Egyptians walk past graffiti with modern and pharaonic motifs in Mohammed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square, Cairo in 2014. The famous wall is being systematically knocked down. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP
The struggle behind Cairo’s revolutionary graffiti wall
Mia Jankowicz in Cairo, Wednesday 23 March 2016, The Guardian
The graffiti murals that sprang up on the walls of Cairo were a spontaneous reaction to Egypt’s revolution. But, despite their cultural importance, they’re being demolished in an attempt to clean up the city … or is it to erase the past?
Ammar Abo Bakr came for the revolution, and stayed for the graffiti. On 25 January 2011, the fine art professor was sitting at home in Luxor when he saw YouTube videos of protests gathering in Tahrir Square. Two hours later, he was on the train to Cairo to join them. As those demonstrations wore on, he picked up a spray can.
“Back then, I just did simple things, like anyone would make – spraying messages on the wall,” he says. “I liked how the walls were like a newspaper; people wrote things like, ‘Don’t go down this street, there are
baltageya [plainclothes thugs] down here’.”
That November, Abo Bakr joined a sea of
protesters who flooded Mohamed Mahmoud Street, off Tahrir Square, trying to reach the interior ministry. The central security forces fought back with unprecedented new tactics: “non-lethal” crowd control, such as birdshot and teargas, that proved lethal after all. By early December, 40 protesters were dead, and many more had been blinded by birdshot.
Abo Bakr responded with a mural on the same street, portraying the blinded protesters. It was the first of his many large-scale graffiti murals, and the wall on which he painted it – owned by the American University in Cairo (AUC) – was becoming the most iconic graffiti wall in the city. The murals acted as an evolving visual commentary on Egypt’s revolution: the faces of Field Marshal Tantawi and Hosni Mubarak merging; a parade of martyrs as angels and corpses; pharaonic armies of women deposing mythical oppressors; a boy eating street food with tears in his eyes.
The graffiti on the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud street are a visual reminder of the fighting between protesters and security forces. Photograph: Amr Dalsh/Reuters
Many places in Cairo are home to revolutionary graffiti art; many others have become synonymous with revolutionary conflict. What makes Mohamed Mahmoud street unique is that it has become both.
I decided to translate the sound of the people to the wall
Now half of the wall is gone. A few months ago, workmen began knocking a hole in the wall, sending social media into a flurry of commentary and reprobation. In November, AUC confirmed that they planned to demolish at least 40% of the wall in order to tear down the derelict building behind it.In fact, downtown Cairo is getting a general makeover. Authorities are repainting building facades and have installed a triumphant new monument in Tahrir Square, watched over by multiple CCTV cameras. The city’s revolutionary graffiti art, however, doesn’t fit with the beautification plan.In 2013, the former armed forces chief Abdel Fattah El-Sisi (now president) forced through an
anti-demonstration law that has allowed for the arrests of peaceful protesters. Many graffiti artists have been arrested; the well known Ganzeer opted to leave the country after a defamation campaign. This year has already seen repeated assaults on freedom of expression, such as raids and closures of art spaces and publishers, and most recently the imprisonment of novelist Ahmed Naji.
Graffiti on Mohamed Mahmoud street near Tahrir Square. Photograph: Amr Dalsh/Reuters
In such a climate, the “cleansing” of downtown and the demolition of graffiti walls dovetail ominously. The AUC wall, in particular, is a masterpiece of complexity, lyricism and ambition. Over a period of 50 days in early 2012, painter Alaa Awad organised the most famous mural of all: a riotous depiction of ancient Egyptian figures engaged in struggle. “My training is in mural painting, not really graffiti,” says Awad. “I decided to translate the sound of the people to the wall.”
“They literally started painting throughout the riots,” says writer Soraya Morayef of Abo Bakr and Awad, who has documented the work at her blog
The city’s walls have become complex documents, authored and re-authored like ramshackle Wikipedia pages
“As soon as there were protests I would drop my things and run to join them,” agrees Abo Bakr. “And everyone was creative. One of the protesters – some guy, he doesn’t call himself an artist – every day he would come and make art with bunches of leaves, spelling out words on the pavement underneath my paintings.”
