Uncovering the face of faceless art: On Egypt's graffiti artist Keizer, the ant and the city

Ati Metwaly , Saturday 10 Dec 2016

With the ant being his mascot, or logo, Keizer’s large body of work includes thematic content that ranges from political and social issues to abstract forms, as well as urban manipulations

The ant, graffiti artist Keizer's mascot and logo, artwork on display at Cairo's Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

At the beginning there was an ant. The ant crawled onto the wall of an abandoned, half-damaged kiosk in the Cairo neighbourhood of Dokki; it started examining the passers-by as they rushed to their destinations. Everyone seemed busy – men, women and children – as they moved in a predefined direction, at a precise pace. The ant understood that in this socially organised whole, everyone had a role to fulfill, everyone knew how to channel their energy as they were reduced to functions and numbers, carrying the illusion of an identity that they would gradually be stripped of. 

The people who thus turned into a colony continued to move swiftly before the ant, reminding it of its own species: workers, soldiers and queens. As the ant watched the growing formicary and pondered the destiny of each passer-by emerging from it, autumn winds started speaking of social mobilisation. Then came the January 2011 Revolution. While the colony called for the fall of the regime in millions, the ant started multiplying. The voices in the city amplified, and more ants spread to more walls, bringing with them the word “Keizer” – an alternative signature of the prime-ant creator.

The ant is Keizer’s mascot or logo. It is also a representation of the “faceless people,” as he puts it, and a symbol of those who are “marginalised by capitalism, become increasingly less seen or recognised, as governments are taking individuality away very rapidly, and with them they take rights and freedoms.”

In the heat of the revolution, the Egyptian graffiti artist came to the limelight with his stencil of an ant, but in the following months and years, his works developed to cover a wide range of visual ideas, signed either Keizer or with the ant. 

Keizer is recognised for many other works, among them the word “Capitalism” written in the Coca Cola font, a Snow White holding a Kalashnikov, women demanding their rights, activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah saying “Don’t forget me,” Umm Kalthoum reminding us that art is not a sin, the ultimatum “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance,” a large representation of Leon Trotsky, a picture titled “Drugged” showing a capsule with Facebook's logo, or the phrase “You Are Beautiful,” which has touched passers-by.

Keizer also creates work inspired by calligraphy, geometrical shapes, and explores urban manipulations. And though, at the peak of graffiti, many other artists – Ganzeer, Sad Panda, El Teneen, Nazeer, Zeft, Ammar Abu Bakr etc – took their creativity, social and political commentaries and frustrations and occasional dosage of hope, to the streets, Keizer remains active in Egypt, six years later.

Keizer's artwork on display at Cairo's Mashrabia Gallery. Exhibition 'Anthology' 16 October - 30 November 2016 (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Keizer’s large body of work includes thematic content that ranges from political and social issues to abstract forms, expressed visually, in text or through a mixture of both. His creative impulses can go as far as infusing graffiti with calligraphy and geometry; some of his works incorporate minimalist thinking, others use the language of dada to reject standards or to form poignant contradictions; others still fuse heritage with modernity.

It also so happens that, one day, Keizer emerges from the streets and displays his work in a gallery. This is when the viewer has the opportunity to be close to Keizer’s creative essence while the artist can secure the funds necessary for further creative endeavours. His most recent exhibition, which took place at Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo’s Downtown and closed 30 November, was titled “Anthology.”

In it, in a few steps, Keizer walked us on the ant’s journey through many creative transformations: thought-provoking pieces, frustration with oppression or capitalism or shocking contradictions which, as he explains, “create an eruption of doubt.” 

Rather than making political statements, the exhibition took a lighter note and showcased the artist’s conceptual versatility and creative development. This procedure allows Keizer to escape from being strictly classified as a political artist, without jeopardising his individuality or challenging the presence of his creative voice and its history in Egypt’s still very young graffiti movement.

Keizer’s iconic “Donkey Departure” greets us at the entrance to the gallery, before we move towards a set of poignant contradictions: the seemingly innocent Snow White stencil, on a sweet pink background, holding a weapon; guitars falling from a military plane in a piece entitled Musical Warfare.

On the other hand, the scream of painful satire can be heard in a work that depicts a group of people worshipping Nutella. The exhibition also presented a number of calligraphic works which, though hardly new to viewers, always redirect the eye to the beauty of Arab heritage.

Keizer does not reveal much of his background; we won’t hear him talk about his family, educational background or jobs prior to becoming a graffiti artist. We can, however, understand him better by navigating the map of works of literature and art that have touched his soul, and looking at the travels that have enriched him on the personal level, ranging from a few months to a couple of years in Peru, Australia and South East Asia as well as Europe and the US.

Keizer reveals that his teenage years were strongly inspired by Salvador Dali and Picasso. Then he began to discover less commercial artists. His interest in political propaganda and its materialisation in the art of posters, including those coming from the CCCP (Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), comes as no surprise.

Keizer's artwork on display at Cairo's Mashrabia Gallery. Exhibition 'Anthology' 16 October - 30 November 2016 (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Further discussion brings up the name of Aldous Huxley, “a big humanitarian, a sensitive soul who reminds me of one of my favourites, Carl Jung. And of course there is George Orwell, who is more of an anthropologist, a social experimenter. He likes going into the depth of darkness, to experience it and come out of it. Huxley, however, is grander.”

Keizer’s eyes twinkle when he talks about the 1960s and the 1970s, and his interest in the civil rights movements that took place in those decades, about their culture, fashion, poets and writers. He then moves onto select reads from his obviously profuse bookshelf, citing such names as Hunter S Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky, emphasising the latter’s youth, “when he was more courageous, outspoken, supporting his views with strong arguments and wanting to implement them. Later in life, he focuses on theory and not application. That’s not bad, we need theory as well.”

