The Cultural Revolution
As Egypt's artists struggle with a newly repressive military regime, the creativity that flourished after this year’s revolution is taking on some new targets.
This year at the Venice Biennale, one of the international art world’s yearly dates, Egypt’s official entry was the artist Ahmed Bassiouny, who died while filming and participating in the uprising earlier this year that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. For his work "30 Days of Running in Place," Bassiouny attached electrodes to himself to monitor and chart his stationary jogging.
Egypt under Mubarak could easily be described as "30 Years of Running in Place." Egyptian artists and writers faced challenges ranging from small audiences to censorship to the nepotism that dogged state-run institutions. (I remember once being surprised, at an official art exhibition, to see a prize go to a terrible painting of potted flowers: "The minister of culture’s secretary," an artist friend whispered.) In one sense, stagnation itself was an inspiration: Films, novels, and artworks took the decay of the late Mubarak years as their main subject.
Now, however, Egyptian artists suddenly have a new chance to connect with audiences, and to stake a new claim on public space. The ongoing revolution has inspired and enabled an unregulated explosion of cultural activity, a great outpouring of artistic energy that takes a great many forms: Between attending rallies and protests, artists in Egypt are organizing "culture caravans" to poor neighborhoods, launching online magazines and new publishing ventures, putting on photo exhibitions in subway stations, and holding open-mic nights. Some are simply celebrating the chance to create freely; some are wondering what role art should play in the transitional period; and others are busy using their talents to wage a critique of the country’s military authorities, fighting a revolution that seems destined to carry on into the foreseeable future.
Egypt is seeing a "Niagara Falls of art production of all different levels," says artist Lara Baladi. "So many repressed voices are contributing and participating in revolution."
The film Microphone, by director Ahmad Abdalla, offers a look at those repressed voices in the days before Egypt’s revolution. Released on Jan. 25 — the day the protests began — the movie features musicians, skate-boarders, graffiti artists, and film students in Alexandria, playing themselves. It’s a charming, kinetic work, a celebration of its protagonists’ youth and talent. But all the music and motion goes nowhere — and that is the point. A smarmy official declines to include bands in a government-sponsored concert and attempts to organize an informal neighborhood performance are thwarted by the police and the regulars of a nearby mosque.
These days, the artists in Microphone feel they have a much better chance to make themselves heard. "The country is ours again. Public space is ours," says Aya Tarek, a 21-year-old graffiti artist featured in Abdalla’s film.
A highly visible legacy of the revolution is the graffiti and street art with which young Egyptians are signing their surroundings. Walls across the country bloom with witty, scathing, and melancholy messages — a running commentary on the political situation that delights some and startles many.
Some of the most arresting work has been done by a 29-year-old graphic artist known as Ganzeer. Like others, he has memorialized the revolution’s martyrs — as those killed during the revolution are known here. With the help of volunteers, he’s created three beautiful red yellow and black murals portraying the young men in their home neighborhoods. His dream is to create portraits of all the nearly 1,000 martyrs in their hometowns across Egypt.
But, like many of Egypt’s post-Tahrir artists, he has been sidetracked by current events — in particular, by the need to express his opposition to the generals that rule the country.
One day this spring, Ganzeer put out a call for volunteers on Twitter. Dozens of people showed up to create a mural under a bridge in central Cairo, depicting in striking, life-size, black-and-white detail an army tank facing a bread delivery boy on a bicycle — a stand-off between the army and the people.
Other graffiti artists have created stencils of Gen. Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Allied Forces and the de facto ruler of the country, next to Mubarak and surrounded by hearts, behind bars, and sporting the low, untrimmed beard of an Islamic fundamentalist. These images are quickly effaced, only to have new ones take their place.
"There are people who come up with chants; there are people who are good at setting up tents," says Ganzeer. "People who have artistic talents need to figure out how to contribute with their tools to the cause." Responding to popular demand, Ganzeer has made a selection of stencil patterns available online to any would-be graffiti artists.
