Street art and the power to mobilize

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By Mennatallah Fouad Youssef

It’s after sunset on a Friday night. A few weeks after clashes took place in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a group of young artists enter Tahrir Square and observe the scene ahead. Their eyes set on the street where hundreds faced death and suffocation — their next target, they set up their gear and begin to work.

Hours later, a street that witnessed bloody clashes is decorated with the faces of the victims. A few years ago, the same group of artists would have been forced to work on their graffiti clandestinely after midnight or else face detainment. Today, the challenge graffiti artists face is having their work vandalized.

Last Friday, murals of two martyrs on Mohamed Mahmoud Street were removed. White paint replaced the colors that decorated the walls of what used to be the library of the American University in Cairo.

“Graffiti artists are very brave. They have seen people get killed and they are brave enough to go and record the names and pictures of the people that have died,” said Shady Nashokaty, a visual artist and professor of art at AUC.

“It is not personal; it does not represent the personal opinion of the artist. They are invisible. The art is public property because easily if people like it they will add to it or if they don’t they will paint over it,” he added.

Since the Jan. 25 uprising, the streets of Cairo have witnessed an increase in the number and variety of street art made available to the public. Artists took to the streets along with those demonstrating to record the events of the revolution and the clashes that followed.

Some of the images attract attention and often move public opinion — such as the stencils of Sheikh Emad Effat (killed during the December crackdown on the Cabinet sit-in) and Mina Daniel (killed during the Maspero massacre) — while others against the ruling military council are constantly removed.

Through these images, graffiti is a voice of the people and their conscience at times when they are silenced or when the media fails to report the truth.

“Pictures that hold political meaning in Egypt, especially those that show the atrocities of SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces], are extremely important,” Riham Bahi, a political science professor, said.

“They show messages to people that don’t understand the complicated language of politics or don’t have Facebook accounts; in a simple way, they are reminded and kept aware of the political scene every time they walk down that street or the microbus passes down a road. It’s a sort of political awareness,” she added.

The art itself is always changing and revolutionary, as Nashokaty describes it.

“Graffiti in particular has and is meant to be always new and revolutionary, because it changes everyday … with the events that take place. It can never be done using old themes such as hieroglyphics or Islamic art; it has to be bold and should break away from any traditional art forms,” Nashokaty said.

A graduating student described his experience with graffiti art during the War on Gaza in 2008. The picture ultimately made him join a group of protesters calling for the end of the war.

“There was a drawing on the Gaza war, of a Palestinian mother and she was holding a child,” student Ismail Abo El-Atta said. “To me, that drawing was so profound and meaningful. When I saw that drawing during the Second Intifada, it was enough for me to go and join protests that were organized by the Arab Community in Pittsburgh. I joined these [protests] while others wrote letters to Congressmen to show that we don’t approve of the support for such a war.

“The picture affected me greatly and the fact that there were related events taking place that escalated the feeling I had at the time to go and protest.”

In Egypt, many find that although the images are strong, they have not necessarily pushed anyone to revolt. Rather, the drawings are produced after an incident takes place.

A passerby states that he likes the images on the walls, while Mahmoud, a security guard disagrees.

“I think the paintings are vandalism to these walls,” he said. “I don’t believe that the picture or a drawing would cause someone to be mobilized or moved for a certain cause. To me, the incident itself is what will make me participate or not.”

Nashokaty argues that in the future, graffiti in Egypt will be able to mobilize people for certain causes and not just act to record them. However, he said only 10 percent of the current street art is pure graffiti and that sense of confusion amongst the people and some artists is only a reflection of the state of confusion overtaking the country.

“The current situation in Egypt is confusing to everyone, because we are still living in the age of doing things in the wrong way. A political revolution took place but we have not had a revolution in media, culture and art and most importantly education.

“Soon Egyptians will understand graffiti art as in other countries but there has to be less confusion which prevails in all parts of our daily life.”

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