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Revolutionary Street Art: Complicating the Discourse

[Image from Hossam El-Hamalawy] [Image from Hossam El-Hamalawy]

The graffiti and street art of revolutionary Egypt have been researched many times over by now. Journalists and scholars have explored the phenomenon in its many aspects—as evolving visual text, as political rhetoric and as an act of protest in its own right. The claims about the protest street art and graffiti that have proliferated across public Egyptian walls since 2011 have been many, and include: the spread of revolutionary graffiti in Egypt was a sign and act of citizens reclaiming public space from the regime; street art worked to raise awareness and build community and solidarity among people; street art served as a tool by which citizens could (re)claim agency, assert identity, and create their own historical narratives.

These claims are not incorrect. Nonetheless, as a descriptive theory of revolutionary art they describe a process of art production, but not reception or effect. In other words, they reflect how artists and activists think about their work as makers and shapers of aesthetic and political meaning, but they do not say much about how this same art has been viewed by the broader Egyptian public.

Revolutionary Street Art Theory

Lina Khatib has argued that graffiti and murals “can be understood as a way through which citizens have reclaimed public space, and have freely expressed sentiments that before could only be expressed obliquely,” (Khatib 2012, 153). Neil Jarman, in a study of the symbolic construction of urban space, has claimed that all murals redefine public space “as politicized place and can thereby help to reclaim it for the community,” (Jarman 1998). Adopting Asef Bayat’s argument about how repressive regimes construct the use of public space, Khatib has described graffiti-making as a process of transforming passivity into activity (Khatib 2012, 10). Charles Tripp expands on this, claiming that graffiti is a form of ownership and that murals can be used as a means for Egyptians to “reclaim their opposition, their presence and their determination in the face of established power” (Tripp 2013, 306). 

Arguments about the reclamation of public space are in essence arguments about citizens (re)claiming their agency. Lisa Lau has asserted that the historical narratives depicted through street art restore “people with a sense of their own agency as living history,” and that murals accomplish this “by inviting participation from the street, empowering individuals, and legitimizing their existence in the face of state structures”. Tripp adds that graffiti and street can “express a story suppressed and so give voice to the voiceless” (Tripp 2013, 308). Khatib agrees, arguing that “murals give the citizen narrative agency over the trajectory of history in Egypt,” and so, “street art, then, is a visible marker of the agency of the citizen” (Khatib 2013a).

According to Khatib, Graffiti and street art is also an expression of collective power with the ability to “reclaim the notion of community-based nationalism” (Khatib 2012, 154). Tripp elaborates by stating that through graffiti and street art’s public presence, “a common language, often a vernacular of solidarity and defiance will be established” (Tripp 2013, 261). Tripp also argues that graffiti can “help to create a powerful mnemonic for collective memory” (Tripp 2013, 259). Similarly, Khatib argues that graffiti and murals illustrate new narratives “but only as they relate to the citizen: the citizen’s point of view, the citizen’s experience, the citizen’s emotional journey” and therefore, “Egyptian street art was a way for Egyptians to reach out to others within their own community by drawing on shared cultural references and heritage” (Khatib 2013a, 58; Khatib 2013b, 299). Mona Abaza adds that the images of fallen martyrs and battle scenes serve “as a powerful device of collective consciousness and as a pervasive continuous collective remembrance.”

There is no doubt that these descriptions accurately capture many of the dynamics of revolutionary street art. Yet, without evidence that tells us how street art achieves these goals in the social world, we must admit the obvious: these theories say little about how revolutionary art creates real-world effects for social movements. These accounts tell us quite a bit about the intent and practice of revolutionary street artists and activists and they draw attention to compelling new forms of art that deserve attention in their own right as aesthetic phenomena. But these accounts always go beyond making claims solely about the aesthetic in order to assert that revolutionary street art moves people in political ways—to revolt, to reclaim, to bolster and to assert. Yet, to date they have not attempted to show us how the broader public is moved by street art.

