When does writing on walls become less an act of defacing public property and more an act of activism, a release of the stifled and perhaps even repressed and unheard voices of the people?
The wave of public outcry that raised roofs in Tunisia late 2010 which then swept through North Africa and into the Middle East has brought with it an outpouring of creative activism, street art and other forms of graffiti. City walls, streets, bridges and pillars becoming the immediate canvas to express thoughts, criticisms, and epitaphs some in English but for the most part in Arabic.
From the naïve and rough to the more sophisticated, the rabble and street artists alike have been making visible their opinions, dissent, ridicule and scathing remarks something literally unheard of these past decades in this region.
Using sprayed or painted images and words, the prevalant graffiti in many cases reflect a currency in political public commentary. At times the messages antagonising leaders on their way out, in other instances witty commentary meant to provoke thought.
In Egypt, pieces tagged by Ganzeer, El Teneen, Sad Panda & Keizer are becoming some of the most talked about and recognisable works. Interestingly, they are also garnering a digital following with Facebook fan pages and Twitter feeds. An evolution likely linked to the statistic that Egypt currently has almost 9 million Facebook users, ranking it #1 on the continent.
For post-revolution Tunisia public spaces formerly tightly controlled by the police and secret services are popping up with graffiti. Some of it commemorating the martyrs of the revolution like vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. Though the reins of public control are less tight these days, graffiti nevertheless is ephemeral lasting only until the authorities come through to wipe away its existence.
In Libya, the tone of street art has often been filled with heckling, ridiculing former and since deceased leader, Muammar el-Qaddaf. The punishment for making such dissent so visible has not come without swift and deadly retribution however. Thirty-four year old Kais al-Hilali, a known Libyan political cartoonist was shot and killed in March 2011 in the city of Benghazi reportedly by the secret police. Graffiti and political cartoonist from Israel to New York were quick to pen their response to a killing attributed to Muammar el-Qaddafi’s thugs.
The situations and contexts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya bear one similarity in that the youth have actively taken to the streets and walls to speak their minds but perhaps that is where similarities cease. What shape, form and role street art will take in each of these nations as they transition is unfurling as we speak.
In Egypt, the dialogue encouraged through street art and activism continues to build momentum, becoming more formalised. Ganzeer for example has been savvy to employ the Internet on many levels. He hosts the user-driven website cairostreetart.com, an updateable google map where users tag and mark the latest graffiti sightings in Cairo. Earlier this year, he made available via his blog a free downloadable graffiti stencil kit and continues to encourage others to make their voices heard, organising this past May the event ”Mad Graffiti Weekend.” An event where he brought together street artists to collectively produce large-scale works like the “Tank vs. Bicycle” mural above. His efforts do not stop there, along with El Teneen, they run the blog magazine, The Rolling Bulb. He too has suffered the consequences of making visible his discent, when this past May 2011, he was briefly jailed for hanging posters criticising the interim provisional Egyptian government, but this does not seem to be slowing him down.
Whichever way you look at it, there is one clear message being written on the walls from Benghazi to Cairo, a message echoed in one of Keizer’s tags “Your fear is their power!” and the word fear could just as easily be replaced with silence.
Other Links |
Suzee In The City interviews Sad Panda for The Rolling Bulb
Themba Lewis, photographer based in Cairo covering Cairo graffiti.
A good review of street art in Cairo by Canadian online publication rabble.ca
The New Yorker on Cartoonists Honouring Fallen Libyan Street Artist, Kais al-Hilali.
Foreign Policy on the graffiti as a counterculture medium or art.
All images courtesy of the respective artists. All rights reserved. Keizer | El Teneen | Ganzeer| Suzee in the City | observers.france24.com | AP Photo | Francois Mori via Denver Post | English Al Jazeera | Foreign Policy