One evening last week, Egyptians, Europeans, and Americans gathered in an alley for the opening of an exhibit at the Townhouse Gallery for Contemporary Art for an exhibit called “This is Not Graffiti.” The curators had brought nine street artists whose work proliferated after the events of January and February. Of course, putting graffiti in a gallery space begged the question of what about it was graffiti, so the title was appropriate, written on a large panel facing the entrance above a stencil of a dog discharging a yellow dashed line into a puddle.
The large room is a concrete chamber. To the right, a black and white rendering of Jesus holds up an empty placard in front of a tank sitting on a pool of blood. To the left, a peace sign sprouts mechanical spider legs. A gun nozzle protrudes from the golden eagle of the Egyptian flag. Many of the pieces openly referenced Banksy and Dada-style absurdity. Turning to look across a stretch of concrete at a back wall, I see the logo for the gallery. I walk closer and read the vaguely subversive version: “Townwhores: Gallery of Contemporary Tart.”
Across the alley and up a set of stairs, sat a set of rooms where the walls had been left bare with an invitation for visitors to make their own “street art.” Ania, a friend and one of the curators for the exhibit (the staff of Townhouse includes Swiss, Germans, Americans, as well as Egyptians) took me into the room, which by 9 pm was pretty well covered by quotes, sketches, and more elaborate drawings in crayons and colored pencils left on a table in the middle of each room.
As with any participatory art exhibit, the results were mixed: some were funny, some serious. Some attempted profundity, and others attempted embarrassment. “Ignorance is the biggest enemy,” read one quote, written next to a surprisingly well-rendered Red Bull energy drink logo. “#femalepower,” a reference to the language of Twitter.
Ania asked if I knew about the tradition of “counter-monuments,” developed in Germany as artists tried to memorialize the Holocaust. She explained that monuments seemed the wrong way to memorialize. They reeked of the very regime Germans were trying to forget.
The recently toppled Mubarak, like Sadat and Nasser before him, loved monuments. They continue to dot Cairo on every public square, ranging from the Pharoanic to the Islamic to the socialist to the military. Nearly all, even if erected in the past ten years, look decades older, their blocky stone or metal weathered by the dust almost as soon as they are built.
While allowing anyone to write on the walls was on the one hand a curatorial shortcut, the disorganization successfully nodded to the cacophony of democratic life. As Ania continued to explain counter-monuments, my eyes wandered to the words “I Feel Stupid” scrawled on one wall. She noticed my distraction. “That was the first thing anyone wrote,” she told me.
On the Facebook page for the exhibit, Ania wrote that this space would be “a monument where multiple, unfinished stories are told, and diverse perspectives are portrayed; but where some are boldly and indelibly written, whereas others are crossed out, smudged, or wiped away.”
After cooing a very young boy writing a small Arabic phrase in crayon, she took me back downstairs, telling me about the dilemma of more traditional visual artists in post-revolution Cairo. Contrary to what the street art movement suggests, she explained, not everyone wants to produce revolutionary art and yet they feel like they are expected to do so.
The revolution has taken over nearly ever form of popular media in a way that demands that absolutely all creative work be political. The bands everyone hears about are revolutionary bands. The artists of the moment, as this exhibit suggests, are revolutionary artists. Books of photography from the Tahrir protests crowd the market, and a new one seems to appear every day.