Street Art as an Expression of Political Resistance: The Case of the Egyptian Uprising

Street Art as an Expression of Political Resistance: The Case of the Egyptian Uprising

Culture | Jan 2, 2019 / by Shatakshi Singh
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Introduction

Idolised under the banner of ‘Arab Spring,’ the wave of popular, pro-democracy protests that swept West Asia and North Africa in late 2010, have been etched into the consciousness of the people as a pivotal moment in the history of a seemingly quiescent Arab World.  It was a promising event with broad ramifications for the socio-political fabric of the region, characterized by the toppling of regimes, drawn-out struggle against the government and hopes for change running high. The ripples created by the Arab Spring marked a change not only in the social and political life of the countries, but also a transformation in the different expressions of art. Whereby, street art as a mode of providing ‘voice to the voiceless’ made an increasing appearance in Egyptian cities.

Particularly striking, in this short period, was the evolution of graffiti and calligraffiti, with street artists drawing upon the cultural memory, oral heritage and literature to engage the protesting citizens through performative civil disobedience. They combined image and scripts to visualize the resistance and thereby, street art gained momentum as an all-pervasive and accessible art form during 2011. The 25th January Revolution was distinctly impactful in foregrounding street art as a visual medium of articulating the political views of the people. In Egypt, it was used for the purpose of ‘reclaiming and reappropriating space’ (Sanders, 2012). The art helped reshape the question of belongingness of dwelling spaces, the cities, as being the rightful domain of the public instead of extended sites of the government’s control.

This bought changes to the way people interacted with their surrounding spaces and later accelerated the employee of street art as an aesthetic tool of resistance in other Arab revolutions that followed in Libya and Syria (Khatib, 2013). The art played a variegated role in commemorating the martyrs, hailing the people, critiquing the regime, conveying the popular demands, satirising the political leadership and even, offering solidarity with other revolutions that rocked the Arab World. The transient nature of street art and the social media archiving of the Egyptian Uprising was key to gaining the attention of the international community. The act of digitally chronicling the 18 days of revolution helped promote Tahrir Square as the symbolic image of the movement and also created a space for Egyptian street artists and their work to survive despite being constantly whitewashed and destroyed. 

Why Does the Egyptian Street Art Matter?

To begin answering the question, it must be understood that street art has been characterised as an act of vandalism, punishable by the law, in most of the countries around the world. Before 2011, street art in Egypt was allowed to exist in certain government-approved structures such as advertising or murals depicting scenes of religious significance. However, with the advent of the revolution, street art as a visual tool for articulating political dissent became powerful due to its explicit challenge to the dominant narrative of the Mubarak regime, and in the post-revolution period, to the military leadership that took over. The demand for human rights, call for freedom and disastrous economic policies that facilitated the blooming of Egyptian Spring were also the broad themes that the street art channelled and visualised, presenting an aesthetic medium of rebellion against the totalitarian law and the regime.

Despite the enthusiasm and engagement of the people, street art in Egypt was mostly an urban phenomenon, confined to the boundaries of cities amongst which Cairo was the focal point. The rationale for street art in Egypt being bricked into the category of an ‘urban art’ (Naguib, 2017) is twofold. Firstly, the revolution itself was mostly centred in the cities, spread across Mansour, Suez, Alexandria and other major cities, in addition to Cairo. Secondly, the street artists that cropped up during the Egyptian Uprising and in its aftermath were renowned and established artists trained at the state-funded universities and academies of fine art. Although a number of popular street artists such as Sarah Diab, Ganzeer and Abdel Rahman Shawky did belong to an anautodidactic tradition.

The significance of street art when contextualised in the wake of Egyptian Uprising stems from the fact that it was unhindered, free-flowing and decentralised dissemination of information that helped reshape interaction between public and space. It allowed for an intersection between art and human rights in a way that promoted an understanding of the city as being coterminous with the body of the citizen. Whereby the changing city would mirror the changed citizens and vice-versa.

The aforesaid argument is vastly motivated by Henry Lefebvre’s idea of ‘right to the city’ which David Harvey further defines as:

“The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization (Feagin, 1987).”

From the lens of this framework, the Egyptian street art figured as, “a visible marker of the agency of the citizen (Khatib, 2012).” The self-knowledge of Egyptian citizens which had so far been manufactured by the authoritarian state was suddenly subject to an alternate narrative inscribed on the walls and sloganeered on the streets: “The people want the fall of the regime.”

