Friday, September 30, 2011

Must All Art Be Revolutionary?

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. 
The placard in Jesus’ hands originally said “God, Text me when the bastards shut the f*** up,” but the artist deleted it, leaving it blank.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Another Friday at Tahrir

Friday after the afternoon prayers, Tahrir square fills with demonstrators. On the wide streets, the tent cities and tear gas of January, February, and the long summer have given way to a more family-friendly atmosphere. When I arrived last week, vendors hawked water and sodas in the harsh sunlight. Young men in cleanly pressed outfits directed traffic. Boys and girls held up homemade signs on the margins of the several thousand men standing and chanting in front of a small stage. Speakers were stacked haphazardly under umbrellas in the national colors. They produced rousing Arabic music and the impromptu speeches of protest leaders.

On the surrounding street corners, cameras captured the action and journalists conduct interviews with activists. Small groups of men clustered around these interviews, which often turned into debates on the most important demands of the moment. Often the splits over demands are more a matter of emphasis than ideology. They mapped out physically around the square. One group chanted for the freedom of a jailed sheikh. Another campaigned against military trials for civilians.

Now that the ouster of Mubarak has given way to controversial military rule, these demands must necessarily roll with political changes, yet inspiring large masses to action over specific, often complicated demands can be difficult. David, a Fulbright student who has been here for a year, explained to me that one faction, the Constitution First movement, spent much of the summer demanding that a new constitution be drafted before parliamentary elections, which are currently scheduled for November. They worried, David told me, that if religious parties like the Muslim Brotherhood swept the elections, a religiously strict constitution would follow, and suppress secular elements in Egypt. It was a demand tied to a prediction based on belief, hardly the kind of thing that brings masses into the streets.

And yet the unifying feeling of empowerment seems to persist among the thousands that come to Tahrir every Friday.  It is the main message written on banners and scrawled on the sides of buildings.

A young boy, maybe ten, approaches Emily and asks for her hand. She doesn’t have a chance to think and he’s painting her hand with three thick stripes of black, white, and red, a simplified Egyptian flag. On her arm, he writes “25” in big, sloppy Arabic numbers. She hands him a pound (about fifteen cents) and he scurries off.

A few minutes later, another boy, this one older, comes up to Emily with his own cups of paint. She holds up her hand to show him she’s already been tagged and he gives her a look that says You should have waited for me.

The Egyptian Museum, the main repository of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, and a KFC restaurant loom over us as we descend towards the subway. The protest chants waft underground and linger briefly as the doors close and we jolt into motion.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons 

Monday, September 19, 2011

"Are you an Israeli Spy or something?"

Before Emily and I have even found our hotel, everyone is chipping in a couple of thoughts about the revolution. “Egyptians think that with the revolution, everything will change right away,” offers Ali, as he grabs our bags from the whirring luggage belt. “They need to be patient.” I nod, still woozy from the twelve hours of flying. Ali is as frustrated as anyone with the slow pace of change. His industry, tourism, has been one of the more affected by the revolution. I look around the new airport terminal, less than a year old and still sparkling, and see hardly any other foreigners.
Ali hands us off to a driver, who takes us downtown through a long, dark tunnel that feels endless and is our first taste of the cacophonous-school-of-fish style of Cairo traffic. We emerge into the daylight and he cheerfully points out the jail where Mubarak is being held, a large concrete structure that I would have hardly noticed otherwise.
At first glance, the revolution is mostly seen in the details. Two years ago, when I last lived here, police officers stood aloof on every corner, gazing eerily at every passerby. Although not Syria, it was still a little tense. Now, they offer friendlier smiles to Egyptians and foreigners alike.
After checking into the hotel, we hop into a subway car and I survey the list of stations for the first time in two years. One name is scratched out. I can’t remember it, so I look across and see the same space on another list. Here, the slight impression of the station name “Mubarak” is still visible. Someone has neatly written above the new name in Arabic: “Al Shuhada,” or “The Martyrs.”
Still, an uneasiness lingers beneath the layer of post-revolution joy. Sitting at a small, dusty cafĂ© a few blocks from Tahrir Square, Emily and I are lured into conversation by Muhammad, an office clerk whose brother runs an electronics store across the alley. “Why are you in Egypt?” he asks directly.
I stumble through the usual; studying Arabic, researching, writing. Maybe too much caution, but I don’t mention the American government grant. And then, I make the mistake of saying I’m curious about the revolution. “Why do you want to know?” he prods. “Are you an Israeli spy or something?”
“Oh no!” I say quickly. It seems to placate him. We return to chatting about his family and joking about how little shisha smoke I can pull. Outside, downtown Cairo is in its usual frenzy. Men and women buy clothing and eat ice cream. Tahrir square is empty, though in two days, when another Friday comes, it will again be crowded.