Creative Dissent of Arab graffiti
Washington - A common myth attributes the Sphinx’s snub nose to vandalism by Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops during the 1798 French military campaign in Egypt. Actually, Arab scholars of the Middle Ages assigned the blame to Mohammed Sa’m al-Dahr, a fanatical Sufi Muslim, who attacked the Sphinx in 1378AD, was hanged for the crime and buried nearby.
History is repeating itself as the Islamic State (ISIS) group is destroying world heritage sites in Iraq and Syria, the vast scale of which rivals the Taliban’s shocking dynamiting of Afghanistan’s famous Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.
Destruction of art and historic monuments violates part of what makes us “civilised”.
From the artistic images in the 35,000-year-old Maros caves in Indonesia to the Chauvet Cave in France, to modern-day graffiti, our capacity to conceptualise, express and create beauty whether functional or representational — provocative, pleasing or documentary — is innately and uniquely human. Artists across the spectrum reflect the mores of the time. They question the status quo, in visual resistance where others fear to tread.
The word “graffiti” is derived from the Italian root “graffio”, which means to scratch a wall. Graffiti is often a political barometer — executed on an edgy leash creating art which, after fleeting or intense focus, may last only a day or endure for decades. In cities, it reaches high-density audiences with great effect.
Recently, the Jerusalem Fund Gallery in Washington hosted an exhibition called Creative Dissent, Arts of the Arab World Uprisings showcasing dozens of examples of graffiti and murals created since 2011 in Egypt, Libya, the Palestinian Territories, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.
The artwork was arranged by country with satire and subversion delivered in full colour, from subtle to shocking, and poignantly profound, such as Tunisian mural The String of Revolutionary Fists and Super Morsi from Tahrir Square.
Attributing graffiti to its original artists is challenging but one of the known artists in this exhibition is Nadia Khiari, whose 2013 bright blue cartoon image with sketches of white cats called A Salafi’s Worst Nightmare mocked anti-feminist ideals embraced by the Salafist adherents.
Sounding walls portray disillusionment, hints of hope and despair in the wake of the many uprisings. Representing the Arab street, the artists express rage against and mockery of the establishment. A Syrian artist painted Assad and Putin Love Affair, which appeared in June 2012.
“These expressive media have helped individuals unite, communicate, and make demands,” notes the exhibit’s brochure, “while also enabling them to ridicule, attack, and symbolically destroy perceived opponents.” Ultimately, this raw street art, which is often quite refined, “cultivate[s] a collective memory within both real and virtual space”.
Egyptian artists painted graffiti throughout Cairo — in written, abstract, figurative, serious and sarcastic formats — during the recent turmoil. Art appears or changes after a night of intense painting — on vigil watch for police. A video by Bahia Shehab captured a cat-and-mouse game between government troops and the opposition. The image of a boy facing a tank eerily echoes that iconic moment when a student faced down a tank in China’s Tiananmen Square during the 1989 uprising. This installation was alternatively whitewashed by pro-government activists and repainted by the opposition as the visual conflict raged.
During a panel discussion about the role of graffiti, painting and photography as creative dissent, Egyptian photographer Amr Mounib thanked Google for “immortalising some of the moments [since] some of the art is no longer there”. He told The Arab Weekly, “The brush and the camera are crucial to revolution.”
Bahia Shebab’s art was inspired by the infamous “Blue bra” incident during which soldiers ripped the blouse off a female protester. Monib described how this event, first captured in a photograph, led to the bra as artifice to reflect women protesters’ vulnerability, their prominent role in the revolution and hopes crushed under the brutality and moral conservatism of successive regimes.
Walking around Cairo today is very different. The government has whitewashed most of the graffiti to neutralise the atmosphere for tourists whose spending is vital to the economy. The voices of wall art are furtive but subdued.
Egyptian-American artist Mona el-Bayoumi’s large unstretched canvas paintings were prominently displayed. Her purposely “movable” art folds to travel.
Among other themes, the compositions reflect her opposition to Egypt’s relationship with the United States, depicting its dependence on foreign aid as a bird standing on a weak pedestal. She incorporates symbols of pharaonic style: gods, eyes, hearts and the key of life on a cobalt blue ground, inspired by the enduring pigments on tombs and temples in the Valley of the Kings.
Gallery Director Dagmar Painter offered context showing images of the Berlin Wall and of British graffiti artist Banksy’s wall art in Gaza featuring cats. Reportedly, Banksy reasoned that since the most popular YouTube videos feature cats, he hoped the feline theme might reach Americans. The University of Michigan and the Arab American National Museum collaborated on this exhibition. It was curated by Christiane Gruber and Nama Khalil.
Founded in 1977, The Jerusalem Fund is the oldest Palestine-focused institution in the United States. Its gallery and programmes fill a void, making it a valued venue for devotees of Middle Eastern politics, arts and culture.