Egyptian filmmaker Abu Bakr Shawky on Egyptian film and his forthcoming documentary
All images courtesy of Abu Bakr Shawky
Poster for Abu Bakr Shawky's new film
This week, “Letters From Egypt” focuses on Abu Bakr Shawky, an Egyptian-Austrian filmmaker, writer and editor who lives and works between Cairo and New York. Shawky is currently pursuing a Master’s in Filmmaking at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Over the past three years, Shawky has made a name for himself internationally with his intense socio-political documentaries that shed light on little-known facets of contemporary culture.
Abu Bakr Shawky
In 2008, Shawkry directed “The Colony (El Mostaamara)”, a documentary about the struggle in Egypt’s Leper Colony. The film went on to win numerous awards at festivals in Egypt, the United States, Europe and Japan. In 2010, he directed “The Road to Atalia”, a 20-minute short film about illegal immigration to Italy. The film was produced by Zad Communications and the International Organization for Migration. “Martyr Friday” is his latest documentary, in which he followed the events in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011.
Mehri Khalil: You returned to Egypt in the midst of the Revolution. What were you thinking on the flight back to Cairo?
Abu Bakr Shawky: During that period, the changes in Egypt were so frequent and sudden that my worry was that after a 12-hour flight I would arrive to a completely new situation. The rumors did not stop about flights being diverted, hordes of thugs running through the cities, foreigners being arrested; an army spokesman even hinted at the danger of war at the borders while the country was in turmoil.
MK: What were your impressions during the couple of hours after you landed?
ABS: I immediately realized that my worries were just due to excessive rumors spread intentionally by those in charge. I noticed the streets were safer than described, the spirit of the people defiant and strong.
MK: When did you go to Tahrir Square, and what was it like?
ABS: I went to Tahrir Square straight from the airport. Even though I had seen a lot of news footage, it was absolutely mind-boggling to see in reality how Tahrir Square had transformed from a traffic-stricken nightmare to a historic place of national protest in the matter of days.
MK: Tell us more about what you saw in the square, what you remember.
ABS: I immediately saw the square as almost a country of its own, like a “Tahrir Republic.” You have to go through security to enter, show ID, and no police officers were allowed. Inside the area of the square, it was a blooming city where people live, eat, sleep, pray. Art was flourishing through paintings and graffiti, there were vendors, clinics, even a barber.
Screen shot from "Martyr Friday"
MK: You were also filming the whole time you were in the streets. What kind of footage did you capture?
ABS: Because I was a one-man crew moving around with only my Handycam, I was able to get up close and personal with everyone and was able to sneak my way through most locations to get shots where I usually wouldn’t be able to film (for example, the burned down building of the National Democratic Party) to which regular access was restricted.
MK: You just edited that footage to create “Martyr Friday,” a 10-minute documentary. What are you planning to do with it?
ABS: “Martyr Friday” has been going around in the festival circuit and has been getting great feedback, especially with the film’s actuality. To date, the film has played in major festivals like Palm Springs, Raindance, Angelus, Manhattan Shorts, and has won Best Film Promoting Human Rights at the American International Film Festival.
MK: What do you think about the growth of the film industry in Egypt over the last couple of years?
ABS: The film industry has its highs and lows. There is a very large commercial aspect to it, unfortunately the intellectual aspect of the film has gone down dramatically over the past decade. But there is a flourishing independent movement that has gained some success and recognition, but should be supported more financially.
Screenshot from "Martyr Friday"
MK: Do you think that the Revolution will change the industry?
ABS: I hope that the Revolution will give a push to the overlooked independent talents and dampen the stupidity that has plagued Egyptian movies over the past years. But I am also worried that the same industry will just commercialize the Revolution and everyone will jump on the bandwagon to create cheesy, clichéd films about the events.
MK: Do you see yourself coming back to Egypt after you graduate to contribute to its film industry?
ABS: I would definitely would like to contribute to Egypt’s film industry, and I would love to see Egypt at an international level of filmmaking, instead of it being regional and restricted to the Arab world. Over the past years, Iranian New Wave Cinema has created a huge niche market in Europe and the States that proved very successful. Egypt could be the same, even more given the resources we have.
