By Rania Khalil
In the days and weeks that have just passed, art here in Cairo, and indeed throughout the country, has found an inextricable link with a larger cause of justice, freedom and of course the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak.
Where much of my time as a downtown art critic has been spent navigating the disparities of class, access and resource among the artists whose work I review, the days since Jan. 25 have spawned new coalitions of artists asking neither for press nor even personal credit for their work.
These are scores of talented artists who have unselfishly devoted their efforts to performances, concerts, signs, prints, graffiti and video-making of this highly imaginative revolution.
Downtown Cairo is covered in art, and the protesters have moved their bodies in fluid progressions around the city, demanding change. What began as a media campaign propagating that pro-democracy protesters were given free meals from the American fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken in order to topple the regime, saw the word “Kentucky” becoming synonymous with a joke about selling out and believing state propaganda.
This phenomenon found its creative culmination in a stunning and impromptu exhibition of visual art works on paper covering all the windows of KFC’s Tahrir Square branch.
In light of these inspiring creative manifestations, rooted in collectivity and the mobilization of common interests, it only makes sense that upon returning to work, my first stop would be Makan’s “The Wittiest Rhetoric,” a video compilation of some of the most clever chants and slogans of the movement screened on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Egyptians are of course known for their sense of humor and capacity to make jokes in even the strangest of circumstances. What visitors to “The Wittiest Rhetoric” can expect to find is no exception. Moving from still photo montage to video jump cuts, “The Wittiest” for the most part features a consistent soundtrack of slogans sung in strong harmony throughout the streets by sundry and extremely witty groups of protesters.
Makan (which simply means The Place), is an important institution of downtown arts, and the frequent host to presentations which combine the authentic with the accessible for foreigners and locals alike. It is the host of a weekly hybrid zar, an Egyptian ceremony performed to exorcise evil spirits. In this vein, “The Wittiest Rhetoric” captures images of protesters who have enlisted the calling and swaying about of the zar to oust the evil spirits of the regime.
Indeed, protesters both within and outside of this video have used current methods from days long past to enliven their demonstrations. In the olden days of Egypt to the present, sellers walk the streets shouting their wares. In the days between Jan. 25 and Feb. 11, this sort of call and response chanting has been appropriated by protesters shouting “Have you seen our ruler? He fits this description…” One can only imagine the descriptions were not always so courteous.
From outrageous cartoon caricatures of Mubarak’s face, to his name written on pairs of shoes, “The Wittiest Rhetoric” shows Egyptian protest rhetoric from its finest to its least subtle — right down to images of the name of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party written on a bucket of dirty water.
Then there are the plays on the word irhal (or leave). Signs read “Leave Mubarak, my hand hurts from holding this sign!”
“Leave Mubarak, I need to shave.”
“Leave Mubarak, I haven’t slept in three days.”
“Leave Mubarak, my wife misses me.”
And a sign not featured in this particular video, “Leave Mubarak, my wife is pregnant, but we don’t want our baby born into your regime!”
Amidst the shouts of youth claiming a new hope for a family life that has been otherwise economically impossible for them in the dire conditions of Mubarak’s regime, protesters in the streets joyfully exclaimed after he stepped down, “We will marry, we will have children!”
And so it is not surprising to see in this video, the somewhat cruel and ironic reference to Mubarak’s own family, painted irreverently on a sign: Mubarak’s mother, it says, nursed him ice.
From the sharp to the funny and open-hearted slogans of people that bravely came to the streets even on the most dangerous of days, the video features a somewhat random collection of protesters at their most diverse. There is an image of a dapper young man sitting cross legged and meditating atop a stone wall, listening to a walkman and holding a sign surrounded by scores of hustling demonstrators. There is footage of two men, one in a galabeyya and one in an expensive business suit marching arm in arm among thousands, chanting the ever popular “Leave, leave, [because] we will not leave.”
Like the revolution, this video is in the beginning stages of its development. Curators of Makan deserve thanks for their momentum and are well advised to continue what they have begun. “The Wittiest Rhetoric” is important documentation of a completely unique and utterly witty revolution.
Tahrir Square’s KFC on Feb. 10. (Photo by Rania Khalil)