Speaking in colour: What is the legacy of Egypt’s revolutionary art?

By Fareid Atta

On Friday 28 January 2011, a flash mob, equipped with lightning green aerosol cans and donning make-shift gas masks, stormed the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP). The graffiti artists showered the walls of the building with messages of defiance.

Ten years on, and perhaps the two most enduring slogans on the iconic building wedged between the Egyptian museum and Nasser’s Nile Ritz Carlton, are the sardonic “Opening soon” and the celebratory “Free zone. Tahrir Square.” It wouldn’t be long before the NDP went up in flames. Looking back at the revolutionary moment a decade on, what is the legacy of Egyptian revolutionary art?

It was just around the corner from the NDP headquarters, on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, where the voices of a generation would break out in breath-taking technicolour. Alaa Awad, one of the main protagonists of this explosive art form, spoke to me of the excitement and creativity that was born in that moment:

 “It was amazing to be with the people. I painted in a traffic jam. But I was painting with freedom. It was a hilarious mess.”

Sarah Awad, Assistant Professor of Communications and Psychology at the University of Aalborg in Denmark, remarked at the time: “2011 street art had strong resonance with varied audiences: from pedestrians in Egyptian streets, to international viewers following the happenings in Egypt.”

The movement started during the 18-day demonstrations against Mubarak, and continued later in the year after the Port Said massacre.

Women’s participation in art skyrocketed: groups such as “Women on Walls” and “Graffiti Harimi” were active all over Egypt, particularly in Alexandria.  Perhaps the pseudonymity of the art form gave women and young people the safety to express themselves for the first time.

Mia Grondahl, a writer who has been living in Egypt since 2001, observed: “There was very little street art in Egypt before the Revolution.”

Through her paintings in 2011, visual artist Fajr Soliman expressed her special concern for women and social issues in the Arab world.  The animals she depicted in her murals anthropomorphised Egyptians to represent issues such as police brutality and youth unemployment.

El Zeft, another visual artist, produced the iconic stencil: “Nefertiti in a Gas Mask,” and became a symbolic lynchpin of social movements focussing on female empowerment in the Middle East and Europe.

Other art forms played an equally important role in the burgeoning youth movement. A new genre of music called “electro chaabi,” dazzled the Egyptian underground with its infectious beats.

Chaabi, of course, is not a new phenomenon. The word in Arabic simply means traditional or folk, and as a genre, had been popular in Egypt for decades. The new iteration, though, is a postmodern, hybrid and cosmopolitan affair. The music first emerged in working class neighbourhoods in Cairo such as Madinat al -Salam.

Its hybrid style combined the sounds of traditional Sufi folk songs with contemporary reggaeton and Jamaican roots. The lyrics of “electro chaabi” were playful and personal and were most often played at weddings in these neighbourhoods.  

A political edge, however, lurks under the seemingly innocuous lyrics.  In one song, the revolutionary slogan “the people demand the fall of the regime” was transformed into “the people demand the groom to be happy.” DJ Haha, another rapper, interspersed his verses with politics: “yasqut yasqut hokm il askar” the English rendered as “down down with military rule.”

Electro chaabi remains hugely popular over a decade on from the revolution. In more ways than one  it was able to capture the listless mood of Egypt’s youth, in contrast to the country’s graffiti scene, a movement which has slowly faded from the public stage.

Electro chaabi’s success could be because the musicians have their own ‘economy’ of sorts, with audiences queuing up to hear the artists perform at weddings and on national holidays. A lucky few have even secured lucrative deals with music labels.

‘Something the mind can’t believe’ Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

Claudia Ali, cofounder of the Nun Art Gallery in Luxor, goes some way to understanding the phenomenon. She told me, “the good side [post 2011]: art became public. The bad side: artists weren’t paid for their works. Usually, they even paid for the colours out of their own pockets.” The interview, however, was more curious for its omissions than its answers. When asked about the revolutionary art movement, she sheepishly declined to answer, despite many revolutionary artists displaying their work in her gallery.

One of these artists, Alaa Awad, based in Luxor, works as a lecturer and a practising artist. His neo-pharaonic murals first gained notoriety in the Mohamed Mahmoud street theatre of 2011.

In one of his murals, “Marching Women,” he transforms a group of female mourners into armed protestors, their sticks intended as a symbol of self-defence, and the papyrus a symbol of knowledge.

Awad has been able to sustain a career as an artist in Egypt over the past decade where many have been forced to flee the country. He has exhibited his wares in the likes of Germany, China,

he US and Denmark. Murals are now, however, a thing of the past for him.  

A decade on, he continues to be inspired by the flat plains and stylised forms seen in Ancient Egyptian art: the colours are vivid and bejewelled, but their subject matter is now the domestic and bucolic.  Awad’s work charmingly celebrates life in Upper Egypt, but makes no reference to, or comment on,  the struggles of living in a military dictatorship.

Arguably his current success in Egypt has been largely down to the commodification of his revolutionary murals. And, of course, his steady support for the current regime.  He told me: “We don’t have problems at all in Egypt. We love each other and support each other.”

He continued: “The new regime is great. The army leads Egypt in the right way. When the revolution happened, the army saved Egypt.”

In contrast to Awad’s highly stylised paintings, artists such as Abu Bakr produced more meaningful work by playing with motifs and irony. His work covers  everything from the mourning of mothers to the bold, striking renditions of the regime’s atrocities.

Bakr’s angel wings became synonymous with his art, especially in the “martyrs’ mural” where he and others painstakingly sketched out all 75 of the young Ahly football fans from the Port Said massacre.