This week, Mehri Khalil speaks with Cairo-based singer-songwriter Rashad “Rash-Radio” on his music and post-Revolution plans. Click on the links to listen to Rashad’s song, “Ghost,” “Don’t Stop,” and “Butterfly.”
Image courtesy of Khaled Zohny
Mehri Khalil: You are an emerging singer in Egypt. Can you tell us more about your background?
Rashad: Nothing special, really! Just your typical, middle-class upbringing. Private school, irrelevant college major.
MK: How long have you been writing and singing?
R: I’ve been doing this for about nine years.
MK: What kind of things inspire you?
R: Anything and everything can be inspiring when it presents itself at the right place and time. It’s all about your view on things. I think inspiration is a very complicated thing, at least for me. I don’t think any artist can put his finger on one thing he can go to for inspiration, otherwise you wouldn’t have such a thing as artist’s block. I believe it’s about how you view the world around you; and at a certain point of epiphany, anything and everything can be inspiring.
MK: Did the Revolution stimulate you to write new songs?
R: The events have been very emotional, so of course it has. I did however decided to keep the material to myself.
MK: Were you present in Tahrir Square between January 25th and February 11th?
R: Starting the 28th, yes.
MK: What did you see?
R: I saw citizens becoming owners, and sheep standing up to the wolves.
MK: Did you sing in the square itself? What kind of songs and with whom?
R: No, my stuff isn’t really what you would call “Tahrir material.” The stuff that was done there was mostly patriotic songs and chants to keep spirits up, and it worked quite well for that situation. My stuff however is in a completely different direction, and appeals to a different type of audience, considering of course the language barrier, and the context of the songs. As to why it’s different, I think it’s because the type of music that inspired me to start writing songs to begin with was not Arabic nor Oriental, but American and English music for the most part.
Image courtesy of Khaled Zohny
MK: Could you describe your music?
R: I don’t think I can describe my music, really. It’s just a mishmash of genres that I try to squeeze in together to fit my style of playing and singing. Think of it as flipping through different channels of a radio.
MK: What kind of music do you listen to?
R: The Dave Matthews Band occupies 99% of the music I listen to. I’m kind of a fanatic.
MK: Did you perform after the Revolution? If yes, where, with who, when and where?
R: I did, yes. I performed in a couple of festivals around town. Sometimes with my band, other times as an acoustic solo. The performances were OK, not great. Most of the festivals were held to collect donations for those who were financially damaged from the economical drop we had during the revolution. Unfortunately the festivals were poorly organized, and one of them had to be canceled halfway through for security reasons. On the bill we had bands like Wust El Balad, Cairokee, and many others. I think the audience had a good time, considering.
MK: Do you have any upcoming performances?
R: I have a concert coming up on the 15 of September at the Genina Theater in Azhar Park.
MK: Did you feel anything different after February 11th?
R: At the time it felt great, felt like you can do anything, and you had the power to change your country. But then you realize it takes more than that. Way more.
MK: How do you think the revolution changed or will change the art scene in Egypt?
R: I think we should wait till the actual end of the revolution to have an answer for that.
MK: Any last words?
R: The revolution is not over, not by a mile.
Tourism Turns Political after the Revolution
All images courtesy of Ahmed Seddik
Ahmed Seddik as a child
For this week’s “Letters from Egypt,” Mehri Khalil spoke with Ahmed Seddik (a rising figure in the field of Egyptology) about the all-important tourist economy in post-Revolutionary Egypt . Khalil met the unusually poetic archaeologist and tour guide at the American University in Cairo, where he studied in several different departments, enabling him to perceive and discuss history from multiple perspectives. Seddik has given tours all over the country; organized talks and debates in universities and cultural centers, and worked with the now infamous Zahi Hawass. Here, in his undeniably unique style, Seddik discusses his journey and reveals his dreams for his beloved Egypt.
Mehri Khalil: You have been giving tours of Egypt for a number of years now. Tell us more about your background.
Ahmed Seddik: I was born in Cairo, the City Victorious, on the 25th of February, 1980. My father had a lovely library where I learned that longevity is a measure of how many books you read. As we treasure what we measure, he has taught me that the quality of my life mirrors the quality of my books. You are not just what you eat, but also what you read.
