Street art is unsanctioned visual art practice in public places that questions the existing environment about socially relevant themes. Street art as political protest and communication is a telling indicator of public sentiment and the Berlin and Ramallah Walls have proved the efficacy of such expressions. Murals on Palestine’s Separation Barrier in Ramallah, dubbed the ‘Apartheid Wall’ have increasingly attracted international media attention, largely due to the raw graphic content and hard-to-ignore scale of the project. The most obvious historical parallel to the barrier is the Berlin Wall whose narrative was and is still widely photographed, debated, evaluated and archived.
The distinct role of graffiti and street art in the visual culture and expression of political dissent of the Arab Spring is the most current, widespread and potent manifestation of this art form. The scrawls, letterings and pictorial art with which young Egyptians are signing their surrounding area is a highly visible legacy of the revolution. Walls across the country bloom with witty, scathing, and melancholy messages—a running commentary on the political situation that delights some and startles many.
“What is interesting to see in Egypt, and in all these countries, is that artists are not only going out into the city, they are also becoming agents of change in society,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist of London’s Serpentine Gallery, who is chairing a discussion on art patronage in the Middle East as part of a summit at the British Museum and the Royal College of Art (January 12-13, 2013). “If you think about it in terms of the Russian Revolution and Mayakovsky saying ‘the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes’, it’s about art going beyond the museum and blurring the boundaries between art and life.”
Obrist also notes that there is a long-standing tradition, particularly in Egypt, of contemporary artists using the street to mount performances or install works. Indeed, several contemporary Egyptian artists, including Susan Hefuna and Hassan Khan, have used the city as a site for their work, both before and in response to the uprising. (Extract: The Art Newspaper)
Some of the most arresting work has been done by a 29-year-old Cairo-based graphic artist known as Ganzeer who remarks that his gallery work is “the least satisfying” as it “is not relevant to life” and he is now painting a street mural for each of the people killed during the 18 days of revolt that began in January 2011. This is a major undertaking since as many as 850 people have lost their lives.
Installation artist Lara Baladi points out that a lot of artists in Egypt have been working for years to reclaim public space in creative ways but “art under dictatorship and censorship is one thing, art during revolution is another,” she says, “and art post-revolution will be yet something else”. Photographer Alaa Taher says, "The revolution moved art to the streets." The uprising may have brought political chaos, but there is a hope it could yet yield a more powerful Egyptian art.”
In Libya and Syria too, radical publishing and pamphleteering, street art and graffiti have thrived, even appearing in deeply conservative Saudi Arabia. Pictorially complex murals adorned the streets in Libya where Muammar Gaddafi is often humorously depicted as a rat, an ape or a vampire. Mainly found in bigger cities such as Tripoli and Benghazi, the murals started appearing almost immediately after Tripoli fell in August, according to Rana Jawad, the BBC’s North Africa correspondent, who has spent the past year in Tripoli.
“It happened so quickly,” she says, “Within five or six days it seemed every wall had a portrait that mocked Gaddafi.” As fighting between rival militias continues in Libya, graffiti are increasingly being used to show support for different political factions. “We are also seeing more elaborate works depicting general themes such as war, feelings of nationalism and the future of Libya,” Jawad says.
If Twitter and Facebook facilitated the revolution in Egypt and Libya, in Syria it was their borrowed slogans, particularly a graffiti message, “the people want the fall of the regime”, scrawled on the wall by a group of youngsters in the southern agricultural town of Daraa that triggered revolt. Their imprisonment sparked protests that spread throughout the country.
Characterised by political sloganeering street art in Syria devolved into the “war of the walls” as anti- and pro-government protesters began voicing their support through graffiti. In a show of solidarity with Syria, a black-and-white stencil of Al-Assad as Hitler, collaboration between El Teneen and an anonymous Lebanese artist, appeared in Cairo in July and in Beirut in August.
Thrilling as the revolutionary period may be for artists, it is also fraught. "Since the Revolution, Egyptian artists have been running about like headless chickens," writes visual artist Doa Ali at the new online culture and politics magazine, Rolling Bulb. "Their concerns have taken an almost existential dimension. What do we do now? Do we keep doing what we used to do? Where do ‘we' end and our art begin?"
As unrest continues to spread through North Africa and the Middle East, street art continues to be used to publicise injustice, and show support for various political or military brigades, even as a catalyst for attempts to bring down governments.