The fans were known as the “ultras Ahlawy,” who for three consecutive nights battled the security forces on Mohamed Mahmoud street. Bakr and his friends would tirelessly paint their portraits in between their own demonstrations on the front line.

Of course, the role of revolutions in inspiring works of art and music is not a new phenomenon.

Delacroix’s “Liberty leading the people,” is perhaps the most famous example of such revolutionary inspiration. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet propaganda created a national mythology elevating the workers as gods. Revolutionary art in Egypt, however, was more of an individualised phenomenon, and as such has been met with hostility and censorship.

In 2015, the famous graffiti wall, owned by the American University in Cairo (AUC), was demolished and replaced with a garden “to increase the green areas,” in the city, and is part of an ongoing project to “beautify” downtown.  In 2015, the entire “Mugamma” (the central government building in Cairo) was painted white as if to signify the symbolic end of revolutionary “counter-space,” and with it, the colourful graffiti movement.

The director of graphic design at AUC commented at the time: “[that] the wall is no less than a documentation of the revolution.  Many of us are just moving on and doing things elsewhere. Graffiti is always an ongoing story, I don’t see it as the end of anything. I think what is happening is a purely practical measure.”

You could be forgiven for thinking the erection of the obelisk of Ramses II represents an attempt by the regime to ignore, and indeed repress, the country’s contemporary cultural discourse. The regime’s recent preference for Pharaonic art could itself be construed as a form of propaganda.

The Pharaonic monument represents a powerful image of kinship and the glory of Egyptian civilisation. This image resuscitates a zeitgeist of Egypt’s pharaonic past in the heart of Cairo, and so signals the accompanying hierarchical, tyrannical, and strictly conservative values which it embodies.

What the regime seems to be implying here is that the Egyptian people pay the current regime  the same societal deference as their forbears.

The nonchalant attitude to Egypt’s internationally envied revolutionary graffiti begs the question, what does constitute “real” Egyptian art?

Certainly not its revolutionary music. Mahragan music has been met with the same censorship. As it increased in popularity, successive campaigns were launched against it. Government agencies cite it as vulgar, obscene, and deviant from “Egyptian values.”

In early 2020, “Bint El Giran” (the neighbours’ girl) by Hassan Shakosh and Omar Kamal, became a global sensation as it hit number two on the global chart of Soundcloud. When Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk posted the list on his Twitter account, the regime took note.

‘The martyr Muhammad Sirri’ Photo: Anne Alexander

The alleged profanity of the song led to the music syndicate officially banning mahragan music in February 2020. The syndicate declared that any live music establishment that hosts a mahragan singer could be sued. Other institutions in Egypt have taken similar steps.

For instance, the Central Authority for the Control of Artistic works, the Ministry of Interior and the “Syndicate of Actors” banned the successful chaabi musician, Bika. The charges filed against him, amongst many, were of “corrupting the public taste.” When the musician reportedly attempted to join the syndicate, he was refused.

So, what is the legacy of revolutionary art? The revolutionary art which came at such a price to its perpetrators?

Graffiti art in Egypt has appeared sporadically since the revolutionary spark in 2011. In 2018, a team called the “Mobdeoun Association,” composed of 11 artists, spray-painted the walls and ceiling of the Cairo Opera metro station with contemporary Egyptian style. Their work gained public plaudits and uncharacteristically did not attract unwanted ire from the Egyptian authorities.  

It later transpired, however, that this rare display in public space was only possible after the team acquired permission from the relevant authorities. As Youssra El-Sharkawy argued:

“The new wave of Egyptian graffiti art is often commercially aligned, culturally rooted and at times addresses social concerns, but is stripped of the political messaging central to its earlier avatar in the country.”

Alaa Ahmed Ali, 22, is an artist and physical therapy student at Cairo University. She uses her skills for commercial purposes. She set up a Facebook page called Ala al-Hera (on the wall) where she promotes her wares – murals, cartoons, portraits – to potential customers. She sells her artwork for between 300 EGP and 800 EGP per sq. meter. Alaa is not unique, many of the former “revolutionary artists” have had to commercialise their work or produce pro-regime art.

Hossein Amirsadeghi, takes a somewhat bleak view. The author of Art and Patronage, argued: “the only hope for artists in the region is where it serves the regime, for propaganda and projection of a creative stance which is strictly controlled.”

There are some, such as Othman Lazraq, the director of Fundación Alliances, who would contend that the art’s success was limited, but at least it was able to “increase the global interest for artists from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which are now quite popular and becoming more mainstream.” This is certainly true for artists such as Alaa Awad.

Sascha Crasnow, a lecturer in Islamic arts, strikes a more upbeat tone, and suggests that despite the regime’s desire to erase the memory of “revolutionary art”, it will still be able to live on in social media and the virtual sphere. She commented: “as [murals and stencils and graffiti] move through virtual spaces, their meaning and impact may or may not change as they are removed from their original context and placed into new ones.”

Perhaps the individual who strikes the most affirmative tone is the satirical artist Ganzeer, who has lived in Los Angeles since 2014. He thinks of the Egyptian Revolution as a “zero sum game” but points to other art movements in history where sizable changes to society have needed to go through “unpredictable phases.”

It is currently unclear as to what the unpredictable changes are, that Egyptian society will need to go through and how in order to become more free and unfettered from government censorship. One thing is assured: if you are a deft hand at ancient Egyptian art, then you will have a job for life.

Fareid Atta is a journalist and researcher. He is working on a documentary about migrant artists he met during a year working on Samos.

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