Looking back on the turning point of Egyptian history that took place six years ago, the persisting reality of a total military state can paint the occasion of the anniversary in a rather dismal light. However, charting the changes the revolution directly and indirectly triggered reveals that the impact of the uprising goes beyond immediate political reform.
While the events of January 25th summoned people of diverse backgrounds to work together and open new political dialogues, art emerged not only as a form of protest but also a form of self-expression and an active social glue. Graffiti art in particular flourished and spread at a furious pace, and was nothing short of a phenomenon. But six years on, and amid a brutal crackdown on freedom of expression, where have the graffiti artists gone? CairoScene interviews three key artists within the movement to trace their post-revolutionary path.
Previously proliferating through every nook and cranny of the city, art on the streets of Egypt was rife between 2011 and 2014, fulfilling many different roles. One of the acclaimed, still practicing artists of the revolution, Alaa Awad cites the social responsibility of art itself as the main motivation behind his work. “Art is important in any society to reflect what this society is like, because this is what we learn from. Art is made from what you take from the people and what you give back as well,” he says. Originally residing in Luxor, the established painter came to Cairo in 2011 to take his skills to the streets. His work, of which the Mourning Women is the most famous, combines Ancient Egyptian imagery and motifs with contemporary techniques and compositions. He says he employs Ancient Egyptian history out of “respect for this past”, and “ to remind people of our real values and principles, which we must not forget, especially during a revolution.”
Mohammed El Moshir, founder of the newly launched mural-painting company Heytan, was also heavily involved in the graffiti movement, but from a very different perspective. Moshir attributes his initial involvement in the scene to the fact that “art was just a really effective way to spread information, such as an invitation to a march or a political message.” Prior to the revolution, Moshir was working in web design and graphics, skills that he would later transform into super fast graffiti-making techniques that sought to infiltrate every space in the city. He says, “at first I was not thinking about art at all, I just wanted to express myself, not in a beautiful way even. We were making some very formally un-aesthetic stuff to express our views. That was the start.” Teaming up with friends to organise stencil-making workshops in “whatever space was available”, and sharing their designs online as part of the ‘Print Stencil and Spray’ campaign, Moshir’s practice grew to encompass many forms of collaborative and participatory art forms, print, stencil, and spray.
Similarly, Zeft, who chose to remain anonymous as an artist, also seemed to haphazardly stumble upon art during the revolution. “At that time I saw people drawing on the walls of Mugamm3a and I thought it was really cool that you can just print your thoughts on a wall for everyone to see everyday, until it is erased.” Speaking about the function of his artwork, he says “it was the same as protesting; we were claiming the land by it. It was nice.” Zeft, whose well-known ‘Nefertiti With Gas Mask' instantly went viral, reflects upon the phenomenon of art iconography within the revolution with a sense of discomfort: “A lot of us were just working in the moment; we’d just have an idea while hanging out and smoking a joint, and then go and make it. But then somehow it spreads so far… then people classify you as a feminist or say you’re fighting for human rights and extrapolate any meaning from it. So it’s scary, because it’s just a drawing you made on the wall.” Zeft, like many artists that appeared on the scene during the revolution, has now completely stopped all art-related activity. When questioned why, he explains: “it’s like asking why don't you protest anymore. I didn't lose hope, but I don’t know. I just stopped. I became an artist at the time but now I’m not.”
While Zeft has abandoned art for a creative, yet much less radical office job, Awad remains a practicing artist who's just had an exhibition of his work in Jordan, and is also running his project ‘Colours of the city’ with students in Upper Egypt. Moshir, on the other hand, is busy assembling a team of the best mural artists the revolution bore. “In Egypt, art isn’t really valued as a profession”, he explains, “so a lot of young artists that gained recognition for their work just disappeared after the revolution”. Heytan, which originally started as an idea for gallery space in 2014, has now evolved into Moshir’s seven-year brainchild, and tries to ensure the continuity of artists and their work in Egypt. “Every artist in Heytan is employed on a flexible basis and gets time to do their own work. Also, the artists always retain their own style in what they produce - this is something that does not change according to the clients’ needs. I am trying to give an opportunity for artists to just do what they already do but make a fair amount of money in exchange for their skills.”
However, walking through the streets of Cairo now, the overwhelming absence of art is expressive in itself. Even while the coat of mute white applied over the walls of downtown does not completely conceal the layers of graffiti past, it does seem to render this history inactive for the moment. “There is no graffiti scene now, because it was all related to the revolution”, states Moshir. “Elsewhere graffiti exists without a political uprising, but graffiti in Egypt has a very different history and meaning. In Egypt there was no graffiti scene before the revolution and it emerged from ‘live or die’ situations.” With the revolution over or momentarily dormant, Awad also finds his shift from the street back to the gallery context a natural move: “The subject has changed because we are not in that time and place anymore. For example, I don’t expect the ‘Mourning Women’ piece to be shown in an exhibition because it was made for the street.”
Zeft, who’s work addressed police brutality during the revolution, admits that the issues he fought for have far from ameliorated since then; they are only “even more visible now”. Despite the growingly bleak reality of this situation, when questioned about the disappearance of art activity on the streets, Zeft also shows glimmers of a very pragmatic optimism. “I think it’s just waves, people who participated in the revolution believed in something and I don't think they have stopped believing or producing their art. I think they’re just preparing for the other wave. But I might be wrong too. Either way six years is such a short time to judge a revolution. We are still learning.”
Main image: Smiley face in Qasr el Einy street's roadblock, courtesy of Zeft.