My father was an awesome author, his magnum opus is Ahmed Seddik. Thanks to his latitudinarian attitude, I had the luxury of leisure to spend 13 years in college. I have no triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13. In fact, I have nothing to fear but fear itself. This is what the word school etymologically means: leisure. There, I have studied almost every branch of knowledge. I learned to speak with humanity and humor. Or, as I put it, with hilarity, clarity and jocularity. I used to sit in on lots of classes I hadn’t even signed up for. Academic life was fascinating and American teachers were most munificent. One of the most influential teachers in my life was Dr. Andrew J. Main. Whenever I give a talk I recall his passion for teaching and learning.
I have befriended many of my teachers to the point of co-writing, co-lecturing and co-guiding. That gave me an easy transition to climb up the professional ladder. They have encouraged me to wear many of their hats and apply them at the drop of a hat.
As a student, I have received a multitude of invitations to take new courses from my teachers. Then, I started receiving a plethora of invitations to be a guest speaker. Currently, I am permanently invited to speak at several institutions and cultural centers about my favorite subjects. Those encompass art and science. The rest is history.
MK: Who are your clients?
AS: They are diverse: university students and faculty; novelists, historians, diplomats, businesses, children … in a nutshell, people from all walks of life.
Ahmed Seddik on a tour
MK: Where do you take them?
AS: Throughout Egypt in particular and the Middle East at large. I like to give names to my tours, such as “Gates of Glory and Facades of Fame,” or “From the Nave to the Cave.”
MK: What are the most sought after places?
AS: The Pyramids and Tahrir Square.
MK: How was your business affected before, during and after the revolution?
AS: Tourism was affected. However, Ahmed Seddik has been thriving, since I wear many hats: Guide, Speaker, Translator, Teacher, Trainer, Storyteller, Writer, Editor, Linguist, Reporter, Researcher, Administrator, Egyptologist, Grammarian and Entrepreneur, Media Producer and a digger who can figure.
Thanks to the revolution, I had the opportunity to wear the linguistic journalistic hat more often. I have been producing and translating for a slew of journalists and institutions, including the BBC, CBS, Financial Times, France2, and Time Magazine.
MK: How do you think the revolution changed the tourism industry in Egypt?
AS: Pre-revolution tourism focused on the ancient Egyptians who made history. Post-revolution tourism is focusing on the modern Egyptians who are making history. Now, I offer political tours of Egypt. Now more than ever, Egyptians and the international community must view the History of Kemet [the ancient hieroglyphic word for Egypt –Ed.] as a continuum, with our revolution as a way to segue into the future.
MK: We are six months after the revolution now. What kind of differences did you notice in Egypt as a whole?
AS: Almost every Egyptian has a unique story that she is willing to tell. There is more optimism and a sense of triumph, victory and justice. Having survived the dicey security situation in the aftermath of the 25th January man-made earthquake, we feel that we are the source of safety and security in Egypt, and not the once-brutal thugs of the regime. That is to say, the road to security should be the normal course, rather than brute force.
MK: How long have you been working with the famous Egyptologist Zahi Hawass?
AS: I had the great luck of taking my first Egyptological course with Mr. Pyramid, who is the most inspiring Egyptologist I have ever met. That is why I have chosen to give a greater attention to sounding the sands of Egypt. He has been kind to his students and the archaeological community at large and has given me the opportunity to practice archeology in the most celebrated pyramid site on earth, the Tombs of the Pyramids Builders, who had created the most enduring icon of the ancient Egyptian architectural revolution. So, I received my training from the finest taskmaster.
In front of the pyramids
MK: What was the nature of your work with him?
AS: Teacher and student. Trainer and trainee.
MK: What do you think of the change of ministers that took place in July 2011?
AS: Change is as good as a revolution. Yet, more youth are required in all fields.
MK: Have you met the new minister of antiquities yet?
AS: I enjoy meeting archaeologists and Egyptologists regardless of their positions.
MK: Do you know what his policies will be? And how different will they be
from Hawass’ own policies?
MK: What are your hopes for Egypt?
AS: To be the leading light for the whole world. Let Egypt raise an edifice for democracy and a naos for knowledge. May we hold tenaciously to the torch of learning as we hitch our wagons to the stars.
Photographs by the author. Illustrations by F Newsmagazine.
Human chain protecting the Egyptian Museum.
