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Revolutionary art

004 / 2 November 2012

Revolutionary art – what does it mean to protect it?


Revolutionary art – to hold and to keep?


Revolutionary art – verb or a fossil?


No sooner had Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president of Egypt than graffiti sprayed and painted on the walls criticising his rule were removed. Under the rubric of cleaning up, of beautifying, the authorities were erasing the memories of the revolution and attacking history.


An understandable response from those who seek to preserve that history, not for its own sake, but as part of the struggle to realise the goals of the January 25th revolution – bread, freedom, social justice – is to insist on their protection.


Though a seemingly logical, unproblematic and even admirable response, it is nevertheless troubling.


Mohamed Mahmoud Street, off Tahrir Square, Cairo.


Mohamed Mahmoud is both a street and a point in time. When people make reference to a before or after Mohamed Mahmoud, they are referring to five days of fighting in November nine months after the fall of Mubarak, in which 45 people were killed and hundreds injured.


A group of fine art graduates were amongst those who had been painting on this street and throughout Cairo the previous few months. The dead of Mohamed Mahmoud had barely been counted when this group started to paint images of protesters with eye-patches in honour of those blinded by snipers in the clashes.


The images soon became iconic. Very quickly they were circulating on social media and internationally.


Soon they were whitewashed.


February 1st, 2012. Over 70 young football fans – 'Ultras' – return to Cairo from Port Said in coffins after a match between Masry and Ahly. The Ultras of both Ahly and Zamalek teams have played a key role in street battles with security forces, and many suggest they were targeted, that this was not football violence, but political murder.


February 2nd, 2012. Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Angry protesters brought down the wall blocking the street built by the army in November. The artists are back at work. It is night. They are painting the faces of those just killed in Port Said as martyrs. Naming them.


The images soon become iconic. Very quickly they are circulating on social media, internationally.


Before long, there is talk of preserving and conserving the works. The idea is in part to protect the pieces from erosion, but also from deliberate attempts to deface and efface the works.


A few days before the presidential elections; Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Government employees are charged with erasing the iconic art and arguments ensue. Ordinary people as well as the American University in Cairo (AUC) security stepped in, and the workers are prevented from completing their task.


Very quickly, new images are circulating on social media – 'Before and after' photos: the paintings as they were before, the white wall, and the artists' repainting.


But the Port Said murals survived. It is as if the faces of those boys and young men had become a fixture of the street. It is rare to walk down the street without seeing people taking photos, journalists and photographers seeking to capture people in front of them, emphasising the public nature of the space. Those taking photos of themselves before what is fast becoming a sort of monument.


The number of articles, interviews with the artists, photos of the works, multiplies.


It is the artists themselves who paint over their work, who 'vandalise' their own work. The images of the martyrs can still be seen in part beneath. And above them, images of their mothers, and mocking words across the length of the wall: 'Forget what is past and pay attention to the elections' (insa illi faat, w khaleeku wara el-intikhibat).


September 2012. In the dead of night, the work is removed. But the wall does not remain a blank canvas for long. The street is painted again with the faces of martyrs, the reassertion of the goals of the revolution, and messages pertinent to the moment. For the coming several days and nights, as a seemingly broadening number of people adorn the wall, others watch, snap, chant slogans.


The question of preservation of this work raises other questions, not just about the works on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, but also with regard to how we see and understand revolutionary art in public spaces.


Graffiti and/or murals

The question of conservation came up in particular in relation to the works of the martyrs. As street art or public art, the pieces cannot be understood without reference to their place: Mohamed Mahmoud Street. But of course the fact that images of the works have circulated internationally attests to the power the works have apart from that space. In a sense they were different pieces, but it makes sense to understand them as part of a larger, collective project that is intrinsically connected to the street and what it has witnessed over the past 18 months.


