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Egyptians walk past graffiti on the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square in Cairo at the end of last year. Khaled Desoukis / AFP
Egyptians walk past graffiti on the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square in Cairo at the end of last year. Khaled Desoukis / AFP

The Leila Heller Gallery in New York reexamines the link between social protest in the Middle East and grafitti art

A new exhibition in New York City promises to show the profound effect graffiti has had on a generation of Arab calligraphers, particularly since the Arab Spring, but Daniel Bates remains sceptical of this claim

Graffiti artists in New York in the 1980s almost certainly did not have Arabic calligraphy in mind when they picked up a spray can for the first time. All they wanted was to put their tags on as many subway cars, bridges and buildings they could find – anywhere that would win them respect.

But since then, graffiti has achieved a level of respectability they could hardly have dreamed of.

Municipal authorities now apologise when they accidentally remove a Banksy stencil, a urinal that Keith Haring drew on sits in a New York gallery and Jean Michel Basquiat’s graffiti-inspired paintings sell for US$29 million (Dh107m).

In fact, graffiti’s reach is such that it has had a profound effect on a generation of calligraphers, many of them from the Middle East, according to a new exhibition in New York called Calligraffiti 1984/2013.It seeks to show how these two bold, text-based and public art forms have a dialogue that has become increasingly apparent since the Arab Spring.

Calligraffiti argues that, just as graffiti was born of the social unrest in America in the 1970s, artists and citizens in countries like Tunisia and Egypt are using it now to vocalise their frustrations. And one only has to look at the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt to comprehend this point; even in an age of Facebook and Instagram, nothing quite beats a spray can for making an effect.

Calligraffiti was first staged at the Leila Heller Gallery in 1984 by Heller in collaboration with Jeffrey Deitch, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Her second take, again at her gallery in the Chelsea area of Manhattan, is another bid to create what Deitch, who served as an adviser this time around, jokingly calls a “transatlantic subway car”.

Heller said that she was inspired by the sheer number of artists she had seen in recent years that carried on what she first set out to do. “In those days, you didn’t know if there was a graffiti artist active in China unless you read about it.

“Now with the internet, you see so many of these artists active on social media. I kept saying, ‘I wish had included this artist and that artist in the original exhibition’.”

The two art forms do indeed have similarities that make them ripe for crossover. Like calligraphers, graffiti artists work in a tight circle of masters and there is a set of rules and codes if you want to be known – it is a discipline, in other words. Graffiti became popular through films like 1983’s Wild Style, about the scene in New York and the way in which urban youth broadcast their feelings to entire neighbourhoods long before Twitter.

For artists like Tunisian-born eL Seed, also known as Faouzi Khlifi, it all made sense growing up in the Parisian banlieue he called home. He started spray painting at 16 and learnt his art on the streets with no formal training – his educational background is in business – and later became interested in Arabic and Persian script as a link to his own history. He was also no doubt inspired by what Iraqi-born artist Ayad Alkhadi told me was a “rhythmic and fluid quality that can easily be repurposed as a spontaneous graffiti tag”.

The three contributions by eL Seed to Calligraffiti are the most arresting in the exhibition (he also caught the eye of Louis Vuitton, with whom he would become the first Arab artist to collaborate). They are all Arabic words, written thickly and in large letters in black, pink and red on a white canvas. In each case, the colours are allowed to run as if the words were bleeding, challenging a western audience not used to, say, seeing verses from the Ayah inscribed onto public buildings.

eL Seed is asking what you associate with such an image – and indeed the Middle East in general.

This Is Just a Phrase in Arabic gets to the nub of it: in the past, he has not translated his works into English because of what he describes as a “cultural imperialism”. In this case he is being half ironic, because if the same words were on the canvas in English, they would not carry the same baggage. It isn’t just a phrase in Arabic, in other words: our prejudices and expectations make up the meaning, too.

What is apparent in eL Seed’s work is the legacy of both the Surrealists and in particular Letterism, the Parisian avant garde movement from the 1940s (there was far more in the original show, but just a small glassed box in the current version).

Abstract expressionism and strange shapes also abound in Calligraffiti, as does gesture. But beyond that, there is little to support the argument that Calligraffiti as a form itself is part of a wider political movement, even if graffiti has been used during the Arab Spring. Often you are left wondering if there is just a coincidental stylistic parallel, rather than an engagement between artists across generations.

Diluvium I by Korean-born artist and filmmaker Rostarr has black, broad brush strokes and circles that seem to mirror those of the four contributions by pioneering Dutch graffiti artist Niels “Shoe” Muelman.

Their works were all created within the last year, but do they really owe a debt to a bright and bold 1971 painting by French-German abstract artist Hans Hartung, as the exhibition suggests?

Likewise, comparing Untitled (The Mountains of Iran) by the renowned Iranian painter Hossein Zenderoudi with Keith Haring’s stencils reveals a startling similarity in the use of blocky, bulging characters.

Then you realise that Zenderoudi’s work is from 1965, while Haring was his most prolific during the 1980s when he was spraying his cartoon-like figures across New York.

Again, it is an interesting parallel, but it’s hard to see that one was directly riffing off the other.

Iraqi-born Alkadhi contributed two works, including If Words Could Kill You, which is a sketched pair of hands holding Arabic calligraphy shaped like a dagger. He told The National that he hoped the exhibition would act as a “threshold to the further understanding of Middle Eastern culture and art”, which seems a more realistic goal for the show. He said: “Calligraphy evolved as a way to glorify the words of holy scripture for either manuscripts or architectural embellishments. Most westerners don’t identify with calligraphy simply because it does not have the cultural prominence that it has in the Middle East. However, most westerners, especially young people, are familiar with graffiti.

“Emphasising the link between graffiti and calligraphy has introduced many Americans to Middle Eastern calligraphic art.”

Calligraffiti also features Cy Twombly, whose interest in graffiti while living in Rome has been well documented, and Shirin Neshat, who scrawls tiny words onto faces that look like creases of old paper from afar.

L’Atlas’s interpretation of calligraphy is rooted in Kufic Arab script and is a series of block-like shapes that actually hide letters within them and resemble the brutalist banlieue in his home city of Paris.

But to go from these to what Deitch argues in the catalogue, that a “calligraphic impulse has been behind some of the greatest works of Modern Art”, seems a bit of a stretch based on what’s on the walls of Heller’s gallery.

It’s also hard to see how the calligraphic tradition is part of the “modernist vocabulary”, as Deitch argues, given that, of the two, graffiti has the most obvious and profound effect.

What Calligraffiti does do successfully is inform artists of both disciplines that there is a rich visual history from both calligraphy and graffiti that they can mine going back hundreds of years – and not just the graffiti that began appearing on the streets 30 years ago.

That alone may inspire a new generation to pick up a spray can and find the nearest wall.

Daniel Bates is a freelance writer.

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