The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, commonly known as the Egyptian Museum, has been at the center of the nation’s history since it was established in 1902. It has witnessed colonial rule, a king, a revolution, three presidents—and most recently, yet another revolution. Located right on Tahrir Square, a place that is now familiar around the world, the Egyptian Museum continues to occupy a dynamic role in the country’s unfolding history.
During the uprising in late January, the museum was broken into. In the period of a couple of minutes, Egyptians formed a human chain around its premises to protect it. This simple but symbolic act astounded people who were watching the event around the world.
Zahi Hawass (center) and soldiers in the museum
Around January 30th, Zahi Hawass, the celebrated Egyptologist who was appointed Minister of Antiquities just a couple of days before Mubarak’s resignation, stood inside the museum to announce that nothing was stolen. But slowly, he started to change his story. On March 15th, he published a list with 54 missing objects on his blog and resigned the same day. He was reappointed to his post a couple of days later, to the surprise of many.
There has been a lot of commotion around the Egyptian Museum in the past couple of months, to say the least. I decided I needed to visit it once again, post-revolution.
Entrance to the museum.
The Egyptian Museum was built in 1900 by French architect Marcel Dougnon, and opened to the public in 1902. Its 107 halls hold the biggest collection of Pharaonic antiquities in the world. The structure represents Egypt’s colonial past; and its content, Egyptian history. There are about 120,000 objects in the collection, with some major highlights including the Gold Mask of King Tutankhamen. When bystanders banded together to protect the museum with their own bodies during the revolution, that act symbolized the a revival of the Egyptian people when confronted with a possible disintegration of their past.
One of the first things I noticed while entering the gardens of the museum is the burnt building on its left. That building was the National Democratic Party’s headquarters, a major symbol of corruption in Egypt. During the revolution, it was set on fire. I could see the scene from my rooftop while I was in Cairo in January, but I hadn’t been up close.
It was unbelievable to be standing right in front of it, and I couldn’t take in its proximity to the museum. The wall separating it from the museum is very low, but I had never realized it was right there. There is a small restaurant in the premises of the museum facing that building, but no one seemed taken aback. I guess people had had the time to get adjusted to everything.
The burned National Democratic Party Headquarters
My bag was checked three times before I could enter the museum, and photography isn’t allowed inside. When I tried to understand why, an officer told me that it is unacceptable that “we” think we can do whatever “we” want after the revolution, that there are rules we have to abide by and that Egypt isn’t chaos. I didn’t know who “we” were, probably young Egyptians; or maybe just Egyptians, period. I went all the way back to the main gate to place my camera in a safe. Thinking back, I don’t think I was ever able to take pictures in the museum, but the fact that the officer’s reaction was so aggressive seemed odd. The museum staff had a lot of adjusting to do after the revolution, especially that they were blamed for the lack of security, but this doesn’t justify his attitude.
The Egyptian Museum looked the same as I remembered. A beautiful, pink-orange colored structure with a grand entrance that is poorly maintained, but that holds magnificent statues, objects and artifacts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the museum wasn’t full, but it wasn’t too empty, either. Courageous tourists take advantage of the good travel deals being offered to Egypt these days—attempts to lure tourist dollars (a mainstay of Egypt’s economy) back into the country.
There aren’t enough hours in a day to walk around the entire museum and see everything. I noticed, as usual, that the museum was inadequately preserved, and there wasn’t enough security. I saw people touching ancient columns and marble sarcophagi, and there isn’t a single alarm that went off.
Soldier in front of the museum during the revolution.
I talked with a guard at the museum. He is an officer from the tourism police and claims that he’s been working at the museum for 16 years. He didn’t give me his name but was eager to talk to someone. The officer said that he had been inside the museum during the days of the revolution, and said that the police had been criticized for not protecting it enough. But, “How can we protect it when we are less than a hundred men facing thousands of people?” he protested.
He blamed most of the museum policies on Zahi Hawass, whom he nicknamed “El Zoz.” The misuse of funds, the lack of employee training … he pointed his finger at Hawass for anything and everything. He confirmed that most of the stolen objects were brought back to the museum, but it seemed like he thought there was some sort of insider job as well. He declined to elaborate.