The work on Mohamed Mahmoud Street has been described both as graffiti and as murals. Can they be both? Murals of course come from a revolutionary tradition. The Mexican muralist movement in the early twentieth century arguably remains one of the most important and influential examples of the ways that public art can be part of movements for social, economic and political justice. There is a discourse though, particularly in the US, that posits murals and graffiti as opposites, such that there are even projects encouraging and commissioning the painting of murals specifically in order to discourage graffiti. One of the key dividing lines in this imaginary is legality, with murals seen as legal and graffiti as illegal. Those who celebrate murals and oppose graffiti can be accused of fetishising legality.


It is interesting then, that while graffiti for many conjures an urban landscape, marginality, a distinctly modern phenomenon, and one that speaks to empower, the artists behind the work on Mohamed Mahmoud Street trace the genealogy of their work quite differently. At an event at the AUC in April, entitled 'Visualizing Revolution: The Epic Murals of Tahrir', they described graffiti as anything on a wall, pointing in particular to two examples: the common practice in Upper Egyptian villages of paintings on the walls of people's homes to welcome people back from hajj and celebrating their completion of the pilgrimage, was for these artists an example of graffiti; the other antecedent they cited for their work was Pharaonic painting on walls.


In this alternative telling, the urban aspect, the modern aspect, and the flouting of property rights that might ordinarily be associated with graffiti are all absent. In this telling, the artists are clearly trying to locate their work as squarely Egyptian, as authentically so. In this understanding, any art in a public space is graffiti, and there is less emphasis on speaking truth to power (though of course in a context where public space is itself contested, the attempt to produce art in that space almost inevitably entails a contestation of power).


It is not a question of choosing a particular understanding of graffiti, but rather of acknowledging that in describing these works as graffiti, different genealogies are at play. With their at times overlapping, at times diverging associations and emphases, they coexist.


The designation of the work as murals moves it away from associations with graffiti, whether vandalism, Pharaonic images, or speaking truth to power, and towards art. The question should perhaps not be, what do we consider to be graffiti or murals, but to consider what we mean by art. So rather than having a singular set of criteria or standards of what constitutes art, we turn towards multiple understandings of art. Thus we might unsettle the notion that because works like those on Mohamed Mahmoud Street are art, they should thus be preserved.


Public art: the question of ownership

Given the value of the work as an 'emerging memorial space' in the words of AUC academic Mona Abaza, a testament to the ongoing revolution, a monument to honour the martyrs, and a political dialogue on the walls of Cairo, there were moves to conserve it on the part of some figures at the AUC. The idea was in part to protect the pieces not only from the weather but from those who would seek to deface or erase the art.


It is an admirable impulse, but not in the least unproblematic.


At the panel discussion about their work at the AUC, the artists had divergent opinions on conservation. While Alaa Awad argued that the idea was simply to extend their short life-span by colour-fixing rather than preserving the work for posterity, Abu Bakr asserted that the art was by nature transient. Meanwhile, Hanaa El Degham took a more hands-off position, asserting that her art was a gift to the people to do with as they wish.


Ebony Coletu, who had organised the panel, recounts that the following day she hosted a 'varnishing party' with a more nuanced sense of its purpose and the artists' preferences.


On the surface, this respect of the artists' views may appear to be a solution to the problem of their divergent opinions with respect to conservation and preservation. But this presupposes a notion of individual ownership, that the work of an artist belongs to that artist – or whichever gallery or collector respectively represents or owns it – and this is certainly the currency in the institutional world of art.


It is difficult to argue that this understanding of ownership is most suited to the case of public art that we might describe as muralesque graffiti, and that is intended to be revolutionary art, no less. The validity of this private ownership model needs to be argued rather than assumed, but it is too often assumed, in part because we have internalised a singular idea of what constitutes art.


In understanding the work on Mohamed Mahmoud Street as art, this should not mean that we apply to it understandings, assumptions, and criteria that come from the art industry. This concerns both the question of property rights or ownership, as well as that of permanence and transience. For what is art such as this if not transient?


It is art and therefore it should be conserved, or, conversely, it is not art and therefore should not be preserved. Perhaps though, the works are indeed art and at the same time should not be preserved. This is not to argue, however, that when there are attempts to deface these works, they should not be defended.  


It is the painting, not simply the painted


There is a certain fetishisation of art as resistance.


