When walls talk: Documenting Egypt's revolutionary graffiti

Bel Trew, Sunday 23 Sep 2012

Street artists, photographers and activists on Saturday launch first printed collection of Egyptian revolutionary graffiti, visually documenting 18 months of political turmoil

Wall Talk
'Wall Talk' book collating Egypt's political graffiti launched Saturday (Photo: Ahram Online)

Just days after iconic graffiti on the walls of Cairo's Mohamed Mahmoud Street was mysteriously erased by the authorities, hundreds gathered at Shorouk bookstore in downtown Cairo on Saturday to mark the launch of 'Wall Talk,' a book documenting Egyptian revolutionary street art. 

Beginning on 1 January of last year, the 680-page photo-rich book outlines all the major historical events to have taken place in Egypt – and the artistic response to those events as painted on the walls of Cairo.

Egypt's graffiti artists, together with photographers and activists involved in the project, attended the event.

Ammar Abu-Bakr, one of the painters behind the famous Mohamed Mahmoud mural, Malek Mostafa, an activist who lost his eye during November's Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes, and Ghada Shahbender of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights all spoke at the event. Egyptian rap artist Ali Talibab finished the night with a street performance in the adjacent Talaat Harb Square.

The idea originated in a blog run by costume designer Maya Gowaily. She noticed that, immediately after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, "people came to clean Tahrir Square and they started cleaning the graffiti off the walls. I felt someone should document it before it was completely wiped out."

This had been a common reaction during the Mubarak era, Gowaily added, recalling how murals would generally last only one day before being obliterated by the state.

Gowaily realised that this was a concerted attempt by the authorities to literally white-wash discontent from the streets and co-opt the inevitable outpouring of national pride in a bid to pretend all was well.

"They weren’t wiping out things like 'I love Egypt' or 'Egypt is beautiful' – only the politically contentious slogans, such as 'game over Mubarak' and 'Mubarak go to hell'," she recalled.

Gowaily created an online page on which she published her own photos of the artistic response to Egypt's tumultuous political landscape. "Every piece had a story behind it, it was important to document these changes," she said.

All works of politically-relevant graffiti – from stencilled logos for women's rights to unique pieces by individual artists – were all scrupulously recorded.

Gowaily starting working with Sherif Boraie, the book's editor, to immortalise the iconic artwork in print.

"The book is simply a chronology of the revolution from a different perspective," Boraie explained. "I still feel that graffiti is probably the most honest and sincere expression of what has happened over the course of the last 18 months."

Boraie went on to explain how the street art evolved as a "constant response to what was happening; it was never static. Something would happen and there would be an artistic response on the street right away."

Even the way the walls were ultimately erased was a telling indicator of the times.

On Sunday, the government announced that the Mohamed Mahmoud Street art had been "accidentally" removed by a contractor. Boraie said that "the people who did the erasing – the workers who came in the middle of night – had refused to identify themselves."

He added: "It's a symbol of where Egypt is now; the fact that they would just go ahead and erase it the way they did is an indictment of the massacres of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which is obviously something they don't want to deal with."  

Proceeds from the book will go to media-collective and citizen journalism group Musireen, who have themselves indefatigably documented the revolution from the start of last year's popular uprising.

"We're aiming to give more support to the graffiti community, so we're arranging meetings with all artists and photographers to discuss how best to help," explains Lobna Darwish, a member of the collective.

"Street art means a lot to the revolutionaries," Darwish says, adding that it had been integral in keeping momentum going when the outlook had been most bleak.

"Whether through film screenings in the street, performances like this concert in Talaat Harb Square, or graffiti, one of our main battles has been reclaiming public space – this is what street art does," Darwish says.

Indeed, only hours after authorities unwittingly made Mohamed Mahmoud Street's walls a blank canvas, graffiti artists were already repainting it again, with groups gathering Friday to paint a new mural.

"We're obviously entering a new phrase of protests, and that requires new graffiti and dialogue," Boraie concludes. "The street art in the book represents these particular moments, and we're somewhere else right now."

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