LONDON—When Soraya Morayef, a budding Egyptian art curator, walked into Townhouse gallery in Cairo in the aftermath of the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, she expected the usual brush-off. Her friends had previously pitched exhibitions of their passion: graffiti and stencil-based work, or what is now given the catch-all term “street art.” Every time, they had been turned away.
But not now. “When I approached them I really didn’t think they would do it,” she says. “I had no credentials, I had no background. But now there is this increasing new interest in graffiti and street art, that’s why they eventually took me.”
Morayef was the beneficiary of a sea-change in the Egyptian art world since the country’s revolution sparked an explosion of paint and posters scrawled on walls in cities around the country. “The revolution has massively impacted the art scene in Egypt, it’s now a lot more diverse and there’s a lot of work inspired or based on the revolution,” says Morayef.
The same pattern has been seen across the Arab world as people have shaken their chains over the past year. Now, Western intelligence officers no longer have to gauge the temperature of the “Arab street” through clandestine interviews: they just have to look at the walls around the cities and analyze the Arab street art. In Arabic, it is called el-fann midan — literally translated, “art in the square.” The mixed experiences of euphoria, mourning and loss have been creatively rendered all over the cities of the Levant.
“Art has played a major role in the Egyptian revolution, for the most part because street art and graffiti as in a Western form simply didn’t exist, now it’s everywhere.” said Omar Ozalp, co-owner of the Articulate Baboon gallery on the outskirts of Cairo. “More important, each one carries a message, be it political or social, which for once has the Egyptian population thinking.”
The other co-owner of the gallery, Adam Maroud, adds: “Corner after corner after corner was suddenly emblazoned with a battle cry in rushed lettering or a perfect stencil of pop-culture political satire and it was beautiful and stirring to watch it spread. Nothing to me personifies creative freedom more than a bold graffiti piece on a very public wall.”
And it’s not just the Middle East. Art has flourished around the world over the past year — from Haiti to Chile to China — as people have fought back against totalitarian governments and tried to make sense of broken societies using brushes as well as bricks. For many young people, street art has become the perfect “crime” when living in a closed dictatorship with no free press. If you do not get caught in the act, there is no way for the authorities to track you down most of the time.
“I think the creative output during this unfinished revolution is an integral part in its continuation and the direction it’s bound to take,” says Ganzeer, the most prominent street artist in Egypt, who was arrested for making posters at the height of the protests.
The move out of galleries, as artists take their work to the people, also represents a “democratization” of the creative arts. “The streets are for everybody. The gallery is for an art-seeking niche,” says Ganzeer. “It’s very wrong for the streets to be so open to the brainwashing effects of capitalist-driven advertisers and so closed off to honest art, which has been trapped into the confinements of fake gallery constructs. Galleries need to exist, but it shouldn’t be the only way to be able to experience art.”
In crisis-wracked Europe, the indignados in Spain, as well as young people in Germany, Greece and France, have also used their city walls as canvases to get their message across. Evol is a German artist who recently had a gallery show in London, but the 39-year-old’s main work is stenciling windows on concrete slabs slung out on the street, turning them into drab housing estates. “Life is a reflection of the circumstances I live in,” he says. “Whatever happens to me I will try to transport into art.”
Ganzeer feels something similar: “I feel the core purpose of creative arts lies in its social relevance.”
Beyond Post-Modern Irony
Street art has captured the imagination of the younger generation of artists in the West over the past decade, led by British artist Banksy. But while the anonymous Bristolian has garnered much of the attention, there is now a dedicated phalanx of scribblers working alongside him — and their ranks have ballooned and “globalized” over the past year.
For many of the new generation, the period where the pursuit of money appeared to rule all forms of creativity — viz. the canonization of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst — is over. The postmodern ironies of the Young British Artists movement have been destroyed by the immediacy of the human crises happening around the world. Young artists now feel the need to reflect on the chaos of global events through their art. They are not seeking to engage with the world retrospectively but as part of ongoing struggles hoping to bring about real, tangible change.