I went on with my tour and was amazed by the quantity of objects we have. There are artifacts and statues everywhere, and no matter how many times I go to this museum, I keep discovering new pieces. The grandiosity of the different dynasties is indescribable. Moreover, what is inside of the museum is not everything we have. It is said that 90 percent of the objects are stored, due to a lack of space.
It was beautiful and moving to see citizens protecting institutions such as the Egyptian Museum and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (the famous library of the city of Alexandria) during the violent days of the revolution. Even if most of the protestors had probably not visited these institutions before, they knew that they hold something worth protecting.
Tanks in front of the museum during the demonstrations.
This event truly shows how cultural institutions play a vital role in any society and in any circumstances. They represent part of a nation’s history and often its future. Currently, 22 new museums are being built around Egypt, as part of the Ministry of Antiquities’ efforts “to build a better infrastructure for the future” (in the words of Hawass). Among the most important ones is the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM). Once established, it is supposed to be the biggest national museum in the world. The competition to design the museum was won by an Irish firm, and several other international firms are working on the interpretation and exhibition design of the interior. It will be located two kilometers away from the famous Giza pyramids and will extend over 120 acres. The USD 500 million museum was originally scheduled to open in 2013, a date that has been pushed back to 2014—and now, after the revolution, 2015.
With the uncertainty that is reigning in the country, no one really knows how this museum will evolve. Moreover, it is located somewhat outside of Cairo and I wonder how accessible it will be to Egyptians. Next to the pyramids and away from Cairene traffic, it is an excellent location for tourists, but not necessarily for the people who live in Egypt. I can only hope that this museum, along with the 21 others, will keep the newfound patriotism of Egyptians alive.
In the same way a lot of things surprise me during my visit to Cairo this summer, a lot of great things have also arisen with the revolution. Today we feel that everything is in our hands. Despite the challenges that I described above, there is still a pervasive sense that it is possible to improve the state of the Egyptian Museum; it is possible to make Egyptians feel more connected to their past; and it is possible to make Egypt ours again. And there is no better way to start than with our very own cultural institutions.
Putting Cairo in a Gallery: An Evening with Bas Princen at Townhouse Gallery
All photos are by the author.
Townhouse. A name and art space that has become familiar to Cairenes (and Egyptians in general) over the past couple of years. This gallery has become a hub for cultural activities across the region, known by artists around the world. June 19 marked the opening of their last exhibition of the season. A series of photographs by Dutch artist Bas Princen attracted many viewers that day. The opening was followed by an artist talk in the middle of the gallery.
Townhouse Gallery is a space for independent art that exhibits works by local, regional and international contemporary artists throughout the year. The institution encompasses exhibition spaces, classrooms, a library and studios. The gallery has expanded throughout the years to include programs of visual arts, music, theater and film, and runs a multitude of programs for minority communities (including those with special needs; working children; and Iraqi and Sudanese refugees). The gallery was one of the first privately owned non-profit contemporary art spaces in Egypt, and today, Townhouse is also one of the largest private exhibition spaces in the Middle East
The gallery is located in the heart of Cairo, in the downtown (or wust el balad) neighborhood that was also the site of the liveliest demonstrations during the Revolution. Although it is adjacent to a big and well-known street in downtown Cairo, to reach Townhouse, you find yourself walking in a small alley, as if in a village somewhere else. This is Cairo. Beautiful and modern streets often hide much poorer neighborhoods.
More of the Townhouse complex
At the end of the muddy alley, what looks like a very modest three-story building stands on its own. If it weren’t for the bold inscription “TOWNHOUSE” on the front, people wouldn’t have guessed that inside this structure is probably one of the most influential spaces in the region.
Surrounding the building is a popular street café, with lots of people sitting, drinking tea and smoking hookah. They seem to be used to seeing all sorts of people, from Egyptians to tourists, photographers and reporters. Unlike many popular cafés, this café is full of foreigners, artists and locals, all mingling together.
Inside the main building
The inside of the building appears a bit shabby. The staircase is rundown, and the marble is deteriorating.
The exhibition was on the first floor, spread among three rooms. Each one had about four to five photographs of rural and urban landscapes. Reading the explanation of the exhibition, entitled “Refuge – Five Cities Portfolio,” gave me a better understanding of what I saw. Dutch architecture photographer Bas Princen traveled to five cities that have witnessed dramatic changes in the past 50 years: Dubai (United Arab Emirates), Amman (Jordan), Istanbul (Turkey), Cairo (Egypt) and Beirut (Lebanon).