In the same vein as Harvey’s argument, the emplacement of this revolutionary art in open spaces allowed for greater engagement with the Egyptian public. It was not an act of individualistic expression but a ‘collective’ effort which drew on the cultural memory and shared experiences to connect with the community at large. Street art in Egypt, and in general, is, therefore, an exercise in collective power which cannot be reduced to the question of mere consumption or expression, given that it is primarily an act of collective production. With its professed nature of reclaiming and reappropriating space, it exerted the citizen’s ability to alter their social environment in correspondence to their own changing identity; from passive subjects of a regime to active participants of Egypt.

Initially starting with simplistic writings on the wall, street art in Egypt during the revolution and in its aftermath evolved to include larger than life murals, graffiti, calligraffiti, stencil and other forms. Ranging from walls to rock formations, the art was confined to urban spaces. Whereby, Tahrir Square in Cairo became the epicentre of all forms of revolutionary expression including art. It increasingly began to be viewed as iconic within the larger imagery of the revolution and became a hotspot for street artists, along with other locations such as the Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Bab el Louk and Boustan Street. This phenomenon continued well into the post-revolution period when the military took over.

With the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) creating barricades all over the city to prevent people from convening at the square, street artists took to shifting the space of protest from the urban walls to the barricading in itself. (See Fig. 1).


Figure 1: The barricade mural showcases an open street, rife with SCAF officers
(Location: Downtown Cairo)

Another interesting aspect of the street art flooding Egypt was the use of Western point of references, both in translating literature into Arabic (Fig. 2) and even scribbling English in certain graphics. In places, the use of English in the artworks connoted a call for the attention of international community, while the use of Arabic script in others, whether for the purpose of translation or otherwise, promoted both the accessibility of the work and the artists.

Figure 2:  Bahia Shehab, translated Pablo Neruda’s quote in the context of the January 25, 'You can step on the flowers but you can never delay the Spring.'

The significance of this trans-literary dimension in the works of street art stems from the fact that art and literature which has so far been a sphere with elitist notions attached to it, suddenly became all-pervasive, trickling down to the masses who now began to see and be seen as a part of the larger cultural architecture of the Egyptian Revolution.

On the same note, leitmotifs mixing western references and localized elements were common to a certain extent. (Fig. 3: The anonymous Guy Fawkes mask dressed in the pharaonic headdress nemes, as explained by Marwan Shahin, signifies the people hold the ultimate power.) Artists in Egypt favoured posters, stencils as well as murals that were imbued with references in forms of songs, sayings and quotes from Egyptian cultural and political figures such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, Saad Zaghloul, Umm Khaltoum and Mustafa Kamil Pasha. Purposeful distortions and recontextualization of quotes was also an integral component of, “shaping the space of protest (Baker, 2016).” (Fig 4: Saad Zaghloul’s last words on his deathbed ‘it’s useless’ were distorted with a coarse undertone in the figure to present his disenchantment with the state of political affairs in Egypt.)

   

             Fig 3: Marwan Shahin, 2013. Cairo.                                   Fig 4: Saad Zaghloul, 2012.

Resultantly, art and literature due to its placement in public spaces transitioned into a more democratic and decentralised production stream with easy universal access. Whereby, the street art helped create an alternate narrative to the Mubarak’s regime through various forms.

Limitations of the Street Art

Despite the ambitious advent of making street art a medium of political expression, there are certain limitations attached to it, which are not necessarily exclusive to the case of Egypt but common to the form and nature of the work. Street art is a part spectacle and part performance which due to its inherent intrusion of public space is subject to restrictions, which have been analysed as following in terms of two distinct aspects: translation of the work and its ephemeral nature.

The problem of translation is common to all works of art and presentation; street art is no different but in the Egyptian case, the idea of interpretation is more nuanced because the street artists themselves were translating the ground and political realities of the people onto urban canvases. Often street art evolved into a dialogical process whereby the military loyalists would battle antagonistic sentiments presented in the works by altering the original street art in instances where it wasn’t exposed to outright erasure. (Fig. 5: The massive Army Tank mural painted by famous artist Ganzeer in 2011, considered an iconic graffiti piece in the post-revolution Cairo, became a space of alteration, the distinctly anti-military theme was dissolved and later, reinstalled by constant whitewashing and overwriting.)

