On the border between Mansoura and Demietta sits the town of Kofour El Ghab, and on that very same virtual line, two separate chapters of Egyptian history intersect, Napoleon’s Campaign in the 18th century and the British occupation.
But Kofour El Ghab doesn’t live in the past; the town has blazed into the 21st century as one of the city’s exemplary towns. Amid the squalor, its people seek solace in the future and its promise, and their scruffy children’s eyes are brimming with hope rather than tears.Perhaps it is the town’s demographic composition that gave rise to this collective sense of vivacity, perhaps it is the greenery framing its roads; either way, this rural commune has embraced what many metropolises simply wouldn’t: street art.
Something about its uncontrived language of colours and lines resonated with their pure unadulterated love for life when renowned graffiti artist Ahmed Gaber (A.K.A. Nemo) and his merry band of muralists adorned every street corner and every alley with graffiti.It all transpired during a town council meeting one day, when the young and driven members of the community made an unusual proposition: graffiti as a means of development. “We were discussing ideas to contribute to the development of the village and we thought, we want to do something big – something that would have far reaching resonance to capture the outside world’s attention,” Town Council Member Mohamed Ali explains. “We also wanted the people to see what our fledgling organisation is about, something they can see with their own eyes.”
And just as they had planned all along, their little project, which they later named Gedary, resonated far and wide, but most importantly, it captivated the village’s imagination. “We wanted to beautify the town – to give it a certain feel, a certain flavour – so we thought of graffiti,” Gedary Organiser Mohamed El Shahawy says. “So we called Nemo and told him what we wanted to do.”And being the worthy son he is, the Kofour El Ghab-born dentistry major obliged. “Graffiti reaches people like nothing else; it surrounds them, it is with them wherever they go,” Nemo says. “The challenge was how to introduce the art form into a town where no one has heard of it, where they might view it as subversive scribble on the wall, so I gathered as many graffiti artists as possible to participate in the self-funded initiative.”
But just as Cairo turned to graffiti in a revolutionary upheaval driven by a strong desire for change, the Kofour El Ghab townies welcomed Gedary like a newborn heralding a new era. “When artists came from all parts of the nation to paint on our walls, people started to understand,” Shahawy says proudly. “They would ask us to paint graffiti by their homes and storefronts.”
As graffiti artists from all disciplines and all Egyptian cities flocked to Kofour El Ghab, each infused their own artistic sense into the streets of the village and captured it through their own perspective. “Artists were chosen based on their artistic styles and such that no aesthetic gets repeated,” Nemo affirms. “For instance, Ahmed Fathy (Naqqash) does calligraphy, I do portraits, Amr Diwan does wild style, etc.”
But perhaps Gedary’s biggest accomplishment is 15-year-old Hassan Yussif Baraka. “He is my relative; he has always loved to paint, so when we launched Gedary, he would come and watch every day and learn an,d in time, he would pick up a brush and join us,” Nemo says of his little prodigy. “But what really meant the world to me, and constitutes the project’s biggest triumph, was that after we had left, he painted his own graffiti with a friend of his – much to the town’s delight! Because it meant that Gedary changed the culture in Kofour El Ghab and encouraged people to take their art to the street and showcase it.”Another success story is Kofour El Ghab resident Islam Abou Zeid who, up until Gedary, hadn’t painted his own mural. “I’m a decorator, but before that I used to be a painter and a sculptor, which I now have very little time for due to my job commitments,” Abou Zeid explains. “But when the town council came up with the idea and Nemo invited me to participate, I was thrilled.”
Gedary may seem like a spur of the moment thing, but the masterminds behind it don’t play with dice and don’t believe in coincidence. “The art comprised directed messages, the murals were strategically placed in prominent spots in main streets,” Shahawy says. “Also, we would place the ones that are directed at children in places frequented by children for maximum impact.”
As politicised as graffiti has come to be known, especially when hailed as the January 25th revolutionaries’ artistic outlet of choice, making statements and taking sides was the last thing on Nemo’s mind. “I started to do graffiti in 2009; I used to paint with Ultras, then during the revolution I painted politically-themed graffiti, then I gravitated more towards social commentary in my work, tackling themes like poverty and women’s rights,” the artist chronicles. “But I didn’t want to kick off Gedary, especially in a place that is new to street art, with sociopolitical commentary.”
And rather than dividing, Nemo conquered with unity. One recurring theme in his Gedary pieces is children. “I think a child’s face conveys a lot of joy and hope,” he says. “I think when you surround children with beauty, that’s when you know you have made a difference because they’ll carry it as an acquired sense into the future.”Graffiti may not bring home the (beef) bacon, it may not end world hunger and bring peace to war-torn nations – it does far greater things. Unless you are impervious to human emotions and visual stimulus, a stroll down Mohamed Mahmoud street street can leave you a changed person. Street art is the means by which those whose voices are seldom heard can capture your attention long enough to tell you their story - and that is Nemo's gift to Kofour El Ghab.
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Photography by Ezz El Masry.