In this sense, it is not just the venue that has changed — from the gallery to the street — but the content, too. “Before the revolution we were falling into clichés and trying to express things between brackets,” says Khaled Hafez, a prominent Egyptian artist in the traditional gallery setting. “But since 9/11, more and more political issues are being expressed in art installation practices. The Arab Spring has really accelerated that.”
The direct engagement with societal issues in this way is not wholly new in the art world. It relates back to the work of the Russian Constructivists, such as Aleksander Rodchenko and El Lissitzky, who wanted to make an art of constructed abstract elements that represented the movements in society and of the Bolshevik revolution. They stopped making one-off art works to produce printed material, posters, pamphlets, and placards that could be used by the Russian people. Their work was later banned under Stalin, who wanted a much more dictatorial form of art, or pure propaganda that didn’t engage in more avant-garde abstraction.
Political artists following on from the Constructivists, include German anti-fascist artist John Heartfield, who devised a form of photomontage that became a weapon against the rise of Nazism. His work was so powerful that he was high on the Nazi hit list and had to flee Germany.
In one of his most famous montages he showed Hitler doing his customary salute and a giant businessman handing him money, highlighting that behind all Hitler’s socialist rhetoric, it was big business that supported his rise to power. The image wasn’t shown in an art gallery: It was on the front cover of the German weekly magazine, AIZ.
In many ways, “street art” goes all the way back to the caves of Lascaux where primitive men (and women) decorated their walls with pictures of horses, stags and bison. Back then, there was no Egyptian security force or Chinese intelligence officers to imprison the artists. There are now.
The latest upsurge in revolutionary street art over the past year has rudely challenged many of the sacred cows in traditional art circles, paralleling the population’s political awakening. Ideas of what constitutes art, where art is shown and who makes art have all been shaken violently.
But the fight against the gallery-based model has been largely successful over the past year, and the traditional art world is now playing catch-up. More traditional, gallery-based art elites in the West have pushed back over the past decade — and this is no different in Egypt.
“We should remember that the Middle East is still conservative,” says Hafez. “Street art is not gallery art, but we are in a revolutionary situation, and it helped mobilize people. There was fabulous graffiti art, and personally, I think change is impending.” He adds: “I have learned a lot from the younger generation like Ganzeer.”
Ganzeer agrees, and says he believes the traditional sectors of the art world in Egypt have shot themselves in the foot by not showing more enthusiasm for the new generation. “I think the majority of the traditional art elite have proven the inability of their art to speak or relate to society via their inability to artistically engage in the revolution,” he says. “Many may have engaged as citizens and protested just like everybody else, but few have been able to engage artistically.”
The interface of politics and art has always been a tense one, with some of the more conservative elements in the art world accusing political art of being “agit-prop.” They argue that when you engage directly with politics, you deplete your sophistication. But things are changing.
“There is a very reactionary strand in the art world that says that you shouldn’t make work that’s overtly political,” says Peter Kennard (who, in the spirit of full disclosure, also happens to be my father), a senior lecturer in photography at the Royal College of Art in London, and one of the United Kingdom’s most prominent political artists. “You can imply, but that’s also to do with the art world being about selling work.” He adds: “Our understanding of art has become over-aestheticized and I think the only thing that can change that, which is changing it, is the pressure of crisis in the world.”
It is not just the art world that is fearful of this new army of artistic and political revolutionaries. Centers of unaccountable power over the past year have demonstrated a fanatical aversion to creative thought and production.
In Syria, in August, the most famous political cartoonist in the country, Ali Ferzat, was abducted in the streets of Damascus and beaten. “We will break your hands so that you’ll stop drawing,” the thugs told him, before doing exactly that. He was dumped by the roadside. “This is just a warning,” they told him.
