Vigilante art - Graffiti in Egypt

Heba Habib, Monday 1 Nov 2010

Graffiti can be defined as being inscriptions, slogans and drawings; scratched, scribbled or painted on a wall or other public or private surface

Urban art is now a widespread phenomenon around the major metropolis and urban centres of the world and certain forms of it could be said to have existed for millennia. Graffiti can be defined as being inscriptions, slogans and drawings; scratched, scribbled or painted on a wall or other public or private surface. The word "graffiti" is derived from the Latin word "graphium", which means "to write." The term "graffiti" was originally used by archaeologists to describe drawings and writings found on ancient buildings and monuments in Pompeii, Egypt and in the Roman catacombs.

There are certainly many such scrawlings around Cairo, mostly consisting of advertisements for a variety of services, religious platitudes, football club slogans and occasionally amusing folk sayings. Also common are murals painted on public school gates and depictions of the Hajj pilgrimage and the ‘Khamsa’ or the hand of Fatima to ward off the evil eye. But graffiti that can be found in other cities is more of a rarity, the sort of graffiti associated with the hip-hop movement and the aspiration to turn oppressive urban spaces into vehicles for expression. In a way this form of graffiti, as well as street-art, can be considered “an equalization of expression in public contexts” as held by art critic Crispin Sartwell. In a world where only money or political power can purchase commercial space – street artists are artistic thieves in the best 'Robin Hoodesque' sense of the word – stealing expanses of ugly urban space in the name of freedom of expression and turning them into places of public discourse standing against bland authoritarianism. And slowly but surely a graffiti/street-art movement of this variety is emerging in Cairo and Alexandria, despite often clashing with governmental forces, as with the case of two graffiti artists from the opposition group known as April 6 Youth, Ahmad Maher and Amr Ali who were arrested for spray painting political slogans on Feb 17, 2010.

Also worth mentioning is small group named Alex Street Art, which organizes graffiti workshops based in Alexandria. The group, a brainchild of fine arts student Aya Tarek, started off in 2008 as a graffiti-art collective known as Foq wa Taht (Above and Below) on the groups' blog Tarek explains that her intention behind founding the workshops is “to build an organised Egyptian street-art movement. The majority of Egyptians have never been to an art gallery in their lives, simply because the art presented in such white cubes doesn’t reflect them; it doesn’t reflect their realities. It’s mostly westernised and made for the enjoyment of certain highly-sophisticated people. Art should not be limited, it should open to everyone, and so if Egyptians still fail to reach art, we will bring art to them, to a wall just around the corner,” she maintains. Gradually the movement is building up momentum with workshops and graffiti-related events being organised by prominent cultural centres all over Cairo with the aim of prompting more and more people to create much needed art for the street - an art defined by its lack of elitism – true vigilante art.

But can we consider state-sponsored events like the graffiti workshops organised last August at the Mahmoud Mokhtar museum to be beneficial to the promotion of street-art? It seems to go against the organic freewheeling spirit of the art form to have it taught and displayed in galleries especially during its inception. Graffiti did spread through imitation as I discovered on talking to Hize, a Spanish graffiti artist who was part of Townhouse galleries series of events pertaining to urban culture, especially through a pivotal book by Henry Chalfont which chronicled the origins of graffiti in New York but nonetheless this imitation was still by individuals unsupported by any organisation So it remains to be seen if it will really catch on and become an authentic part of the Egyptian urban landscape as opposed to yet another lacklustre imitation of the Western world.

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