Other artists are also drawing directly from their experience of the revolution. In his new collection Tear Gas Poems, the poet Kareem Abdulsalam recounts extraordinary scenes from the uprising; the art gallery Darb 1718 is currently hosting a show dedicated to Egypt’s state-owned media, which during the uprising spewed spectacularly vicious and ridiculous propaganda; the excellent new comic book TokTok features stories drawn from post-Mubarak life, including an artist’s odyssey through protesters, tear gas, and police, carrying hundreds of issues of the magazine.
The comic book artist Shennawy, one of the founders of TokTok, says there is a greater margin of freedom after the revolution, but that it hasn’t changed much in terms of his and his colleagues’ work. "Most of the artists have been working in opposition newspapers," he says. "They are used to criticizing the government." TokTok, which launched a few weeks before the revolution and already has an enthusiastic following, is above all an example of the flourishing youth culture that powered the revolution and whose enthusiasm — for connection, enterprise, self-expression — may act as a bulwark against more reactionary forces that are also making their influence felt in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Thrilling as the revolutionary period may be for artists, it is also fraught. Their current expanded freedom of expression and assembly is by no means guaranteed. They must work in the shadow of an extraordinary historical event and an ongoing political struggle. "Since the Revolution, Egyptian artists have been running about like headless chickens," writes visual artist Doa Ali at the new online culture and politics magazine Rolling Bulb. "Their concerns have taken an almost existential dimension. What do we do now? Do we keep doing what we used to do? Where do ‘we’ end and our art begin?"
Many Egyptian writers and artists long worked in spiritual or overt opposition to the ruling regime, wearing their marginalization like a badge of honor. Back in 2003, renowned novelist Sonallah Ibrahim declined a government prize and the sizable financial award that came with it, telling stunned dignitaries "this government doesn’t have the credibility" to bestow cultural awards. Today, there are plans to honor Ibrahim — who acted as the country’s pre-eminent and satirical literary conscience — once again, with an award he will not feel compelled to refuse. But in July, the event was postponed, as the organizers (a new group called the Independent Egyptian Artists) were too involved in street protests to proceed.
In any case, for many, it is much too soon to celebrate. That’s the feeling at the downtown offices of the small independent publishing house Dar Merit, which for years has been a smoke-filled den of cheerful dissidence. Publisher Mohammed Heshim has put out works by a generation of young writers who tended to write scathing exposes of the moral collapse of the late Mubarak era (Alaa Al Aswany’s Yacoubian Building was first published by Merit) or elliptical accounts of alienation and stasis.
Heshim was a regular at the 2005 protests of the Kifaya ("Enough") group, the first to call directly for and end to the Mubarak era. During the revolution, the offices — with their welcoming couches and TV — were a command center for writers and poets participating in the protests.
Today, Heshim and his colleagues and friends are still busy protesting — worried that the revolution will be stolen from them by the elderly generals and conservative Islamists who have come out in force since Mubarak fell from power.
"We still don’t have more freedom," says Heshim. "We won’t as long as there are military trials, as long as we don’t have a constitution, as long as there is religious bigotry and extremism. We’re still fighting. We haven’t won."
The battle is being fought on many, unexpected fronts. Lara Baladi is one of the artists behind Radio Tahrir and Tahrir Cinema, an open-air movie theater organized this month in the famous square. The venture — set up with filmmaker Omar Hamilton and actor Khaled Abdalla — came together in the span of 24 hours, says Baladi.
Baladi and others provided a projector and a screen; a passerby volunteered to get a mat for the audience to sit on; electricity was jury-rigged from streetlights. And soon hundreds of people were sitting, entranced, watching footage from the revolution that various amateur and professional filmographers contributed.
Baladi points out that a lot of artists in Egypt have been working for years to reclaim public space in creative ways (she herself is well-known for several memorable public installations). "We were moving slowly toward change," she says.
"Art under dictatorship and censorship is one thing, art during revolution is another," she says; "and art post-revolution will be yet something else." Like many artists here, she is living and working fully in the — exhilarating, promising, nerve-racking — moment.