Towards an Account of Reception

If we hope to understand the role that art can play in uprisings and revolutions, we need to take seriously the question of reception. Building a better understanding of how Egyptians have interacted with and experienced this form of street art is vital for making claims about Egyptian revolutionary graffiti and will help us test and refine the theories of revolutionary art that are based on accounts given by producers of art. Research about how art practices intersect with activist practices around issues like reclaiming public space, citizen agency, or community solidarity also need to look beyond activist circles to see how a broader public has interacted with graffiti and street art. We need to ask basic questions like: How is this art seen by people who are not already active in social movements? Can street art persuade people to act differently in their everyday lives? Has Egyptian revolutionary art effectively communicated revolutionary messages beyond activist circles? Did it move people to revolt in 2011, and if so, how?

The 2011 explosion of graffiti and murals presents an opportunity to collect information on Egyptian art reception, where art is no longer limited to being a “means by which elites justified their positions in society” (Winegar 2006, 265). Inspired by Winegar’s ethnographic approach to art reception, I interviewed and surveyed Egyptian contacts about their experiences with and views of revolutionary graffiti and street art. Of the fifty-seven people I interviewed in the Fall of 2013, two had never seen or heard anything about graffiti and street art. Most of the people I interviewed were between eighteen and twenty-four years of age. Most were from the middle- and upper-class neighborhoods of Cairo and its new exurbs. My sampling was by no means exhaustive, nor could the results be taken as statistically representative of broad national lines. Nonetheless, as a set of snapshots the quality and texture of the information I garnered was invaluable for what it said about the complexity of public reception. Together, the variegated aspect of this research suggests that far more work needs to be done in this regard. What follows is a sampling of the questions I asked and the kinds of responses I received.

Should artists ask for permission before they graffiti or paint a wall?

Responses to the question were split. One young woman from Nasr city answered, “Yes, because it is considered by many to be against the law. So, in order to avoid any problems, they should clear it first with the government.” A 40-year-old male from Rehab City agreed, “Yes, provided that the rules are not made to stop ideas that oppose the government.” A young male student from Haram exclaimed, “Yes, they should because they don’t own the streets or the walls they are using,” and a restaurant owner from Mohandessin asserted, “The aim here is to make a balance between creativity/art and preventing chaos/ugliness. I think there has to be some kind of regulation.” Those who answered “no” explained that asking for permission would defeat the purpose of creating the graffiti or mural because graffiti’s rebellious nature is what gives it such a strong voice. Others add an ex post facto aesthetic judgment to the issue, meaning that if the art were “good” permission need not be sought, but if it were “bad” it should be. As a forty-year-old man from Nasr City made clear, “Artists need to ask for permission because otherwise everybody would have the right to paint on the walls of their city, whether they painted well or badly.”

The split responses I received suggest that the claim about “graffiti as reclaiming public space” needs to be problematized. At the very least, it needs to be complicated so that it can account for the fact that for many Egyptians the issue of private property is part of the equation. In other words, some proportion of Egyptians feel that such walls do not belong to the public, and thus are not for the artists to claim.

 How does graffiti and street art make you feel?

Participant responses to this question were extremely varied. A few of the responses supported claims that the graffiti reflected their identity, or inspired and empowered them. But the majority said that the art simply made them feel “happy” and “proud” that the revolution occurred, and many said that they were amazed and proud of the talent these artists possessed. A young female student from Moqattam answered, “Amazing. I never thought we had such talented artists. I felt proud.” Similarly, a thirty-two-year-old teacher from Garden city answered, “I felt proud these artists were defying the state and status quo.” A thirty-seven-year-old woman from Taggamu‘ Khamis answered, “It felt exhilarating and empowering to have my thoughts articulated and spread on city walls.”

Most striking in the responses I received was a widespread sense of awe. Because graffiti and street art is so new for most Egyptians, the focus of amazement for my interviewees was that this form of expression existed in the first place. While a few participants described feelings of empowerment, they could not say how this translated into agency for themselves or other Egyptians.