In China, Ai Weiwei, the iconic artist whose work has taken on themes of repression in his home country, was arrested by the authorities and held incommunicado for months on spurious charges, which still stand.
While the process has accelerated over the past year because of the volume of artistic dissent, this fear is nothing new. In Honduras, the first two people arrested after the 2009 coup were the President Manuel Zelaya and cartoonist Allan Macdonald, who had published cartoons in support of the deposed president.
In 2003, the U.S. government asked that a tapestry version of Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece Guernica on permanent display at the United Nations, be covered up with a blue curtain when Colin Powell made his notorious error-filled speech about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the need for invasion.
It seems counter-intuitive. Why would the most powerful country in the world care about a piece of art decorating a room at the United Nations? And why would the world’s newest superpower care about one man making piles of seeds in a studio in Beijing?
“Artists, especially cartoonists, can make it easy for everyone to understand a difficult political statement,” says Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist whose pictures have become an accompaniment to uprisings all over the world. “We have the ability to make fun of dictators and, of course, dictators are not fond of humor.”
There is some debate as to what the term “street art” actually means. It is an appellation that describes a genre of art rather than work that is done outside. But Swoon, one of the few women in the field, thinks this is wrong. “For me, if I’m working outside, then fine, call it street art, but if I’m working inside, then it’s an installation,” she says. “For me it doesn’t seem useful.”
Many practitioners believe the label is another way of demeaning an art form that is encroaching on a nervous elite. “Sometimes it seems that people need a name for something, if they don’t know it by a name they can’t grasp it,” says Evol. “I dislike the expression.”
Protest Art in the United States
In the United States, the Occupy movement has been synonymous with sign-making and art installations from the beginning. The first thing you noticed when arriving at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan was that everyone had their own signs, some scrawled on pizza boxes, some professionally printed photomontages. There was an evident need to creatively express dissatisfaction rather than just shout about it.
Some suggest that because traditional channels of political discourse in the United States have broken down so catastrophically that it is only through art that sense can be made of the crisis.
Max Nova, a 25-year-old from Colorado, is behind some of the most iconic art pieces associated with Occupy Wall Street. The co-founder of Dawn of Man, a production company based in New York, he has done art for years, but says the Occupy movement has given his work a directly political angle for the first time.
“Personally, I have been inspired,” he says. “Not just to be political, but to do work that is directly focused on making a change, spreading awareness about important issues.” He’s not alone either. “I have definitely seen a lot more political and street art lately,” he adds.
In November, the Dawn of Man projected words and images — including the Occupy movement’s “99%” slogan — on the side of the Verizon building as protestors marched across the Brooklyn Bridge. They projected from a private residence, but in the United States, they also have to worry about a crackdown by authorities. “We had cops looking into the apartment, but they couldn’t get in without a warrant,” he says.
“It is interesting how art has become a fundamental factor,” says Nova. “If you look at working groups in New York OWS, the arts and culture one is vastly larger than the other groups. A lot of artists find themselves drawn to this.”
New York-based Swoon gave a piece to Occupy Wall Street and planned to paint on some tents in Zuccotti Park before they were removed in the city’s controversial eviction.
“I became politically aware at the same time I started working outside,” she says. “The whole thinking process dovetailed with going outside, because once you start working outside, then the whole conversation about public and private space and the commons [begins].”
She says she engages in a “creative transformative art process” where, by enacting the thought process, you are also creating. But she’s still locked out of the traditional U.S. art scene. “Galleries in New York don’t touch me with a 10-foot pole,” she says. Strangely, a lot of street artists report museums, rather than galleries, being more open to their work.
Swoon spent part of 2011 working in a small village just outside of Port-au-Prince in Haiti and built a community center and a small house.
Since the earthquake struck in January 2010, leaving a whole society traumatized, there has been one artist who has been out decorating Port-au-Prince with beautiful murals and graffiti pieces as a way of expressing his own hopes and fears for the country.
