A curious image is displayed on a wall outside the American University in Cairo’s Tahrir Square campus. Inconspicuous at first glance, the red and white chess board is more than a game. The pawns are grouped together at one end, and an upside-down king is flanked by bishops, knights, and castles at the other. An apt metaphor, to many revolutionaries, of how a ruler was toppled yet strongmen remained in power.
The chess board is the work of a graffiti artist who calls himself El-Teneen, “the Dragon,” one of the many young Egyptians who picked up a can of spray paint and stencil for the first time during the January 25 revolution. Once an underground endeavor, attempted by only a few brave souls who did their deeds at night and in the most remote corners, graffiti has emerged as a potent form of expression since the protests that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. One of El-Teneen’s first pieces, spray-painted in Tahrir Square on January 26, was a simple portrait of Mubarak beside the word “LEAVE.”
Walking through Tahrir, the center of the mass protests, is like passing through a gallery of graffiti art. Images of the graffiti have been captured and disseminated by the world’s media, local bloggers, and ordinary passersby. Names such as Ganzeer, Sad Panda, Kaizer, Adham Bakry, Charles Akl and El-Teneen have been hash-tagged to no end on Twitter. Some of the works are unsubtle, like the boldly colored martyr portraits of Egyptians killed in the uprising. One of the most powerful images is “Tank versus Biker,” produced by Mohamed Fahmy, who goes by Ganzeer. It depicts a tank facing a bread delivery boy, balancing a tray of aysh, an image representing the struggle of ordinary people against state power.
The graffiti phenomenon quickly moved inside AUC’s campus as a subject worthy of study. Samia Mehrez, a cultural critic and professor of modern Arabic literature, launched a seminar aimed at archiving, reading, and translating materials of the revolution from speeches, chants, and slogans to jokes, poems, and wall graffiti. That has evolved into a book, Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir, due out in early 2012 from AUC Press.
One of Mehrez’s students, Lewis Sanders IV, decided to write a master’s thesis on street art and contributed a chapter to the book. “Street art is an expression of the graffiti artists’ thoughts, emotions, and desires,” he explains. “Its proliferation represents a significant shift in social perceptions and interactions with public space, as activated by the revolution. The street artist, in the act of producing art in the street, re-territorializes a territory or place that was previously subjugated by the state.” Graffiti, he says, has become a way of literally reclaiming public space for the freedom of expression.
As depicted in El-Teneen’s chessboard, the struggle for Egypt is far from complete. Huda Lufti, a professor of cultural history at AUC and a noted avant-garde artist, believes that the country’s transitional military rulers even continue to pose obstacles to the creation and preservation of the graffiti. “I don’t think they are supporting the revolutionary spirit in Egypt,” she explains. “There are constant attempts on their part to erase abusive graffiti.”
The messages, however, will not be expunged from history. Various other initiatives are underway to preserve the graffiti for posterity, with social media playing an important role in the effort. On her Facebook page, called “Revolution Graffiti,” enthusiast Maya Gowaily has posted an extensive album of images she collected during travels around the city; some of her two thousand followers on Facebook have also uploaded photographs of graffiti from all over Egypt. Ganzeer, meanwhile, designed an interactive graffiti tracking map at www.cairostreetart.com. Soraya Morayef helped popularize the artists on her blog, Suzee in the City. She also curated an exhibition of graffiti at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery; besides showcasing the work of nine artists, “This Is Not Graffiti” asked if the images can be regarded as graffiti when they are removed from the “noise, the faces, and the life of the streets.”
Perhaps a more pertinent question is whether Egypt’s graffiti will eventually cease pushing political and social boundaries. Is it merely a fashionable trend that will lose its vibrancy? El-Teneen, for one, doesn’t think so. “Even if the political situation here is resolved,” he insists, “we will still have to talk about women, religion and other issues.”