Preserving Egypt's revolutionary graffiti

By Hamza Hendawi

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Oct. 7 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

But very quickly the word on the walls turned to revolt once more — this time against the military council of generals that took power after Mubarak's ouster and ruled until Morsi was elected this year and was inaugurated in late June. Protests repeatedly broke out against their rule and were met by bloody crackdowns.

Graffiti portraits mocked the council's head, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi — who was later removed by Morsi — and other generals, unprecedented in a nation where the military has held immense powers since a 1952 coup and was considered above questioning.

Throughout the past 19 months, graffiti has also sought to keep alive the spirit of the young activists' vision of the revolution despite continual setbacks — including by enshrining their heroes.

Slogans often went beyond current events to encourage change in a society accustomed to dictatorship. "The truth is not cruel, but freeing oneself from ignorance is as painful as going into labor," one cries out. "Chase after the truth until you are breathless. Endure pain so you can be born again."

A common theme was elaborate portraits of the "martyrs," the hundreds of protesters killed in multiple crackdowns. Some shown in the book are idealized, even giving them an angel's wings. Others depict them casual and smiling, as if they are standing right next to you.

A frequently depicted heroine is Samira Ibrahim, a young woman who went public with accusations that soldiers conducted humiliating "virginity tests" on her and other detained female protesters. One image shows her face, in her conservative headscarf, over rows of soldiers, proclaiming, "Above the military."

"Graffiti has won us freedoms we had never dreamed of before," said Mohammed Hashem, a prominent publisher whose office in downtown Cairo has been among the most favorite meeting places for leftist revolutionaries. "It has been the strongest voice of the revolution."

Ironically, graffiti has also broken into an Egyptian art world long dominated by elites who tended more to traditional landscapes or abstract art.

In a first, Ganzeer adapted his graffiti work to traditional tools — oil on canvas, wood or water colors— and took it to a gallery in Cairo's upscale Zamalek district this week. He called the show "The Virus Is Spreading," a name he said he chose to suggest the spread of graffiti from being a street art to a genre that could win acceptance and respect.

"It is an art that is totally different from the art sanctioned by the Mubarak regime," said Ganzeer, whose work is on offer for anywhere between $400 and $5,000.

Another prominent graffiti artist, known by his signature of Sad Panda, exhibited alongside Ganzeer. But he sees attempts to preserve graffiti as, at least in some ways, conflicting with the genre's very nature. Like Ganzeer, he does not give his real name to the public for fear of retribution.

"Every art form has its rules. When I paint on wall, I commit my art to the street. The street owns it. The street and whoever in it can do what they want with it," he said. He shot to prominence with his images that always included a big-bellied panda with a sad but pensive face. In reality, he recounts, he was called panda by school friends because he was overweight, and he added the "sad" because it reflects what he describes as his "black disposition."

"To me, politics is absurd, stupid and sad. It is all about winning power," Sad Panda said. "But I did take part in the revolution. I cannot be living in a nation that has a revolution and not participate."

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