Figure 5: Located under the 6th of October Bridge in Zamalek

Lyman G. Chaffee also notes, “the real control over the message of the art comes from social producer” but at the same time, the interpretation might not be the one that artist intends (Sanders, 2012). However, there’s a weakness in this argument given that street art demands translation and active involvement of the purveyor, who in order to interpret the art stands as a participant in the act of creation, change and assimilation of that art. Like Lina Khatib (2016) suggests, street art, then, is a visual tool of consuming and reinforcing the message of the revolution (Fig 6.) and by its very nature and purpose, calls for engagement which may arrive in any form, even misinterpretations.

Figure 6: Located outside the Presidential Palace in Cairo, the graffiti translates to “2011, Down with Mubarak’s rule. 2012, Down with military rule. 2013, Down with Brotherhood rule.”

The revolutionary graffiti of the Egyptian uprising when regarded through the lens of Umberto Eco’s ‘opera aperta’ also becomes a force of its own. Eco defines it as the openness of work as being intrinsically tied and inherent to it by drawing a distinction between the art and the artist (De Mallac, 1987). He says, ‘reception of a work of art is both an interpretation and a performance of it because in every reception the work takes on a fresh perspective for itself.’ To elaborate on the above argument, the artwork has an existence different from that of its creator, leading to its innate independence. When grounded in the context of the Egyptian street art, the infrastructure of images that remain on the public walls involved the pedestrians into the act of visually consuming the image and translating them into the common narrative of dissent, that was elected by the revolution.

When it comes to mapping the second dimension and limitation of street art in terms of its materiality i.e. its transience, it’s important to take note that street art is considered an act of vandalism punishable by law, in most of the countries across the world. Free from the elitism and pretentiousness of the art world as well as the government enforced censorship which is common to totalitarian regimes, the stage for resistance was set and propped by street art. The reinforced demands for human rights and the politically laden images tended to have a short life. This is true for street art in general. Due to the ‘effacement’ of the public property, street art is increasingly subjected to whitewashing, overwriting, or simply erosion with time. Since the use of satire, parody, and mockery of the regime and then the military was amongst the primary characteristics of the art on Egyptian streets, the leadership increasingly sought its complete erasure. This action was recognizant of the political activism underlying the art and worked as a method of stamping out what was essentially a vehicle of resistance.

However, this temporariness of the street art added to its appeal and populist attachment to it. By the very fact of being located in public spaces, the street artists were inclined to be comfortable with the inevitable destruction of their work. The process of creating these works was not limited to the question of how long they last but to the experience and freedom, thus adding to the wider implication of art as performance. Saphinaz-Amal Naguib (2017) who interviewed popular Egyptian street artists such as Ammar Abu Bakr and Bahia Shehab was confounded to find that they were of the opinion that, “works of art, have their lifespan and are not meant to last forever.”

The shortness of the street art enhanced the political message it chose to impart, creating resonance amongst the audience and lasting longer in the memory of the spectators than the actual urban surfaces they were created over. Naguib (2017) suggested that the art on Egyptian streets is best characterised as ‘ephemeral interventions.’ The transient nature of the street art is mitigated by the task of its meticulous chronicling it in this Digital Age. With the advent of the World Wide Web, the Egyptian street art stands invariably more accessible than before, with its viewership sharply extended to include the international community.

The act of digitally uploading images of the street art, along with other events during the Egyptian Uprising, may be seen as another kind of rebellion and resistance which aimed at immortalizing these pieces in a way that can no longer be restricted to the streets and is consequently free from destruction. As per Jeff Ferrell (2016), such an effort elongated the experience of creating street art and graffiti in both time and space and perpetuated further dissemination via photo exhibitions, books, academic writings and other means. Recording and logging the artwork on the internet offered a new kind of ‘aesthetic durability’ which is untouched by the prerogative of the controlling elements and allowed Egyptians authority, to shape their own narratives, by inviting direct engagement from the people of the world.

Conclusion

One question ranks above all when considering the role played by street art in the Egyptian Uprising: What does the art mean for the collective memory of Egyptian citizens, a people constantly at crossroads with their state? The answer to this is disappointingly inconclusive since the events are fairly recent to be able to discern a distinct note in the memory of people. Collective memory is mostly understood to be pinned to certain events and locations in time and space where the memories of the people converge, with resonance performing an important role in imbuing them with a cultural significance.