With many examples, art genres and conceptual transformations, Keizer’s list of influences is long, expanding also to the American songwriter and artist, Bob Dylan.

He underlines, however, that he also cherishes traditional art and vintage material. It is in this context that we can see Keizer’s experimentation with calligraphy and symmetry, which though it looks like Arabic script, does not consist of recognisable letters or words. This calligraphy is probably the best testimony to Keizer’s ability – and need – to embrace both past and present, heritage and modernity.

“I think I have been influenced by everything I see and experience, from visual art to audio and to everything that comes into play with the world of art,” he comments.

As he continues to venture, his vast body of work helps him escape from being pigeon-holed or classified. “I do not want to be dubbed a political artist. This would mean death for my career as an artist as I would be obliged to keep going politically regardless of the reality.” Keizer adds that there are many more factors that have contributed to his development, allowing him to appreciate beauty and other aesthetics besides.

Six years on, Keizer continues to explore, experiment and surprise passers-by as much as himself, never unveiling his true identity or face to the public. “My face is not public property,” he comments, adding that “my art speaks for itself and my face has nothing to do with it.”

However, beyond his belief in the right to privacy – a value abandoned by artists trapped in the commercial dynamic – and the need to ensure his own personal security, Keizer has been planning to live off the grid for some time already.

“I’m almost there … though in our world it is impossible to be completely off the grid. I don’t have a credit card, I do not receive bills. I don’t believe in a banking system. I buy prepaid cards for my phone, I dont pay taxes for my work, I use my bike or walk more than I drive a car,” he comments. Living in a society where in many ways he is forced to be a consumer, he remains conscious of what products he buys and who the producer is. “I constantly try to do my homework, as much as I can and find alternatives for things we believe are irreplacable.”

Keizer's artwork on display at Cairo's Mashrabia Gallery. Exhibition 'Anthology' 16 October - 30 November 2016 (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

With the rapid growth of the consumerist lifestyle, Keizer’s ideology might sound utopian to many. However, further exploration of his mind will reveal that at the heart of his thought lies a belief in harmony as expressed through a collective community whose members take care of each other, sharing together and that cooperates together.

“Egypt has this magic. It has this quality, even though we see it less and less now. People still know how to care for each other, a fact which partly results from the government turning their back on them. There is still some symbiosis, even if, in general and unfortunately, harmony is challenged right now. We are moving towards the Western mentality, glorification of ‘acting busy' and being passive observers. Spirituality, be it religion or any representation of ethics towards people and the community, is fading.”

But despite the downslide of many such aspects of life, Keizer still believes in harmony and humanity, values which directly feed his art.

My optimism has to do with my idealism rather than the Egyptian situation per se. I’ll always be defending universal issues of oppression and injustice --issues that have to do with Egypt,but at the world at large as well, whether its societal, political, satire or women’s rights. I’m in touch with a lot of political movements, young people; I can feel the pulse of the street. I was more optimistic before, thinking there was a chance for another uprising. Maybe I was one of the last people to wake up and accept the current reality,” he comments, pointing to several other factors that trigger his thoughts and artistic rhythm.

The first ant – his optimal symbol of frustration against the loss of individuality and therefore the loss of humanity – appeared hardly two months prior to the revolution and though back then he had been experimenting, he seems to have found himself at the right moment in Egypt’s socio-political history. Though the revolution generated a great boost in terms of exposure to graffiti, music, photography and other arts, the perspective of time has shown that those who utilised the hype and the media to their benefit burned out very quickly. As a result, today most Egyptian graffiti artists of 2011-2013 have either left the country or remain dormant.

Keizer says that though the general interest of the international community in the graffiti artists’ work at that time did undeniably bring much needed attention to his experiments, he never felt comfortable with the kind of showmanship to which many of his peers eventually succumbed.

Keizer's artwork on display at Cairo's Mashrabia Gallery. Exhibition 'Anthology' 16 October - 30 November 2016 (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Though Keizer feels lucky that at one point the revolution boosted his art, he chose to continue even when international eyes turned away from the country.

“When people start noticing you, you start feeling this pressure that certain ideas have to be skipped in favour of other, more important ideas. As an artist, one needs to be selfish at times and do something that you like for the sake of artistic value or whatever you believe in. You cannot be selfless all the time.”

He gives an example of his Townhouse Gallery show back in 2011, when he was offered a huge wall to create. Instead of filling it with colours and iconic stencils recognised by his followers, Keizer wrote a quote from Picasso: “Everything You Can Imagine Is Real”, and beneath it, in parentheses, “imagine a masterpiece.”

He recalls this experience as one of the big surprises to his audience with some viewers complementing the idea and others expressing disappointment. “I never give the audience what they want,” he comments.

Protecting his identity and creativity, Keizer does not leave viewers without the right to respond. In fact, being a big believer in graffiti as the most democratic art form, Keizer is always happy when his work triggers a response, even – maybe especially – when this response comes as the whitewashing of the wall. In fact it is through whitewashing that he can see how big an impact his work created. And while in a sense he loses his piece, Keizer believes that the graffiti artist should not have any attachment to work that is already out there, as this is when it no longer belongs to him.

He is never without pleasure; he enumerates numerous instances of catharsis that he experiences while creating his art. “It is therapeutic when I draw a pattern, then apply it. Then there is the great pleasure that comes with its release to the world, when I take the stencil off the wall and see the final work. There is also the pleasure of getting away with it,” he laughs.

With the end of Mashrabia exhibition, Keizer will go back to the streets. Though we will never know when and where his work will appear, he does assure us that in the next few weeks he will be exploring more urban manipulations. 

Keizer's artwork on display at Cairo's Mashrabia Gallery. Exhibition 'Anthology' 16 October - 30 November 2016 (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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