“I was never a big fan of politics,” says Jerry Rosembert, but he adds that the extent of the trauma in Haiti means he has had to engage. “I am obliged to commentate on my country because things are bad, and for me, it is the best way of giving my ideas worth and value.”
His art is just another way of communicating a message — a cry to be heard in a society rendered silent by a natural disaster. “Certain people do this their way sometimes in the newspapers or on the TV, but the graffiti, this represents me more, and this is a type of commentary I enjoy a lot.”
The Art Spring has stretched to South America, too, with the Chilean student protests inspiring a surge in graffiti and cartoons on the streets of Santiago and other cities. Latuff went to Chile during the protests and says he saw art students and passersby producing cartoons and paintings on the walls in support of the uprising to an extent he’d never experienced in Latin America.
The cross-border pollination of art over the past year has been huge. Latuff is in high demand in Egypt and across other parts of the Middle East. Even before the January 25 protest that began the Egyptian revolution, Latuff was receiving requests for illustrations from protesters.
“This was pretty amazing,” he says. “I usually produce stuff and it will be used, but this was different — they were making specific requests. They felt cartoons and art could help their campaign.” He says activists in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain have all sent him photos of his cartoons being held up at rallies.
Freedom Outside of the Gallery Model
The explosion of technology and social media has been a vital corollary to this movement. Facebook and Twitter have not just allowed activists to organize, but also provided a key tool to disseminate pictures. They have accelerated this “democratization” of art by making it much easier to circumvent the gallery, which had previously been a prerequisite to building an audience.
“Especially in past year I have been using Twitter and Facebook to spread the artworks, which has played an important role in getting them out,” says Latuff. “If I upload a single cartoon it takes 15 minutes to get sometimes 3,000 hits, depending on the issue. It’s amazing how you put up a single cartoon and it spreads like a fire.”
Moving outside of the gallery also changes the audience. In a revolutionary situation, the aim is often to reach as many people as possible. Street art is in some way inherently political, in a way gallery art isn’t. The people who see it have no choice in the matter — unlike those who venture into a gallery on a Sunday afternoon. Now, the wall is the gallery, and the audience has multiplied exponentially.
“I use the space for everyone who is living or passing by there, I’m naturally speaking to anyone passing by,” says Evol. “No one asked me to do it, so I can’t ask for a reaction in a certain way.”
Krzysztof Wodiczko is a Polish artist who teaches at Harvard University and is famous for his projections, including a swastika on the South African Embassy in London during apartheid. He has used his art to further the causes he believes in for the past 40 years.
But he says he’s never been this excited. “In ’68 there was legitimate criticism that art was being too conservative in its choice of media, and therefore its capacity to reach those who really needed reaching. Artists were indulging in some posters, but what was needed was something to engage the mass media.”
Now, he says, “the whole cultural geography of resistance benefits from mobile communication. Even though authorities will try to censor it, there will be ways around it with other inventions.”
Wodiczko draws a distinction between two different types of political art — the direct and indirect. “My experience in Poland under the previous regime was that because it had this image of an open system, or a system with a human face, that transformed itself into more of democracy, it was in fact, very scared of dissent that may contradict this. So artists were allowed to speak, to deal with politics, as long as they were doing this indirectly, in a metaphoric way. Once they move into more of a direct link, or people recognize them as political activists, at the same time as artists, then they will be in jail or prevented from speaking or communicating.”
Latuff is an example of this. He is banned from Israel because he has made cartoons critical of the government’s treatment of Palestinians. In Brazil, he has been arrested three times for producing his pieces. “I believe in what Che Guevara called internationalism, solidarity with people,” he says. “If I’ve got a skill, I think it’s necessary to put this skill at the service of the social movement. The artist cannot ignore art as a tool for change. Especially not now.”
Matt Kennard is a London-based freelance journalist. His work has appeared in The Financial Times, The (UK) Guardian, Salon and The Chicago Tribune, among others.