Going through the different pictures, I immediately recognized those taken in Cairo. The way the buildings were built, the red bricks used, the cars present in the scene, the rural landscapes; everything looked familiar. Some other pictures were somehow recognizable, but I couldn’t tell if they were taken in my hometown or somewhere else. I started looking for tiny elements, like a flag in the background or a license plate, to situate myself. I went around several times to try to get as much information as possible, because the photographs weren’t titled or labeled. Meanwhile, the photographer was standing in the middle of the gallery, chatting and talking about his work.
Entering the first floor gallery
Many people were there that day. I immediately noticed a woman who seemed very knowledgeable about the artist’s work. I understood later that she worked with him at some point. She was surrounded by what looked like students, very eager to hear what she had to say and introduce them to Princen. A couple of women were taking notes, probably to write an architectural critique. We exchanged notes at the end of the night, but they never really told me what they were doing. They focused mainly on Princen’s process and his architectural background. Elderly people were also present, either taking a quick look at the work or staying longer for the talk. A couple of curious men came in at some point. They were probably walking in the neighborhood and decided to see what was going on. That is one of the strong points of Townhouse. Everybody (no matter what their background) feels comfortable coming in and taking a look.
Installation view of "Five Cities"
An hour later, Princen stood in the room with the photographs I believed were taken in Egypt and started explaining his process, how the idea for the exhibition came to be and how he took it from there. He explained he was trained as an architect but now works as a photographer. In 2009, a project entitled “Open City Team” in Rotterdam started it all. Princen was asked to examine the changes in the urban fabric of five cities. He focused on the edge of the cities, because he saw things that are similar in all of them. Princen chose those five specific cities due to the recent developments in each one of them. He explained he had never been to any one of them, and so was looking at them as a tourist.
Photograph by Bas Princen
Photograph by Bas Princen
Princen wanted to “photograph the cities as a single one”; he looked for the similarities between them, while still distinguishing the discrepancies. Cairo was the first city he photographed. “The first one is always the easiest, everything is still open,” he said. Later, he had to connect the others cities together.
The exhibit was shown at the International Architecture Biennale in 2009, and then at Istanbul’s European Capital of Culture events in 2010. It was just shown in Amman, before coming to Townhouse.
The artist discussing his work.
Princen revealed that in Istanbul and in Amman, people recognized their own cities, but didn’t connect to any of the other images. It was interesting to hear him talk about other people’s reactions to his work, because I had just experienced it in a similar way. He asked us what we thought about the pictures in the room we were standing in, pictures of Cairo: “I’m curious,” he said.
There were two main pictures. The first one was a picture of the outskirts of the city, a very poor neighborhood, with brick structures and lots of rubbish. In the background, the city was fading away. It was probably the most striking picture of the exhibition.
The second picture was of a rural landscape with a brick tower in the middle of practically nowhere. Princen thought it was funny; why have a tower in such a place?
Princen asked us how could a city develop this way, and if we found that normal. Someone replied, “It’s not normal, but it’s possible. We see it all the time here.” Another woman said that we are somehow disconnected from the pictures, because we live in the more developed part of the city — the part that is fading in the background of one of the pictures.
Photograph by Bas Princen
Although I did not find the photographs expressly artistic or meant to convey emotions, it was very insightful to see Princen’s view of Cairo, and even more so to hear about people’s experiences towards the images of the different cities. The artist talk was very valuable in understanding the process Princen went through, and made me realize he saw his work as an analysis, more than as a piece of art. The contrast between the rural areas and the desert versus the constructions and machines was riveting.
View of the street cafe from the gallery window
However, I do wonder about Princen’s view of Egypt. It seems very pessimistic and one-sided. Egypt has a multitude of facets, and it doesn’t seem fair to portray a city through only one of those facets. I understand that the artist was looking at the outskirts of those five cities, but I did not feel the exhibition gave a full image of the places. The Middle East is going through a lot of changes, and people are becoming more and more patriotic and attached to their countries. Princen’s outlook is that of a tourist, and does not encompass those new-found feelings. Perhaps this is because he took those photographs a while back, and also because he only visited each city for ten days — definitely not enough time to grasp a well-rounded idea of its people and landscape.