How do you relate to the graffiti and murals you see?

Claims about how graffiti and street art build a sense of community rest to a certain degree on how Egyptians relate to the graffiti they see, and whether or not they can find personal narratives and identities in these images. Despite the fact that the majority of my subjects had positive views about graffiti and street art, most said they did not relate to graffiti at all, or only sometimes. For them, there was a clear divide between the pictorial aspects of street art, and the verbal messages that accompanied them. A thirty-seven-year-old man from Sixth of October City told me, “I am not an artist and therefore I feel like I don’t understand a lot of the graffiti I see.” A young woman from Heliopolis explained, “I have never been a political activist, but I have my own views on what is going on,. I agree with some murals and relate to their message, but with others not so much.” A forty-year-old man from Rehab City frankly stated, “I just like the way they look.” A student from Mohandeseen answered, “I don’t relate to them, but that’s because I’m not very political.”

The majority of the people I interviewed said they did not relate to the images because they themselves were not political in their daily lives. However, many of these participants also made it clear that this did not mean they were against the revolution, or that they did not like street art, but rather that they felt the images expressed only the thoughts of the artists. Again, these responses suggest that claims about community building, agency and solidarity need to be complicated.

Why do you think the artist created the graffiti or mural?

The majority of interviewees said that artists created the graffiti or street art in order to express themselves, to send a message to the public about their views, or to commemorate martyrs. A forty-one-year-old man from Moqattam answered, “It is like an advertisement of what they believe, and they want to share these sentiments with the public.” A forty-four-year-old physician from Nasr City agreed, “To communicate his opinions through art is a form of free expression.” A young student from Manyal replied, “When the speech is confined, graffiti appears.” Echoing Abaza’s observations that graffiti is a tool of “pervasive continuous collective remembrance,” many interviewees stated that they felt like the artists created the images in order to commemorate and remember martyrs.

The three major claims about street art and graffiti—reclaiming public space, reclaiming agency, and building community—imply that the artists created these images for the Egyptian people in hopes of instilling them with these sentiments of community, agency, and ownership of the street. In order for these claims to move people, those audiences must believe that the artists speak for them and to them. While interviewees immediately recognized that artists were speaking at them, most did not necessarily feel that the artists were speaking for or to them.

Understanding how the Egyptian public has responded to, and interacted with, forms of street art requires further research into reception and effect. Since graffiti and street art can be considered a “constant response and commentary on events as they unfold,” it will be interesting to see how, moving forward, graffiti and street art will transform as the political atmosphere in Egypt continues to move in repressive directions. Since 2011, the Egyptian state has moved to limit this and other uncontrolled forms of public expression, issuing anti-protest laws and criminalizing “abusive” graffiti. It therefore remains to be seen whether or not graffiti and street art will continue to be admired or if the art form will, once again, go into hiding.

-----

Jarman, Neil. "Painting Landscapes: the place of murals in the symbolic construction of urban space" In Symbols of Northern Ireland, edited by Anthony Buckley. Belfast: The Institute of Irish Studies, 1998.

Khatib, Lina. 2012. Image Politics in the Middle East: The Role of the Visual in Political Struggle. London: I.B. Tauris.

———. 2013a. “‘The People Want...’: Street Art and Power in the New Arab World.” In Newtopia: The State of Human Rights. Ludion Ed.http://fsi.stanford.edu/publications/the_people_want_street_art_and_power_in_the_new_arab_world/.

———. 2013b. “Street Art and the Egyptian Revolution.” Strategic Sectors-Culture & Society, no. 299. Panorama. http://www.iemed.org/observatori-es/arees-danalisi/arxius-adjunts/anuari/iemed-2013/Khatib%20Street%20Art%20Egyptian%20Revolution%20EN.pdf.

Tripp, Charles. 2013. The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Winegar, Jessica. 2006. Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt. Stanford: Standford University Press.

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