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Book Review: Graffiti ... The revolutionary approach explained

A new book by artist and activist Heba Helmy attempts to "preserve" revolutionary graffiti before it is too late

Dina Kabil, Saturday 16 Mar 2013
Gowaya Shaheed
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Gowaya chahid (Martyr Inside Me), by Heba Helmy, Cairo: Dar Al-Ain, 2013.

The essence of this beautiful book of photographs by Heba Helmy is the marriage of documentation and personal testimony. It attempts to capture the intangible, since one of the main motives of the author is saving graffiti and the moment of seizing power. That's what she asks in the book, how to preserve graffiti, tell its honest story as part of the official history of the revolution? "So far, the Egyptian government has fought against street art, spending huge sums to clear it; how can it be saved?" She asks.

This is not the first book on Revolutionary graffiti; there have been five others, two by the photographer and writer Cherif Abdel Meguid, then a collective work by the author "Walls shout," and a final one by Swedish writer Mia Grondhal. But Heba Helmy's is the first of its kind as it shows off the talents of the painters through the artistic design of the book and its vision of the exhibition photos. The photographs shows "respect" to the nature of this wall-art by printing it, following the Japanese technique, over four pages of the book. This allows it to give full dimension of the "real" graffiti in its live context (the ratio of wall drawings to the buildings and the street) and reflects the depth of the shot, as in the example of the graffiti in the famous Mohamad Mahmoud street.

The documentation of graffiti in this book is based on a distinct vision; an identification between the revolutionary process and the lineage of graffiti. It shows the very first graffiti that accompanied the January 25 revolution (statements on walls such as "Be with the Revolution"), then the public discovery of arrests of civilians and subjecting them to military trials. Here she focuses on the end of the honeymoon period between the people and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), revealing graffiti that accompanied the campaign "No to military trials to civilians." Then there's the graffiti of the army spreading in Tahrir Square during the anniversary of the murder of Khaled Said June 6, 2011, and protesters go out under the call for "Eradicating, purify the Ministry of the Interior," where we see the painting with words like "flank" and on the walls of the ministry itself: "The police, they are thugs, Baltaguia" Through the massacre of Maspero, where a lot of graffiti depicts the martyr, Mina Daniel, and sit-ins of Mohamad Mahmoud (the enormous graffiti of Ammar Abu-Baker of eyes of freedom in allusion to the revolutionaries who have lost their eyes during this sit-in) and the Council of Ministers, Kasr Al-Aini. Helmy goes all the way to the call for a general strike on 11 February 2012.

As if following the historical timeline of graffiti, she traced the route of the graffiti activists. She explicitly honors graffiti creators, unknown "soldiers" of the revolution, in the dedication to the Glory and its Turbulence at the beginning of the book.

Fully experience the change

Personal testimony? Naturally. Helmy lived the events from day to day, not only as an artist trying to live fully in the moment of change, but also as an activist in the ranks of revolutionary socialists. She wrote a very significant testimony on the realisation of major "unexpected events" on January 25. Previously, very similar riots organized by the opposition were constantly cut short, but "it was the only space allowed. That was the beginning." Appropriating the streets again is the challenge of the moment and these initiatives that document the victory of street art are the real witnesses.

Originally published in Al-Ahram Hebdo.

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