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Walls of Freedom documents Egyptian street art

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New book highlights the use of graffiti as a weapon for resistance and how art can affect a nation

Reclaiming Egyptian Identity  Mural in Kasr ElNil Street near Tahrir Square. A new collaboration between Ammar Abo Bakr, calligraphy by Sameh Ismail, sculptures by Alaa Abdel-Hamid. Poetry by Ahmed Aboul-Hassan. It reads: “When I first opened my eyes, and before my mother knew me, they applied kohl in my eyes reaching my temples, so I can look like your statues” (Photo from Basma Hamdy, courtesy of Walls of Freedom)

Reclaiming Egyptian Identity
Mural in Kasr ElNil Street near Tahrir Square.
A new collaboration between Ammar Abo Bakr, calligraphy by Sameh Ismail, sculptures by Alaa Abdel-Hamid. Poetry by Ahmed Aboul-Hassan.
It reads: “When I first opened my eyes, and before my mother knew me, they applied kohl in my eyes reaching my temples, so I can look like your statues”
(Photo from Basma Hamdy, courtesy of Walls of Freedom)

Walls of Freedom, an upcoming book co-edited by Basma Hamdy and Don Karl, documents the rise of graffiti as a prominent platform for expression during the recent period in Egypt. The Daily News Egypt spoke to Hamdy about her work that chronicles this ever-changing art form, and the many projects and initiatives inspired by Egyptian demonstrators.

Graffiti interested Hamdy before the start of the January 25th revolution, but her idea for the project was sparked by the explosion of the art form she witnessed during and since the uprising. “I cannot remember the exact year I first saw graffiti in Egypt, but it was close to 2009. I saw some stencils in a street close to my husband’s house in Alexandria. I was so moved, even though the piece was not very elaborate, but it made me feel that there was a spirit of rebellion. It made a strong impression on me,” Hamdy recalled.

As she developed the idea for the book, she realised that she needed a collaborator with more experience in the field to help her. “Don Karl is a graffiti writer, activist and publisher based in Berlin. He has published Arabic Graffiti, the first book on graffiti in the Arab world,” Hamdy explained. She added that he was very welcoming when she described her idea.

Hamdy explained that her project is not just about documenting beautiful art: “I began seeing a pattern unfold. Almost every event that happened was mirrored on the streets with art. And I knew the work was powerful because it created an instant connection with people on the streets,” she said. Even though Hamdy conceived of the plan for the book two years ago, serious work started just over a year ago.

Karl said that their connections in the world of street art helped them a lot when creating the book. “We have organised and been involved in several street art projects and events with many of Egypt’s most important revolutionary artists since early 2011.” He explained that this allowed them a sort of backstage access to the world of street art, rather than just acting as voyeurs and documenters.

Hamdy and Karl conducted extensive research to make the contents of the book relevant, bringing a wide spectrum of artists together in order to source all the information they needed. To date, they have gathered “50 photographers, 30 artists and 20 writers. There was a lot of detective work involved, to find someone who took a photo that I thought would be great for the book. Or identifying an artist behind a stencil that I photographed,” Hamdy said.

“The academic, historical and contextual research involved in the book was tremendous,” Hamdy said. All this research added to the work, she said: “We are telling a much bigger story than just ‘Art & Revolution’, that of the Egyptian identity through art, but also the story of the revolution as a backdrop to the art.” This led them to the next step in the project, which was conducting even more detailed research, and delving deep into the notions behind the art pieces, and why they were created.

“We have people writing about the ancient Egyptian roots of graffiti, we have people writing about the political contexts, the history of art in Egypt and how it relates to graffiti, the Egyptian identity in relation to religion, culture and traditions,” Hamdy explained.

The editors have a list of artists with whom they cooperate to create the book, but Hamdy explained that the list changes constantly because the art form keeps evolving. “Our main goal is to continue to involve the artists in the making of the book as well. Some of them have written contributions and others have been involved in helping us with our campaign. The support from them has been wonderful and we are hoping the result will be something that they are proud of.”

“We are hoping to raise awareness about Egyptian culture and history as I believe understanding our culture will help us remain strong. We want to highlight the extreme dedication, intellect and wit of Egyptian street artists,” Hamdy said.

She hoped that the book could also play a role in defining the role of art in Egypt: “People need to realise that art is not about painting pretty pictures. Art can be an effective weapon to fight injustice and oppression.”

In order to raise funds needed to publish the book, the editors are using a crowd-funding campaign that has been “very successful”.

“It is very rare for an art project to become one of the most popular projects on Indiegogo, and we are very proud of that. We have poured a substantial amount of work into the campaign and getting it all together,” Hamdy explained. She added that the campaign is still ongoing and that donations can be made for another 10 days.

Any money raised over the publishing costs of Walls of Freedom will be directed to other, but related initiatives:  “We already have concrete plans for new street art projects in Egypt,” Karl said.

The book is expected to be published by the end of this year, and the editors are planning several events around the world to promote it. More details can be found on the Walls of Freedom Facebook page.


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