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New Texts Out Now: Don Karl and Basma Hamdy, Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution

[Cover of Don Karl and Basma Hamdy, [Cover of Don Karl and Basma Hamdy, "Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution"]

Don Karl and Basma Hamdy, editors, Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution. Berlin: From Here to Fame Publishing, 2014.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Don Karl and Basma Hamdy (DK & BH): Our main goal in creating the book was for preservation and documentation of the explosive street art of the revolution. But as the project developed, we felt it was not enough to just present photos of the street art, because in this case contextualizing it became important to understanding it. We wanted to expose the transformation of citizens into artists and artists into activists, but also to shed light on the larger framework of the revolution. As we collected ideas and images we realized how huge this project was becoming; it exceeded its initial budget, its page count, its artist count. It was snowballing into a monumental task of categorization, contextualization, translation, and design. All the while, every day new art works were created in the streets of Egypt and new protests happened. We felt a giant burden of responsibility to the Egyptian people and the artists to present a true reflection of the revolution and its goals.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

DK & BH: Documenting and preserving these visual expressions was the driving force behind this three-year book project. Like we wrote in our back cover blurb, it was created in close collaboration with artists on the frontlines of the battle, the book documents how they converted the streets into a dynamic newspaper of the people, providing a much-needed alternative to the propaganda-fueled media. Walls of Freedom traces the revolutionary journey, from the early pinnacle of extraordinary hope and inspiration to its decline.” The book includes a chronicle of the day-to-day volatile political situation as it rapidly unfolded. The photographs of key events and street art were meticulously collected from one hundred photographers, while the written essays were commissioned from experts across many fields. The main focus of the project was to preserve and categorize the images of street art, presenting them through a narrative of historical, socio-political, and cultural backgrounds that have shaped this movement.

[The young boy in tears holding a sandwich is the martyr Sayed Khaled, the youngest martyr in the Revolution. The
Arabic text says “glory to the unidentified.” Art by Ammar Abou Bakr, photo by Abdo El Amir, November 2013.]

The book is layered into three main components or levels. One level is a visual journey through the revolution through a chronological image-timeline. The categorization and indexing of images by artist, photographer, date, and translation was an important function allowing quick access to images by visually placing them in a larger continuum. The second level is a reference-based timeline of events, where a connection between the art and the key events is presented. The third level involves the essays and analysis, supplementing the timeline with historical implications, political and social contexts, and personal voices collected from artists and activists.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

BH: This book is an extension of my research work on the visual language and pop culture of Egypt, as well as my early political creative work on Egypt and the Middle East. My MFA work—closely following 9/11—was primarily dealing with the representation of Arabs in the media, and I worked on a series of installations dealing with this topic. My thesis was a documentary called Us and Them dealing with friendships between Arabs and Israelis in the United States. I later shifted my focus to cultural preservation, specifically as it related to language and typography, and currently I teach Arabic type typography and type-design at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. Walls of Freedom is really at the heart of my earlier political creative work and my current interest in culture and language preservation.

["Reclaiming Egyptian Identity," mural in Kasr El Nil Street near Tahrir Square. A collaboration between Ammar Abo Bakr, calligraphy
by Sameh Ismail, sculptures by Alaa Abdel-Hamid, poetry by Ahmed Aboul-Hassan. Photo by Basma Hamdy, June 2013.]

DK: In one sense, it is a logical extension of my previous street art projects related to the Middle East, namely the Arabic Graffiti book and the many resulting exhibitions and events, as well as the White Wall Beirut Festival. Arabic Graffiti was the first project bringing together graffiti writers and typographers from the Middle East and around the world who merged Arabic calligraphy with the art of graffiti writing, street art, and urban culture. It shows a visual revolution and it went to print in January 2011. A few days later, all eyes were on Tahrir Square, as were some of the artists who had contributed to the book, bringing along their spray cans. An explosion of graffiti all over the Middle East started at this point and I was somehow in the middle of it, connecting artists and projects through my network. What was really new terrain for me was politics. In the more then thirty years that I have been active in graffiti culture, it has been the Egyptian Revolution and its artists that truly brought art and politics together for me for the first time.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

DK & BH: We hope that everyone will read this book. Researchers and academics interested in street art or the Egyptian Revolution in general can find a great resource in this book. However, we also believe it is a general interest book, and when making it we were hoping to create a timeless document that preserves this vital period in Egypt's history. The book is unique because it combines striking images with extensive analysis and so can be appealing to any reader.

J: Could you talk a bit about the recent confiscation of copies of the book by customs officials in Egypt?

DK & BH: The book was first banned by China, even before we could print it there. To be honest, we were expecting other autocratic countries to follow suit from the beginning. But it had already been sold for one year in Egypt without any problems before customs decided to confiscate a shipment and alerted the police. The police report claims Walls of Freedom is “instigating revolt,” and the public prosecutor in Alexandria opened a case. But customs did not inquire first with the censor, who is solely responsible for banning books, and he soon claimed that the book had already passed his desk several times. After some time, and to our great surprise, the Egyptian cabinet announced a decision to have the books released. We have no idea how this issue ended up at Prime Minister level, but unfortunately this now looks like a mere media stunt. The books were not released and the case still continues with the prosecution. We assume that they just wanted to stop bad press at a time when Sisi had started his public relations campaign in the western media around the economic conference

[Left: art by Omar Fathy, photo by Hassan Emad Hassan, October 2012. Right: art by Omar Fathy, photo by Munir Sayegh, May 2012.]

Although this incident was not ordered from above, this case of anticipatory obedience reflects the growing lack of tolerance and freedom of expression in Egypt. There is paranoia and a form of hyper-nationalism widespread in Egypt today and it seems that the gains of the revolution, specifically relating to freedom of expression, have been reversed.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

DK & BH: Right now we are both working on translating the book. We are still hoping to be able to publish the book in Arabic in order to make it more accessible to all Egyptians. 

