Cairo’s most popular revolutionary graffiti artists came together with members of the public Friday to protest against the seven downtown army-built barricades by painting murals on them.
Following the theme of “drawing through the walls” as graffiti artist Hossam Shukrallah told Ahram Online, each artist painted imagined spaces that broke through the barriers onto their concrete canvases.
“This is the first time many of us done something this size, freehand and with perspective,” explained Shukrallah to Ahram Online.
“It’s a huge project. There are seven walls to paint. The most important thing is that the initiative is happening even if we don’t finish it,” explained Salma El-Tarzi 33, a local resident and Egyptian filmmaker who was part of the team coordinating the event. As she spoke, she was retouching a stencilled car in her Cairo street scene on the Youssef El-Guindy Street wall.
This wall is one of seven now blocking central Cairo around the Ministry of Interior. They were built between November last year and February this year by the military, after bloody crackdowns by Egypt’s security forces on the protesters.
The barricades have had a significant impact on the area, creating a maze of dead cul-de-sacs in Cairo’s busiest district. Residents and local businesses suffered. The public steered clear of the flashpoint area.
However, as the streets became pedestrianised, the walls inspired an explosion of street art with protesters immediately decorating them with revolutionary slogans. Activists also started stencilling familiar campaign images for initiatives like Kazeboon (Liars), the political street cinema movement and the No To Military Trials for Civilians group.
You would also see V For Vendetta symbols, stencilled faces of the revolutionary martyrs and graffiti about the Port Said football disaster which saw the deaths of over 74 Ahly football fans when police didn’t intervene in post match clashes.
At the end of February, artists Ammar Abu Bakr and Alaa Awad painted an extraordinarily elaborate freehand mural along the wall of the American University of Cairo building on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Several hundred metres long, it depicts the faces of the slain Ahly football fans, pharaonic imagery including the Ancient Egyptian scales of justice and Egypt’s security forces as a long snake.
Local residents and activists met weeks ago to come up with an initiative to deal with the walls. Although groups had succeeded on bringing down the Mohamed Mahmoud Street wall on 1 February, the newer walls are fortified with iron rods.
“As we can’t pull the walls down we can deliver the message that there are no walls, that the streets are open,” explained Mohamed El-Moshir, a well known graphic designer-cum-revolutionary street artist working on the Sheikh Rehan wall. El-Moshir headed up the Noon El-Niswah (the Arabic grammatical reference to the feminine form) feminist graffiti campaign and created many of the well-known revolutionary stickers.
The designs reflect the personality of each artist.
El-Tarzi’s plans for Youssef El-Guindy Street wall have used a mixture of stenciling and painting to create a stylized street scene. “The painting is political enough by itself, I don’t need to put in a direct political statement,” she explained.
Whereas Hossam Shukrallah, who created the Khalid Said graffiti on the Ministry of Interior building June last year, has painted the Palestinian Handala into his mural on the Fahmy street wall.
The Handala, created by Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali in the 1970s, is a symbol of the refugee children.
“If you saw any of the videos of Egypt during the year you would think it was Palestine: shooting in the streets, rocks and walls,” Shukrallah explained, “the Handala also reflects the idea of being occupied in your own country.”
Drawing the perspective on these 12ft walls is also difficult, particularly as there are few images with the correct angle of the streets. The teams of artists had to climb the walls and use tape to mark out the lines.
El-Moshir and Ammar Abu Bakr’s design on Sheikh Rehan Street is a continuation of the pavement, and buildings either side. They also included a stencilled picture of a man trying to save books from the neighbouring Egyptian Scientific Institute, which caught on fire during the December clashes with the army.
Protesters had set up human chains trying to rescue the books on the 17 December. However state media and the government blamed the demonstrators for the loss of thousands of books and used the event to defame the revolutionaries. “It will be a memory to the event,” added El-Moshir.
Other artists have taken a less literal view. “Zeft”, a well-known revolutionary street-artist, had already created a large rainbow with a silhouette of child and his dog sitting under it on the biggest wall, Mansour Street.
He returned on Friday to add more abstract hopeful imagery to the scene. Shapes of children play on a seesaw, a mother walks with her pram and birds fly in the “sky.” A man also offers a balloon to a girl, which is reminiscent of the British graffiti artist, Banksy’s creation “Balloon Girl” which Banksy famously painted on the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank, Palestine.
On Felaky Street, Abdul Rahman Magdy, 33, an art director who paints murals for a living inside buildings, was painting meta-graffiti. Not a usually a revolutionary street artist, he heard about the initiative and wanted to join in.
“The design is two guys drawing graffiti on a graffitied wall which will be painted on to the Felaky wall,” he explained, “We're not a country in war we shouldn’t have walls like his. The men will be painting the portholes of a boat, with sea and sky. The whole concept is hope.”
Friday also marked the anniversary of 9 March, when the military violently attacked a sit-in on Tahrir, and then detained, tortured and sexually assaulted protesters, including subjecting women to “virginity tests.” The walls are seen to many as part of the army brutality, particularly as they were all erected under heavy fire. The graffiti was part of several initiatives organised on the anniversary to remember the day.
Many of the events had an artistic focus. Four activists wore huge 10ft puppets of key figures from the current military regime, like de facto leader Field Marshal Tantawi, and performed a show by the Egyptian museum.
“We originally made a puppet of Tantawi for January 25, 2012 march,” says Shukrallah, “We met a guy in Mostapha Mahmoud who is a puppet maker so we went to Fayoum with him and for three weeks we have been making these huge puppets.”
No To Military Trials for Civilians, after their march from Mostapha Mahmoud mosque to Tahrir, organised a visual protest. Activists held A3 size pieces of yellow card above their heads, and stood at the end of Mohamed Mahmoud Street in the formation of the Arabic word for ‘No’ (La), which is part of their logo and slogan.
Ramy Essam the revolutionary singer, who was detained and tortured on March 9 in the Egyptian Museum, closed the day by performing on Tahrir. Ramy’s latest song is about the Mohamed Mahmoud Street wall.
“Graffiti is an important method of communicating your message on the streets to the people,” Essam explained, “Also through music. The songs other bands like Eskenderella and I sing are designed to encourage people to go back to the streets to fight for our rights. Music, Art, film it makes the people more brave. It delivers a message. Especially in a lull, Art is essential to the revolution."