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Egyptian street art in search of a code of ethics

A recent graffiti event in downtown Cairo organised by the Women on Walls campaign has sparked controversy

Soha Elsirgany and Walt Curnow, Tuesday 7 Apr 2015
Women on Walls
One of the artists participating in Women on Wall paints on Youssef El-Guindy street (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)
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This week, the Women on Walls initiative organised a five-day graffiti event in downtown Cairo, calling on street artists and the general public to create graffiti under the theme of women unchained.

The event was part of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, and brought together street artists from Egypt as well as several other countries to paint their pieces on two walls of the Greek Campus.

The main wall allocated for the project is on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a road that has become synonymous with revolutionary graffiti, while the other is on Youssef El-Guindy Street, a side street that leads off Mohamed Mahmoud.

Swedish journalist Mia Grondahl, who has lived in Egypt for a decade and is the author of the photography book Revolution Graffiti, began the Women on Walls project with culture manager Angie Balata after the 2011 revolution with the aim of combating the scarcity of female artists and female representation in street art.

The campaign aims at empowering women, encouraging female graffiti artists in patriarchal societies to make the streets their canvas, and sparking awareness and discussion of various women’s issues through greater representation in street art.

Today, the project has an active branch in Jordan and has toured many Egyptian governorates, as well as internationally, and initiating campaigns in Egypt and around the world.

Out of over 17,000 photos of graffiti in her archives, about 200 were by female artists or represented women, Grondahl told Ahram Online, adding that currently the project operates with “a network of around 60 people who we inform when we have funding for a new project, and every project there is around 25 people joining.”

This year's Women on Walls event, which was supported by the Swedish Institute, has however triggered a heated debate which raises questions about street art.

By virtue of the controversial venue, the genre’s nature, and the relative newness of street art in Egypt, it is not surprising that emotions are running high.

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Women on Walls, day 1 of the project, Mohamed Mahmoud street, April 2015. (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)


Sensitivity or territorialism?

The immediate aims of this project seem clear at first. Since the revolution, sexual assault and abuse have increased and women and girls frequently feel threatened. The Women on Walls event offers young female artists a rare chance to express themselves freely on the street.

But some have criticised this year's choice of location. Many young protesters died in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which was a site of particularly violent clashes with police in November 2011. For this reason, some street artists have objected to the decision to locate the Women on Walls event, a funded project, in the same location.

On the first day of the project, a message was left on the GrEEK campus wall in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, reading: “This street is a necropolis. Only here no commercial graffiti is allowed.”

Ammar Abo Bakr, a well-known street artist whose works have been present on Mohamed Mahmoud Street since 2011, wrote on Facebook that the walls represent a “graveyard for martyrs” and that the area should not be used for “commercial graffiti.”

He also alleges that in some cases, work for the Women on Walls project has painted over older graffiti.

Abo Bakr’s feelings were shared by a number of other artists who posted comments and photos on social media in objection to the Women on Walls project.

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Women on Walls, founder of GrEEK Campus Ahmed El-Alfy steps in to remove graffiti insulting Mia Grondahl on Youssef El-Guindy street. April 2015. (Photo: David Cordova)

Grondhal however argues her choice is justified.

“This is like a territorial thing now,” Grondahl commented. “The walls have been divided between the graffiti artists since the revolution. They have divided the streets between themselves.”

“It is important to find safe areas and walls that are secure, especially working with young women on the streets. We needed places where we could get the approval. We are not into the hide and seek with the police, we are more focused on making street art that everybody can enjoy,” she said.

Other artists involved with the project were keen to support Grondahl's vision.

Carolina Falkholt, a Swedish artist who has supported the project since it started, told Ahram Online that “the energy of graffiti -- working with spray and the streets -- always [includes] this polemic. It’s a global thing, it’s everywhere.”

Hayat Chaaban, a Lebanese artist participating in Women on Walls, agrees that she would be upset if some of the artists painted over the old work. “I chose the wall up there,” she said, pointing to a location high above the street where she is painting, adding that “it’s clean, there’s no old graffiti on it."

Dina Saadi, a Russian-Syrian artist based in Dubai who is participating in the project on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, was seemingly painting in the middle of the old artwork, but said that this was not the case.

“This part of the wall was already white washed. I’m not painting over any artwork, and I’m actually trying to incorporate my piece with the surrounding ones,” she said.

Saadi is painting an unlocked heart, with no limitations, in line with the unchained theme.

The drawing directly above hers is an elaborate eye. “I will draw an eye as well in my piece so it will look good and relevant with this piece above it,” she told Ahram Online.

Hashem El-Kalesh, an artist contacted by Women on Walls in order to connect with his wide network of artists, told Ahram Online that: “we are respecting the old art."

"There is the photo exhibition by Mia (Grondahl) that shows archival photos of past graffiti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street,” he said.

"I’m going to get a lot of enemies saying this now but I respect the feelings here because this is a special place, there’s a lot of feeling in this area. We have been very clear about this...street art is not a thing that is forever. I think it would be the right thing to do to just make new graffiti. We are not creating a museum in the street," Grondahl said.

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Mohamed Mahmoud street named "necropolis" by some graffiti artists. (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)


Defining street art

The funding provided to Women on Walls has seemed to add to the controversy, with some voices accusing Grondahl of choosing the “commercial” path.

Academics and curators who work on street art often tackle the issue of how it is defined and whether commercial aspects changes it nature.

Martin Irvine, who wrote The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture in 2012, writes that the forces surrounding street art expose questions regarding public space, the role of communities and cultural institutions, as well as arguments about the nature of art and its relation to the public.

According to an article on the Victoria and Albert Museum website, commenting on one of their street art collections, this art form is elusive and difficult to pin down. Although defined by its outsider status, some galleries are now exhibiting it, and thus shifting the rules. Today, street art includes the spontaneous expressions as well as the commercially driven works.

“The one defining feature of the genre is its accessibility. It is unexpectedly available for view on the boarded up windows on your high street, or shared on the internet for all to see,” the article states.

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Artwork by Dina Saadi on Mohamed Mahmoud street. (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

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