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Art, subcultures and the reinvention of public space

What the authoritarian forces lingering from the former regime cannot abide most, because they can't control it, is the humor and color of the cultural revolution in Egypt

Mona Abaza, Sunday 24 Jul 2011
Tahrir Graffiti
Tahrir Graffiti
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Doubt is widespread on how long the present transitional phase will last and whether it ought to be still perceived as a transitional phase. Many think that we are just at the beginning of a much longer and complex process, of an incomplete revolution where urban space wars will play a decisive role in the times ahead. But there seems to be consensus on the concerns and worries held regarding the near future.

The real cleaning up of the “debris” of the ancient regime has not really been done, and here are the major concerns. First, the worry that the revolution can be easily hijacked by newcomers who suddenly mushroomed while they were clearly inexistent during the whole revolution.

There is much uncertainty about the wide discrepancy between the verbally supportive discourse of the military establishment for the revolution and the perpetuation of military trials and mass detentions of protesters since January. Emergency law still prevails, the continuation of violations of human rights is obvious, YouTube testifying to the torture of protesters and the undertaking of virginity tests on females among them by the army, the dubious continuation of a brutal internal security and police system that reemerged with even more repressive weapons to attack protesters as if no revolution happened.

Continuous delay in serious trials of old regime cronies and corrupt figures, and high placed internal security officers responsible for the mass killings of protesters and previous torture cases like that of Khaled Said. Transparency in the trials of the Mubaraks is one major demand of the Tahrir masses, which seems so far clearly circumvented by the military establishment.

This is why there seems to be for now no other alternative but for Tahrir to continue to be a site of protest until these demands are met. This said, for those who think that nothing has really changed, and for those who are pessimistic about the future, it is true that the struggle is not going to be easy, but I would like to point here to some observations that encourage optimism. Let us leave aside politics for a short time since the return of politics in our everyday lives can easily lead to obsessive fixations. Let us look at the field of culture and the arts.

The point of no return is felt more than ever in the transformation of the psychological mindset of Egyptians thanks to the mesmerising power of having succeeded in the insurrection against tyranny. It is the fact of “having lost fear” that future governments, the military, the internal security apparatus and cabinets will have to cope with. The transformation of the psychological set up in which the element of fear has been shaken off could be translated into "the sky is the limit". And if there is a visible transformation, it is, I think, most pervasive in the cultural sphere. It is expressed in the blossoming and daring youth subcultures and artistic expressions, which Tahrir magically released. These have opened new visionary paths and dreams that will be difficult to suppress.

Art is by nature visionary and it is simply blooming today. Whether rap musicians or zaar singers during the last days of the revolution, whether it is Rami Essam, or the producers of the  “song of the revolution” spread via YouTube, or whether they are the newly created numerous youth singing groups, whether it is in sardonic slogans, or the rhymes of fantastic improvised poetry, in the drawings and in writings and the placards that mesmerised the entire world, whether it is in pro-revolution installations and art exhibitions that took place in Europe, or in the fantastic ironic graffiti that blossomed in the city and which one can follow on the Facebook page “Revolution Graffiti”, all these subcultures cannot fortunately be simply suppressed by military orders, or by repainting walls.

Graffiti is perceived as an underworld, clandestine art; it is a forbidden act for the guardians of public order, cleanliness and the official version of history. Yet it is one of the most fascinating means for dissenting ideas and innovative images to be made public while retaining anonymity, since graffiti is often not signed. Who would have believed that the monumental administration building, the colossal mugamaa, could have been turned into the archetypal space for expressing creativity and dissent? Who could have thought of colourful ironic anti-government satirical paintings on the mugamaa´s walls? Who would have believed that we can speak today of "mugamaa graffiti” that caught the attention of many, amongst whom the downtown visionary Pierre Sioufi known for his courage in sheltering hundreds in his flat overlooking Tahrir during the revolution.

Coincidently, graffiti turned out to be a major theme that was approached with great intelligence and sensitivity in the recent film of Ahmed Abdallah, Microphone, which has already won several awards. English slogans interplaying with Arabic language, placards, public drawings, public demands, jokes after jokes, painting one´s body and face as a site of protest and making out of one´s body an iconic site, all these reveal how public space and with it public expression is taking a new turn.

Tahrir for sure remains the greatest inspiration for photography. If AUC Press has already published in less than six months after the revolution three photography books and a calendar, the numerous exhibitions that took place at various cultural centres, private art galleries, universities and state institutions, in addition to the courageous and inspiring work of many activists and bloggers, photo journalists, or simply amateurs who displayed the most catching photos of Tahrir, via Facebook, blogs and the internet teach us two things: first, that the status of photography is undergoing a fascinating positive evolution in Egypt after long decades of marginalisation, suspicion and association with either “spying” or debasing “locals” through making them curiosity objects. Photography was rather devalued for being a practice mostly restricted to the privileged Western exotic gaze. Tahrir made it possible for photography to be appropriated by the Egyptians masses, to be democratised, paradoxically with the very tools of mass culture. Also, the numerous exhibitions that took place during the last few months are food for thought as to how to assess in future photographic displays as collective, collaborative works with multiple and yet merging narratives and paths, which could be displayed in novel ways in public space and in street installations.

Furthermore, we more than ever witnessed collective artists painting floors and instigating new perspectives in public installations, such as the Talaat Harb mural by the Young Artists Coalition on YouTube, produced by Pierre Kattar. We also witnessed a wonderful collective work on YouTube by numerous actors who narrated in a lyrical style the moments of the revolution in Baladna bil Masry, “Operette Hikayat Al-Thawra”.

Then the idea of creating a Tahrir cinema was born, followed by creating “an archive of material and footage” to be "stored in public” as explained by an article in Ahram Online.

All these public performances coincide with the remarkable popularity of the TedxCairo lectures that are conceived to encourage visionary perspectives and inspiring storytelling. It is yet another public performance. Amongst its most inspiring speakers, were Wael Ghoneim and Bassam Youssef, another sardonic, brilliant YouTube video maker who documented the Tahrir days in his peculiar highly ironic style, reaching out to thousands of viewers via just one tiny room that he divided up into part studio and part space for hanging the family washing. Beautiful ironic Monatov is another young female YouTube video maker worthy of praise. Once again, through her great lightness of being, Monatov exposed the lies and madness of the media in the first days of the revolution in her “Agmad Aflam El-Mosem" and “Gaddafileaks” where she produced a biting parody of Muammar Gaddafi.

All these examples have a common denominator. They are reinventing new and real public spaces which are merging with a virtual imaginary, and yet these are public spaces that refer and happen in collective performances and actions. Through displaying in public the grievances, the demands, the performances and the knowledge for “public archives”, as a form of knowledge through which “nobody needs permits anymore”, as Omar Robert Hamilton stated to Ahram Online (22 July 2011), these practices converge towards new ways of imagining and practicing democratic advocacy. These novel practices associated with public visibility and imagery through collective performances, and in which humour is sovereign, remain though most dreaded and uncontrollable for authoritarianism, since history tells us that it has eternally been the antithesis to humour.

The writer is a professor of sociology at AUC and is currently at Lund University in Sweden.

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