Aleida Assmann submits that resonance, from within the purview of the 2011 Revolution in Egypt, denotes, ‘the interaction between two separate entities, one located in the foreground, one in the background (Assmann, 2015)’.  The street art that cropped up in Cairo and other cities made use of the historic and cultural elements, as noted earlier, of the background to make a case for constructing vivid visual in the present or the foreground. The shared experience of the uprisings may help fashion the cultural memory of Egyptians in the future since certain places associated with being sites of rebellion, such as the Tahrir Square and Mahmoud Mohamed Street are already being peddled as iconic hotspots which saw the culmination of the citizen’s anger.

Considering that most of the works of street art have been removed or destroyed in Egypt but very much stand digitalised in a corner of the internet, there is a case for the material foundation of the Egyptian cultural memory to be neutered by a nascent form of intangible heritage. It may help preserve the memory of the Arab Spring in Egypt by being a constant reminder of the struggles of the people as well as a palimpsest of the events that followed. The impermanence of the street art may function as a political commentary and inspire the future generations with its underlying optimism, idealism and vision of a brighter future for the country and the West Asian region as a whole.

Illustrations

Fig. 1: Unknown Artist, The barricades showcase an open street, rife with SCAF officers. 2013. Downtown Cairo. Photo: Noah Feldman.
https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970204425904578072630892858670

Fig. 2: Bahia Shehab, translated Pablo Neruda’s quote in the context of the January 25, 'You can step on the flowers but you can never delay the Spring, 2011. Cairo. Calligraffiti. Photo: Bahia Shehab.

Fig. 3: Marwan Shahin, Guy Fawkes mask dressed in the pharaonic headdress nemes, 2013. Cairo. Photo: Alejo Santander. http://blogs.infobae.com/street-art/files/2013/09/Egipto-V.jpg 

Fig. 4: Saad Zaghloul’s last words on his deathbed ‘it’s useless.’ 2012. Cairo. Photo: Mona Abaza. http://www.perspectivia.net/publikationen/orient-institut-studies/2-2013/galerie/abaza_satire/abbildung-14 

Fig. 5: Ganzeer, The massive Army Tank mural painted by famous artist. 2011. Photo: Soraya Morayef. https://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/war-on-graffiti-scaf-vandalists-versus-graffiti-artists/

Fig. 6: Unknown Artist, Mural outside the Presidential Palace, expressing anti-Mubarak, anti-Morsi, anti-Brotherhood, 2012. Photo: Nasser Nasser. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/11/graffiti-art-egypt-revolution_n_4762431.html

References

  1. Assmann, Aleida. 2015. “Impact and Resonance: Towards a Theory of Emotions in Cultural Memory.” In The Formative Past and the Formation of the Future, edited by Terje Stordalen and Saphinaz-Amal Naguib, 41–69. Oslo: Novus Press.
  2. Baker, Mona, ed. 2016. “Beyond Spectacle: Translation and Solidarity in Contemporary Protest Movements.” In Baker, Translating Dissent, 1–17.

  3. De Mallac, G. (1971). The Poetics of the Open Form: (Umberto Eco's Notion of "Opera Aperta"). Books Abroad, 45(1), 31-36.
  4. Feagin, J. (1987). Bringing Space Back into Urban Social Science: The Work of David Harvey. Sociological Forum, 2(2), 417-422. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/684482

  5. Ferrell, Jeff. 2016. “Foreword: Graffiti, Street Art, and the Politics of Complexity.” In Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art, edited by Jeffrey Ian Ross, xxx–xxxviii. London: Routledge.
  6. Khatib, Lina. 2013. Image Politics in the Middle East: The Role of the Visual in Political Struggle. London: I.B. Tauris.

  7. Khatib, Lina. 2012. “‘The people want...’: Street Art and Power in the New Arab World” in Newtopia: The State of Human Rights, pp. 55-63.
  8. Naguib, Saphinaz Amal. 2017. Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Spring. Transcultural Studies. 2, 53-88

  9. Sanders, Lewis, IV. 2012. “Reclaiming the City: Street Art of the Revolution.” In Mehrez, Translating Egypt’s Revolution, 143–182.

  10. Sanders, Lewis, IV, and Mark Visonà. 2012. “The Soul of Tahrir: Poetics of a Revolution.” In Mehrez, Translating Egypt’s Revolution, 213–248.

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Written By Shatakshi Singh

Currently pursuing her Master's in International Relations and Area Studies.

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