On the other hand, seeing these images in the white cube made me question them all over again, and see them from another perspective. In the end, I suppose this is the purpose of any successful exhibition: making the viewer cross-examine a part of life again and again.
Creativity Overflowing the Streets of Cairo
All photos by the author.
For the past month, artists and activists have taken the streets of Cairo by storm. From pictures of the martyrs to written slogans, you can feel the creativity in the air.
Ahmed Basiony and Mustafa al-Sawi, Martyrs of the Revolution, by Ganzeer
It all started in late March. A portrait of one of the martyrs of the Revolution was painted on the wall of a public restroom, only to be removed less than a month later. Because of that incident, the Mad Graffiti Weekend was organized on the weekend of May 20 to 21. It hasn’t stopped since.
From my first morning back in Cairo, I witnessed a huge amount of art in the streets — under bridges, in small alleys, on highways and more. I started noticing small graffiti works scattered around pretty much everywhere, but also some huge murals in certain areas of the city.
The art attracted media attention. The Mad Graffiti event was organized by Aida El Kashef, a film director who was arrested in late May along with two other artists, Mohamed Fahmy (aka Ganzeer), a graffiti artist, and musician Rahman Amin (aka NadimX). The three activists were hanging posters to encourage people to attend the “Second Day of Rage” (the first one is what sparked the revolution in January). They were released shortly after their arrest.
Some of the art is very political, while some other works are more socially oriented. There are also funny comics. This is something that makes me love Egypt. Even in the most critical and dangerous circumstances, we never forget our sense of humor. I walked around various neighborhoods to look at the art. I was really impressed by the quality of a few pieces, but as a whole, it wasn’t fancy. It was, nevertheless, heartening.
A lot of what I found were stencils of the martyrs. Ganzeer, one of the main actors in the event, told Al Masry Al Youm, an Egyptian independent newspaper, that he wishes to paint all 850 martyrs on the walls of Egypt.
Some of the art represented the former president, Mubarak, in a way or another. He is always portrayed in a pejorative manner. When I stepped out of the car to visit the site of the Mad Graffiti event, a parking attendant noticed my camera and immediately directed me towards one particular artwork. Apparently, a lot of people have been recording the event and he knew exactly what I was looking for. He showed me the following artwork, which he called “the Joker,” representing the king on a playing card.
This following image took me a while to figure out, because I never played chess. Once I understood it, I found it very sharp. It is located on the outside wall of the former American University of Cairo’s library (in the downtown campus, adjacent to Tahrir Square, the site of the largest demonstrations).
One of the pieces that became well known is a boy on a bicycle. The boy is carrying a tray of bread, a scene that we often see in Cairo. Only here, he is opposed by a life sized tank. Next to this scene is a painting of a black and white panda. The symbol of a street artist who operates under the name “Sad Panda,” this depressed, political animal is present on lots of walls around the city (it could possibly be a visual reference to a series of infamous commercials in Egypt for Panda brand cheese, which featured an angry Panda knocking over the cart of a family who refused to buy his brand).
Work by Ganzeer and Sad Panda
Next to the Faculty of Fine Arts, I found an entire wall divided into different paintings. Although I personally didn’t find them all very good, some exceeded my expectation.
Near the Faculty of Fine Arts
Some of the artwork I deemed naïve. Actually, what I found next to Tahrir Square didn’t look like street art or graffiti, it started to look like vandalism. At first I was taken aback, because it surrounds some big governmental institutions, schools and a university. But looking closely, I started to appreciate the small scribbles and sketches.
"I love you, Egypt"
What touched me the most is that the sentence “I love Egypt” was written in Arabic, English, French, Italian, Russian and Greek. People also wrote how proud they were of their country. I also found “I was here” several times. People are recording their presence in the streets of Egypt in all possible ways. Their mark is there, hopefully to stay.
"I was here"
Every couple of days, I discover a new piece that wasn’t there the day before. The work from the Mad Graffiti Weekend is still on the walls of Cairo, which is a good sign. Is it the beginning of a true freedom of speech? Will it impact the Egyptian art scene? It is still too early to tell, but it is a promising start.
Check back later this week, when Mehri Khalil reports on visits to Townhouse Gallery and the Egyptian National Museum.