BH: I am working with Mahatat for Contemporary Art on extending the WonderBox project to university students and presenting it in Tasmeem Doha in March 2015. Mahatat for Contemporary Art is a Cairo-based public arts organization; they began a regional initiative in 2014 to explore creative approaches to socially inclusive public art projects by assembling and working with sanduk al-ajayib or the peep-show box. In fall 2014, I began an initiative with my colleague Denielle Emans to collaborate with Mahatat in order to introduce the WonderBox as a project within the graphic design curriculum at VCUQatar. In March 2015, Mahatat will be coming to VCUQatar to present the project at the Tasmeem ‘3ajeeb!’ conference and will be conducting a workshop for students and faculty. 

[Art by Hanaa Degham, photo by Munir Sayegh, March 2012.]

I am also co-authoring a second book on the urban typographic landscape of Egypt. The book will take readers on a journey through the fading urban vernacular typography of various cities in Egypt, which are now being replaced with digitized fonts. The book documents Arabic typography on various mediums such as signage, trucks, boats, houses, and the city walls.

DK: I am working on an Arabic Graffiti photo exhibition for the Urban Art Biennial in Saarbrücken, Germany. We will also exhibit large wood panels that were painted by Egyptian street artists. Ammar Abo Bakr will be there with a new work. I also contribute to other exhibitions, for example at the Institute du Monde Arab in Paris. Besides these projects linked to the Middle East, From Here To Fame is always working on larger and smaller urban art and hip hop events around the world, currently, for example, in India and Russia.

J: How has the book been received and what were some reactions to it?

DK & BH: It has been overwhelming; the feedback received from readers from all over the world has been very positive. But the most rewarding responses have been from the artists and activists of Egypt, many of whom have worked closely with us on the book and have wholeheartedly embraced the result. They expressed how happy they are to see their work documented in a way that they feel represents their story. We could not have asked for any better form of recognition.

[“Peace Machine.” Art by El-Zeft, photo by El-Zeft, February 2012.]

Excerpts from Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution

From the Foreward by Ahdaf Soueif

Our street art exemplified the difference between the revolution and the system: the system murdered, the revolution immortalized. The system used teargas and live ammunition, the revolution used stones and drums and fireworks. The system built brutal, obstructive walls partitioning the streets of downtown, the revolution transformed these walls into rainbows, tropical beaches, and playful trompe l’oeil vistas of the streets themselves.

In the streets of the revolution we talked a lot about how the people were ahead of the political classes, ahead of academia and the theoreticians. The people were leading the way. But we needed the political scientists, the academics to catch up; the revolution needed them to describe it, to theorize it, to map it. 

This book is an attempt to do that; part witness, part theory, part commemoration, it is an act within our revolution—our continuing revolution.

From “The Seeds of a Graffiti Revolution” by Rana Jarbou

We then went into the city’s small alleyways. What I saw there was very distinguishable from what I had seen in Cairo and in other regions. The street art in Alexandria was unique and authentic, not an imitation or reproduction of other global trends in street art. It had a local voice and an organic aesthetic. This was no coincidence, as I found out later when meeting Aya Tarek in her tiny studio in the heart of downtown Alexandria. Aya articulated her artistic vision of experimentation, which falls outside the box of conventional galleries and Western graffiti styles and pop culture. Aya herself had failed miserably in the attempt to remain underground, as her artwork on the street and elsewhere could not help but demand attention. Then there was Wensh. His work focused on visuals that more genuinely represented and connected to Egyptians and their collective memory in the midst of all signs, instructions, and ads. Using national, popular, and movie icons, his work has a strong connection to the place, and is often done in a way that makes it blend into a wall or interact with a building. At some point during my time with Amir, I asked how, despite the authorities painting over their work, they could continue to contribute to their city’s art scene? His answer: “We are married to the sea.” 

From “The Utopian State of Tahrir” by Caram Kapp

It was neither Woodstock nor Gandhi’s passive resistance nor the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was the need to prove to each other that Egypt could continue without the oppression of the last thirty years. It was the desire to be a country in which men and women—regardless of age, religion, or position in society—could live together and inspire each other. It was a way for Egyptians to publicly assert their love for one another and assert their basic equality. It was a celebration of fears overcome, infused with a new flavor of joy. In the first eighteen days of uprising, anything seemed thinkable: a new Egypt, directed not by the body of a regime, but by the individual will and responsibility of the Egyptian people. A society in which men and women were equal by common sense and not by law. Education and basic knowledge for all. A people working together independently to achieve the greater good. 

From “The Power of Destruction” by Basma Hamdy 

“Forget the past” was the artist’s attempt to question public ethics, where forgetting becomes a crime against those who sacrificed their lives. The over-stylized winged martyrs that decorated the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street were now replaced with weeping mothers clutching images of their dead sons. The original mural’s beauty, as well as its fantasy/utopian quality associated with iconography, had taken away from the artist’s power to shock. Its “aesthetic principle of stylization…make an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning; it’s transfigured, something of its horrors removed. This alone does an injustice to the victims.” Painting the mothers was the artist’s attempt to reawaken the public’s powerful reaction to the mural. This time, the suffering was depicted: the martyr was transformed from icon back to human and hence the mothers’ contorted and agonizing faces were realistically portrayed. The viewer is forced to feel shame and to question his role in this reality. In September 2012, the whole mural was erased by the government and a fresh layer of paint made way for more sardonic insults against Morsi’s regime. 

[Excerpted from Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution, edited by Don Karl and Basma Hamdy, by permission of the editors. © 2014 From Here to Fame Publishing. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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