to the preceding three years.

Mahatat for Contemporary Art, an initiative focused on creating platforms for art in public space and decentralising art from the capital, successfully hosted several events. In May, the initiative hosted several shows of “The Wonderbox” curated by filmmaker and activist Aida El-Kashef, a storytelling device allowing people to peak through holes in two boxes to see visuals of stories as they are being performed to music.

The Wonderbox

In October and December respectively, Mahatat also toured with artists in Damietta, Mansoura, Port Said and Cairo, presenting art in public spaces. The first tour featured Abo Kareem Marching Band along with El-Kousha Puppet Troupe, while the second featured jam sessions between Cairo's El-Mazzikateya and local musicians from the cities they visited.

Portsaid Art of transit

Unlike Mahatat's previous projects in 2012, which took performing arts such as interactive theatre, contemporary dance, mime and clowns to the Cairo Metro and video art screenings in public squares, in their 2014 initiatives they focused on getting the necessary permits.

During an interview with Ahram Online in September, Mahatat executive director Heba El-Chiekh said that on recent tours, and for the first time, the initiative needed permits from the authorities to host their shows.

“From our experience, people receive art in public space very positively,” El-Cheikh said. “There is still opportunity and room, people are there waiting and excited about it.”

During this year's third edition of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), a multidisciplinary art festival happening in April, D-CAF's organisers also needed to take permits for their public space performances.

According to D-CAF artistic director Ahmed El-Attar, hosting events in public space was more challenging this year due to the security situation. D-CAF had freely hosted events in its first edition and was only requested to notify authorities in its second. This year, D-CAF had to obtain a permit and hire police forces to protect events, a procedure that made the execution of the entire initiative more difficult.

Outa Hamra

Outa Hamra (Red Tomato), a theatre troupe that has presented interactive theatre performances and clown shows in public spaces since 2011, tried to avoid hosting their shows in public space in 2014 and opted for semi-public spaces, such as local youth centres, instead.

Outa Hamra member and co-founder actor Aly Sobhy told Ahram Online that this decision was in reaction to changed circumstances.

“We don't want to put ourselves or our partners in any danger,” he said, adding he expected even further control on the part of security forces of public space art in the future.

So while many artists continue to search for alternatives and loopholes, to try to salvage whatever freedoms are left within Egyptian public space, it seems 2015 might be even more challenging.

“There is an attempted assassination of art, culture and civil society,” El-Fan Midan's Fekry told Ahram Online, adding that the authorities seem to have no issue with commercial public events such as Maadi Road Nine's weekly festival.

“2015 will continue the suppression, but we have to keep trying,” she concluded.

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