Of course this art is resistant; it is both an act of defiance and intends to mobilise further defiance. In its content, it asserts that the revolution is ongoing, it undermines, mocks, gives the lie to the military council's claim to be a protector of the revolution. It challenges the attempt to contain the power and challenge of the revolution by limiting it to 18 days in 2011, by asserting that those who have been killed since are unequivocally martyrs of the revolution.


The fetishisation consists in taking the works out of their context. Perhaps a detour to Palestine would be useful at this point. In predominant understandings of Palestinian art as resistance, this art is constructed as standing apart from armed struggle. It is mapped onto a dichotomy of non-violent versus armed struggle, whereby non-violent means of resistance are constructed as morally superior in such a way that denigrates and devalues the importance of armed struggle. The point here is not to make an argument about whether people have the right to armed resistance, but to assert that contrary to these common associations, resistant art's relationship to armed struggle cannot be assumed.


It is perhaps interesting to note that the public art of the First Intifada, which was both a tool for and expression of popular resistance, received little attention in the western world. Meanwhile, the art for example on the wall built in the West Bank has received international praise and acclaim, while it remains far more isolated than the earlier work from Palestinian social movements.


The Egyptian context is of course different but it is important to be mindful of these discursive constructions as the images get circulated and mobilised in familiar circuits. These circuits take the power of interpretation further away from both the artists and the Egyptians who interact with the works.


There is the risk of taking this art out of the context of struggle. Graffiti is not simply a product, it is a process. Much has been written already about the battle for public space in Egypt, and the ways in which the public perform and reclaim space away from the security dictates of the regime. Graffiti is a performance of the public, an act in the battle for public space, an assertion of defiance and presence.


It is part of the revolution, and it is part of struggle, and it is from its participation in struggle, not simply its aesthetics, that it draws its power. Part of the power and meaning of these works, in other words, lies not simply in their content or location, but in their being part of a broader battle over public space and the legitimacy and bounds of the revolution. The impulse to conserve and preserve is a perhaps unwitting attempt to take these works outside of politics and of conflict. By taking them outside of conflict however, their power, energy and meaning would be muted. They become fossilised remnants of themselves.


In becoming protected works – and not protected by groups of ordinary people or revolutionaries – but the security of one of the most elite universities in the country, the pieces lose their dynamism. Painting under the protection of AUC security would make the work lose some of its power, some of its subversive energy both as product and act.


Let us not forget that the wall became a blank canvas for the artists to paint the martyrs of Port Said, precisely because their paintings of those injured during the fighting on the street in November had been erased.


Such efforts to make this transient art permanent, however, separates these works from other forms of revolutionary, transient art. During mass protests, photos of demonstrators, in a sense using their own bodies as art, circulate; people became their own walls. From signs, to painting on themselves, to pieces that they carry, it is a kind of performance art (some of which is captured in Karima Khalil's book Messages from Tahrir), and it is transient art. Rather than try to emulate the standards and criteria we associate with the art of galleries and international art makers, it makes more sense – politically, conceptually and ethically – to keep this revolutionary art firmly within the emerging body of art of which it is a part.


Perhaps the focus should be less on conservation and more on documentation. Graffiti artists themselves often photograph their own work, knowing it might soon be whitewashed or vandalised. The blog Suzeeinthecity has done an admirable job of documenting graffiti in Cairo since the revolution. Wall Talk, published in September of this year, documents Egyptian revolutionary street art since the beginning of the revolution.


In documenting the art and protecting it when it is attacked, revolutionary art remains an act and a verb. Initiatives to conserve and protect them, on the other hand, arguably pull the other way, leaving us with fossilised remnants of struggle.


Each time the walls are whitewashed, the clear and defiant message when the painters returned was: 'You erase, we draw again'. The message, each time, has been written explicitly on the wall, and is communicated by the act itself.


This is the spirit of the muralesque graffiti adorning a street that has seen bloodshed and bravery in different chapters of a revolution that is still unfolding.

About the author

Naira Antoun

Naira Antoun is a writer and youth worker.