How do the murals encourage political engagement? What does it mean to call these “murals” and “graffiti” at the same time? Does the task of interpreting complex symbols and allegorical storylines impede or define their political mission?
On 2 April, the Center for Translation Studies and the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo hosted “Visualizing Revolution: The Epic Murals of Tahrir.” Three artists, Alaa Awad, Ammar Abo Bakr, and Hanaa El Degham, spoke about their work along with journalist and collaborator Ahmed Aboul Hassan. S
I coordinated the event with Samia Mehrez to provide a space to think about the kinds of interaction the murals inspired, moving beyond the circulation of impressive images online toHow do the murals encourage political engagement? What does it mean to call these “murals” and “graffiti” at the same time? Does the task of interpreting complex symbols and allegorical storylines impede or define their political mission? engage the political motivations and street-level consequences of public art in Cairo. We hoped the panel would provoke dialogue—and debate—about the politics of painting in public. How do the murals encourage political engagement? What does it mean to call these “murals” and “graffiti” at the same time? Does the task of interpreting complex symbols and allegorical storylines impede or define their political mission? The images have attracted hundreds to the street, some posing in front of the wall with friends and family, others taking pictures for articles and book projects on art of the Revolution. All talk about the scale and suddenness of work that transformed a street characterized by fighting and split support for continued physical resistance that has claimed so many lives.
Awad, Abo Bakr, and El Degham came together with a loose consortium of artists working on Mohamed Mahmoud in February. Awad and Abo Bakr arrived presciently the morning the Port Said Massacre. Intending to complete a few small pieces then return to Luxor with new supplies for local projects, they stayed for nearly two months in a painting marathon that claimed new walls daily. We invited these three as collaborators linked through their distinct aesthetic approaches to graffiti and their effort to form a dialogue between images that evolved into large mural pieces. Painting for hours at a time in public view, they shared the belief that visual commentary could be an effective call to action, a way to provoke a public conversation about how to hold the government accountable, resist army rule, and creatively develop new strategies to resolve persistent political and social problems in Egypt.
Though the deaths in Port Said informed the urgency of the work the artists also addressed specific issues including political leadership, the relationship between the army and the people, and the quality of life for the majority of Egyptians today. Hanaa El Degham discussed her work on the wall, “Women with Gas Tanks,” which is filled with the haunting shadow-faces of women carrying gas tanks on their heads, meant to capture the gendered preoccupation with family survival one year after Mubarak's departure.
El Degham developed the piece after Parliamentary elections when news stories juxtaposed long queues for gas alongside long queues for the polls. The idea that gas lines were longer than voting lines remained with her while participating in Mad Graffiti Week in Berlin, and took on more depth and relevance when she developed it as a mural in Tahrir before a crowd of onlookers. Awad’s “Marching Women” and “Women Climbing the Ladder of the Revolution” drew immediate attention as an aesthetic break from conventional graffiti materials and subjects.
As modified versions of images in the Ramsseum Temple in Luxor, he placed them in a new context referring to Egyptian women who have led movements for social change in the past and the role of women in the Revolution today.
He described his use of Pharaonic art in reference to Egyptians as the original graffiti artists and as a reminder of the cultural resources Egyptians have to inspire resistance to dictatorial rule—whether that of Mubarak or a military state.
Interest in the uniqueness of these images as a turning point in Cairo street art attracted several hundred to the event. Yet the popularity and concern for preservation also had detractors. During the discussion a graffiti artist questioned the merits and purpose of varnishing the walls as Alaa Awad had proposed to fix the color of the murals. Awad argued Though the deaths in Port Said informed the urgency of the work the artists also addressed specific issues including political leadership, the relationship between the army and the people, and the quality of life for the majority of Egyptians todaythat it was not a gesture to preserve the art for posterity, but for as long as it remained, as a potent visual reminder to finish the Revolution. The paint used was cheap and the artists anticipated a short life span for pieces that would inevitably be painted over, and repainted again. However, the murals had lasted long enough to think about erosion from sand and sun over the coming months. AUC agreed to provide the varnish, particularly since the murals cover AUC buildings and as an extension of support for the political dialogue the walls provoked. Faculty supporters who wanted to protect the murals from repainting by city authorities had challenged AUC to step in at a crucial moment to make repainting difficult, if not ending it altogether.
The varnishing question, however, exceeded the issue of goodwill, institutional intervention, or even elemental erosion of the images. As the questioner posed it, this was a matter of principle: Why would you ever preserve graffiti, which is by definition a transient art form? Does “mural” status undermine or obfuscate the battle of the brushes that capture a revolution in progress, not just a memorialization of events past?
Abo Bakr agreed and vigorously opposed varnishing. As a committed painter of large-scale portraits from the “Lost Eyes” murals last fall to more recent Port Said martyrs’ portraits, he nevertheless referred to the paintings as a product of this moment, anticipating new martyrs and new struggles would be painted in their stead by other artists. Awad granted that point yet insisted on the importance of pigment for the visibility of work that functions as political commentary from a distance. El Degham, whose large mural piece is perhaps the most fragile because much of it depends on charcoal, said she did not own the art and was not in a position to “preserve” or not. Rather, it was a gift to the people to do as they wish.
The next day I hosted a “varnishing party” with a more nuanced sense of its purpose and the artists’ preferences. I gave clear instructions not to varnish Abo Bakr’s work consistent with his philosophy of transient art, expecting aggressive re-painting in opposition to the murals’ political message. El Degham’s piece was popular and compelling, yet destined to fade faster than the rest, so we agreed that a light spray fixative would temporarily protect it against the daily pollution and khamsin winds of Cairo. About a dozen students showed up to help, some of whom recognized the martyrs' figures on the walls from their days protesting in Tahrir over the last year, while others were taking in the street for the first time since 12 February 2011.
El Degham, whose large mural piece is perhaps the most fragile because much of it depends on charcoal, said she did not own the art and was not in a position to “preserve” or not. Rather, it was a gift to the people to do as they wish.
Rollers in hand, some students climbed up ladders to lay a clear veneer over the Goddess Nut. Others crouched on the ground to coat the hieratic script of an ancient myth, “The Destruction of Humanity,” redeployed to comment on the obligations of the army and the perversion of its power. As we carefully moved past the martyr’s portraits, people from the street intervened, taking the rollers to go back and varnish them, except those on the Mohamed Mahmoud side of the Greek Building, which was an autonomous wall. Feeling that we had missed critical parts of the main wall, street children and vendors who had become friends with the artists after two months in the streets together, directed others to complete, even climbing ladders to give instruction on how to do it properly. Subway riders coming out of Sadat Station initially appeared upset, asking if we were painting over the walls. Once we explained the project they asked to help and enthusiastically took rollers in hand to finish the job.
Within four days of the “Visualizing Revolution” event, three pieces on the Greek Building, including Abo Bakr’s iconic portrait of Sheikh Emad Effat and his latest portrait of Essam Atta, were coated in layers of cement, signed by supporters of Hazem Abu Ismail, the Salafists’ now disqualified candidate for President. Two weeks later members of the public chipped away at the cement to restore the mural. As Hanaa El Degham said, the work is a gift to the people, and they are committed to maintaining it.
Dr. Ebony Coletu is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo. Currently, she teaches courses on the role of writing and visual art in revolutions and political literacy.