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Let the walls talk: preserving Egypt’s revolutionary graffiti

Graffiti has been among the most powerful art forms and tools of Egypt's revolution and the turbulent months since, but it also has proven to be its most vulnerable and ephemeral.
For nearly two years, the slogans, portraits and artwork that went up on walls around the country depicting the goals, heroes and events of the uprising have been erased nearly as quickly.
For nearly two years, the slogans, portraits and artwork that went up on walls around the country depicting the goals, heroes and events of the uprising have been erased nearly as quickly.

CAIRO // Graffiti has been among the most powerful art forms and tools of Egypt's revolution and the turbulent months since, but it also has proven to be its most vulnerable and ephemeral.

For nearly two years, the slogans, portraits and artwork that went up on walls around the country depicting the goals, heroes and events of the uprising have been erased nearly as quickly.

So a group of artists, photographers and a publisher joined hands to preserve the images. Wall Talk - their newly released 680-page book - collects hundreds of photos of graffiti dating from the January 25, 2011 eruption of the revolt against then-president Hosni Mubarak until today. The result is a street history that chronicles image by image the evolution of Egypt's upheaval, which has yet to settle.

In a sign of the continuing resonance of graffiti, the artists have recently turned to a new target: newly elected president Mohammed Morsi.

Last month, a giant mural of revolution graffiti on a street off Tahrir Square, the focus of the revolution's protest demonstrations, was partially painted over, and within hours, artists refilled much of it with new images, some of them denouncing Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.

"You are a regime that is frightened by paint brushes and pens, you oppress and stamp on the oppressed. If you were doing the right thing, you would not be afraid of what's painted ... but you are a coward in your heart of hearts," reads a rhyming Arabic verse, addressing the president, one of the new images on the street, where some of the deadliest clashes between protesters and security forces took place last year.

But already the whitewashing has returned, erasing a portrait ridiculing Mr Morsi, showing him with a smug smile and the inscription, "Happy now, Morsi?"

Wall Talk publisher Sherif Boraie says graffiti was the vehicle that delivered clear, strong and angry messages during the anti-Mubarak uprising and afterward. Now it reflects the depth of frustration over the perceived failure of the revolution to realise its main goals, he said. He sees the latest to go up as even angrier.

"We are in a difficult period, and the youth are very angry, while avenues for expression for them are limited," he said. "Will the anger continue to simmer indefinitely without boiling over? I don't think so."

The book includes a chronology of events of the past two years, but the images speak most strongly to the arc Egypt has taken. The pictures also show graffiti's increasing sophistication. Graffiti was almost never seen in Egypt during Mubarak's 29-year rule, where police kept a tight grip and where society generally frowns on street art of any kind. But it was the ideal medium for the leftist and progressive youth activists who led the protests against Mubarak.

"It's an important part of history," said one prominent artist whose graffiti appears in the book and who identifies himself only by his pen name "Ganzeer," Arabic for chain. "Many of the graffiti photographed and published in the book have been removed or painted over."

During the 18 days of massive protests against Mubarak's rule, much of the work was simply scrawled slogans, like the simple word "Erhal," the Arabic word for "Leave!" next to images of Mubarak.

After Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011, the message and the images changed, with a colourful burst of optimism. There were the clinched fists symbolising power and images suggesting unity and harmony between the nation's Muslim majority and Christian minority, with high expectations and a sense of confidence that if people power can bring down Mubarak's dictatorship, it can do anything.

"It's just the beginning," read the English words alongside drawings of women with long hair in the black, red and white colours of Egypt's flag on one Cairo wall, shown in the book. The exuberant slogan "Hold your head high, you are Egyptian" was found on walls around the capital. One graffito was written on the pavement, reading: "Don't look down, freedom is ahead of you."

But very quickly the word on the walls turned to revolt once more - this time against the military council of generals that took power after Mubarak's ouster and ruled until Mr Morsi was elected this year and was inaugurated in late June. Protests repeatedly broke out against their rule and were met by bloody crackdowns.

Throughout the past 19 months, graffiti has also sought to keep alive the spirit of the young activists' vision of the revolution despite continual setbacks - including by enshrining their heroes.

A common theme was elaborate portraits of the "martyrs," the hundreds of protesters killed in multiple crackdowns. Some shown in the book are idealised, even giving them an angel's wings. Others depict them casual and smiling, as if they are standing right next to you.

"Graffiti has won us freedoms we had never dreamed of before," said Mohammed Hashem, a prominent publisher whose office in downtown Cairo has been among the most favourite meeting places for leftist revolutionaries. "It has been the strongest voice of the revolution."

Wall Talk - National View

More on Egyptian “Wall Talk” – the newly released 680-page book – collected hundreds of photos of the wall art since the beginning of the revolution.

Updated: October 7, 2012 04:00 AM

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