The artists helped humanise an area that during the worst clashes was littered with thrown stones and broken glass. The city’s walls have become complex documents, authored and re-authored like ramshackle Wikipedia pages. No artwork on the wall was ever considered permanent: government employees frequently whitewashed it by morning. “Erase even more, you cowardly regime,” Abo Bakr wrote on a wall in a message to the whitewashers. “Erase and I will draw again.” He even began to play with the censorship, painting over his own murals. At one point, when Islamists were dominating Tahrir Square and public discourse in general, he painted Qur’anic verses berating the sins of pride, power-seeking and hypocrisy – embarrassing the Islamists with the very texts they claim for their own.
Murals of people killed during Egypt’s uprising. Photograph: Amr Dalsh/Reuters
Despite the understanding that graffiti is by nature a transient artform, there is nevertheless a sense among the wall’s supporters that the university has gained immense cultural capital from the wall, through conferences and publications, without being willing to seriously protect its artistic or revolutionary meaning. Above all, people are angry that the decision to destroy it was poorly communicated and involved no consultation.
The university says the science building – set behind the wall, and facing on to Tahrir Square – is derelict, and that redevelopment plans, made “in the framework of the plan of the Egyptian government to develop and renovate the area of Tahrir Square,” would turn the site into a garden or a cultural centre. (Different press releases make different claims.) Former university president Lisa Anderson said it was “highly unlikely” that the wall would be preserved in its entirety.
At a conference on that very campus entitled Creative Cities: Re-framing Downtown, graffiti artist El Teneen distributed a version of the event’s poster, overlaid with the phrase: “How creative is taking down revolutionary graffiti walls?”
“AUC owns the wall, we don’t,” he says. “And if they say it must be demolished, well, that is their business. But if they are hosting ‘creative cities’ conferences in the same place they are going to knock down revolutionary artwork, I needed to say something.” Indeed, the issue was raised during the conference.
The graffiti walls are seen by some as the last standing evidence of the revolution. Photograph: Amr Dalsh/Reuters
“The wall is no less than a documentation of the revolution,” says Dr Bahia Shehab, director of the graphic design major at AUC, and a graffiti artist herself. “But many of us are just moving on and doing things elsewhere. Graffiti is always an ongoing story, I don’t see it as the end of anything. I think what is happening is a purely practical measure.” There are no plans within the arts department to challenge the decision.
The university’s archivists say they have documented the works, and promise an exhibition at an unspecified moment in the future. One unimpressed activist, Wael Eskandar, responded in a Facebook discussion: “Let’s take photos of the drawings inside [Egypt’s] temples and then take them down and do an exhibition.”
The remark raises the question of what forms of culture count as “real” Egyptian heritage. The Cairo Heritage Preservation Unit was not available after repeated requests to comment. In the silence, many assume that graffiti doesn’t count – and that “cleaning” it up is ideological. “Several episodes of ‘cleansing’ downtown of undesirable elements [have] served to demonstrate the new regime’s attempts to impose its own order,” said modern historian Lucie Ryzova at a recent conference. “These actions targeted two demographics … most associated with ‘polluting’ Cairo’s city centre: street vendors and revolutionary activists.”
Whether the wall’s lack of heritage status is a deliberate government strategy, AUC sociologist Mona Abaza, who has written extensively about the graffiti, says it certainly serves their political interests. “The cleanup of downtown is about giving a sense of order in post-January 2011 Cairo,” she says. “All of us are in denial. Tahrir is over, and the graffiti is part of it. We had four years of trauma – killings and euphoria – but humans need normalcy. And the normalcy is this order.”
“This wall is the last standing evidence that a revolution took place,” argues Morayef. “In terms of our national memory and our recent history, they are damaging something that we thought would remain one of the tangible icons. If you go to Tahrir now, it’s as if nothing ever happened.”