Down the end of Mirghany St. of Heliopolis, precisely under the new bridge, a large, empty block has been transformed into an unusual, chaotic art outlet.
Sprinkled random statements, names, small sketches and bold, screaming paints occupy the spaces in an way that is hard to miss. Some have expressed their unreserved vile, referring to the current scene as a violation of public taste; few have secretly admired its inexplicable monstrous beauty; while some have joined in, adding their own personal touch.
The block beneath the Heliopolis bridge, along with the surrounding walls of the Fine Arts University in Zamalek and other spots in Cairo, have become the grounds upon which the first seeds of graffiti art were planted. The rise and gradual evolution of graffiti have prompted painter Tamer Assem, director of the Mahmoud Mokhtar Cultural Center, to found the first Graffiti Festival in Egypt, which kicked off Thursday Sept. 21 and ends on Oct. 7.
Graffiti is the name used to refer to the images, words or haphazard visual scraps scribbled on public or private property that don’t belong to the artists. Graffiti is modeled into countless figures, shapes, concepts and styles. Some of the artwork is meticulously constructed into proper paintings; others act as quick visual commentaries. Since the entire art form is built on breaking the law, nearly every cut acts as an anti-authoritarian statement.
A relatively modern type of art, the roots of graffiti date back to the Roman and Greek empires. Inscriptions and figure drawings were found on monuments and ancient ruins of both civilizations. Primitive forms of graffiti were also found in Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
The real beginning of the current known form of graffiti started towards the end of the 1960s in Philadelphia, functioning chiefly as a tool for political activists to express their views.
It then moved to New York and by the mid-70s, graffiti began to be acknowledged as an art form.
Graffiti mania spread rapidly worldwide, and is increasingly associated with rap, punk-rock, marginalized or poor neighborhoods and gangsters. Sao Paulo, Brazil, is the current graffiti headquarters of the world. Graffiti is also emerging in the Middle East, particularly in Dubai. It remains illegal in most parts of the world, including the US, Australia and several parts of Europe. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, has called graffiti “a crime, not an art form.
In order to reach graffiti artists, Assem placed the festival posters on various areas where graffiti is displayed, in addition to supplementary print publications.
“I wanted to attract as many non-professional artists as possible, Assem said. “The basic idea behind offering a public channel like the Mokhtar Center was to legitimize graffiti. I also wanted professional painters to experience working with street artists, to apply their own classical regulations in the radical and uncontrolled form of graffiti.
The festival was initially supposed to be held in a closed exhibition hall, with the walls and corners to act as canvas; a recreation of a small piece of a Brooklyn subway station.
The pungent smell of spray paint dominating the small hall made this impossible. Instead, wooden panels with a rough surface were used to give the impression of a wall.
A musical workshop was also set up to experiment with the direct influence of graffiti on music. Musician Ahmed El Sawy was chosen to blend his ambient electronic music with a vocal palette of voices that, so far, has created an eerie, evocative sound scheduled to be on full display in a closing ceremony concert.
Apart from using color sprays, the workshop had no rules. Artists, primarily art students or amateur painters, were encouraged to allow their imagination to run wild. The outcome of the 25 selected artists is quite diverse and exciting.
Samah El Laithy, a professional photographer, came up with a graffiti made up solely of scattered words that include “Life is short, “Love is rare, “Depression, “Sex, and “Facebook. These words, and their random placement on the pane, feel like the exorcised thoughts of an artist.
Essam Abdel Moneim, a graphic designer, cites artistic heritage as the main inspiration for his work. His painting features two vague, blurred figures physically intertwined. The two bodies look as if they’re wedged by an unidentified force as they head to the same fixed destination together.
“The painting is based on the old saying that an insane man is always led by a drunk, he said. “I think we’re all now revolving around the same point. We’re not heading anywhere forward.
While some artists criticized the civil, restrictive use of panels that defy the rebellious spirit and concept of graffiti, others didn’t mind. Nada Khedr, a second-year photography student, regarded the panels as her “own wall in the street.
Khedr’s work resembles the bold, cartoonish shapes of comic-book artist Robert Crumb. Khedr says her fantastical version of an Egyptian street is the result of pure spontaneity. “This is the first time when new, unplanned ideas surface unexpectedly in my head, she said. “The most important audience member has been the garbage man whom I always consult for my work. Graffiti is an art born in the street and it should appeal to folks like him.
Like the majority of the participating artists, Menna Guinidy, also a second-year photography student, had never been subjected to the art of graffiti prior to the workshop.
Guinidy’s impressive work is inspired by a song called “Weshosh El Nas (Faces of the People) by Egyptian folk singer Mohammed Adaweya. Three faces of a mask, a joker, and a woman wearing a niqab (face veil), constitute the most common faces we encounter, according to Guinidy. The deception, ambiguity and lack of transparency powerfully resonate from her work in a fashion that’s accessible to the average viewer, yet still highly artistic.
Guinidy likes the freedom graffiti offered her. “I loved the fact that you can paint whichever way you like, use whichever colors you wish to use, she said. “There’s no right and wrong in graffiti. It is anti-classical art that designates certain designs immersed from a well-articulated and defined concept.
Dalia Saad El Din, an amateur painter and sculptor, was one of the few artists who avoided using color spray due to her allergies. Nevertheless, she managed to capture the essence of graffiti in an abstract painting of crowded Egyptian life, with different monotonous figures marching in a static fashion in dissimilar directions.
“I feel people have turned into robots, she said. “They continue to receive data without processing it. People are so wrapped up in their lives that they don’t consider thinking about anything anymore.
Some of the other featured works lean towards the classical, calculated form of painting produced by professional painters. Some others employ a straightforward structure of cubism and many apply diverse variations on pop art.
Shades of graffiti fluctuate from one painting to another. But the notion and soul of graffiti’s insubordination is buried in every single one of those paintings, which are perhaps not in full bloom yet.
The final works of the workshop will be exhibited next Sunday. The paintings will then be laid outside the museum for passersby to enjoy.
Assem will also attempt to place the graffiti in public areas in Cairo for people to look at, modify or even damage.
After all, there’s nothing wrong with a little artistic destruction.