Egyptian Graffiti and Gender Politics: An Interview with Soraya Morayef
28 March 2013, africaisacountry.com
Mickey Mouse is pulling apart a bomb: inside is the torso of George W. Bush, and they’re both looking perfectly happy about the whole thing. Soraya Morayef is taking a photo of the wall where these figures are painted, on a busy street in downtown Cairo, when a man walks up to her and asks her what the picture means.
‘I think that’s Mickey Mouse,’ I say helpfully.
‘Yes but what does it mean? And who is that man next to him?’
He’s bald with a graying walrus moustache, probably in his mid-forties, his full cheeks sweating as he fans at his pin-striped pink shirt.
‘I’m not quite sure,’ I say politely, wishing I could go back to my camera, but he appears adamant for an answer. ‘Maybe it’s a president? It could be George Bush.’
‘Yes but what is George Bush doing with Mickey Mouse? I like this picture, I walk past it every day, but I wish there’d be some writing explaining it so that I could understand.’
She is stuck between the wall and the man, who tells her he was in Tahrir Square (a stone’s throw away from where they are standing) every day of the uprisings, “one of the shabab of the revolution…”. Eventually, after he has given her his number, he leaves, and she recommences her task, cataloguing the street art in Cairo, a city in which graffiti has flourished since 2011, but where the wall may have been white-washed the next morning.
Morayef is a journalist and writer based in Cairo. Since June 2011 she has been blogging at suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com, where she posts images of street art, with captions and analysis. The same urgent questions — of graffiti and gender, intimidation and interpretation — resurface in a recent post, ‘Women in Graffiti: A Tribute to the Women of Egypt’, on the participation of women in making graffiti on the walls of Egyptian streets.
The artists mentioned include Aya Tarek (“one of the pioneers of graffiti in Egypt”), Hend Kheera (“the first Egyptian graffiti artist to be profiled by Rolling Stone”), Bahia Shebab (an artist and art historian behind the project, A thousand times no), Mira Shihadeh, Laila Magued (more of her work here), the Nooneswa collective, and Hanna El Degham, whose work on the wall of the Lycee Morayef describes as “one of the most astounding street artworks I have seen in Egypt.” The article also includes images of the tributes — by artists Alaa Awad, Keizer, Zeft and Amr Nazeer, X4SprayCans and Ammar Abo Bakr — to Egyptian women, their role in the protests, works made in outrage at the men who have harrassed and attacked them.
The world has been fascinated by the explosion of graffiti in Egypt, and the walls have become signifiers for revolutionary desires, and the street a place where art makes demands of its public, everyday. The precariousness of this art makes Morayef’s catalogue of images necessary, and it has become the visual archive of an emancipatory politics, expressions of hope for a country in which women are not violated everyday.
The beginning of the project
“The project happened organically,” Morayef says, “I found it impossible to post images without context. I did it once and ended up having to explain it, it became an article. It wasn’t originally a project but a personal hobby of mine. I started taking photographs every day in April, May 2011, in the neighbourhood I lived in, where there was a faculty of fine arts.”
This was Zamalek, “where the art students were, so it made sense this should be the hunting ground. There was always new graffiti popping up and disappearing. I wasn’t aware of other people doing it, other citizen journalists. I thought, ‘ok, I’m the only one doing this. It was for my personal archive, I put it on Facebook and a friend said ‘can I share your album’. I said ‘I’ll put it on a blog and you can share it with your friends.’”
“Then I noticed graffiti appearing in different neighbourhoods. With every post it went from being fun to being an obssession. At some point it felt like a responsibility, but not in a negative sense. I started getting feedback from street artists. I would start to credit the photographs to the separate artists, the artists would start to contact me because they recognised I enjoyed what I was doing, that there was no ulterior motive to my job.”
“What was really great about the process was social media. These artists were uploading or tweeting. By following the top Twitter accounts I would find out about work I hadn’t heard of. All the artists have Twitter accounts, Facebook, so it was easy to access them without invading their privacy.”
“It reached the point where I could recognise the street, the aesthetic of the artist and figure it out. Ganzeer [who she interviews here] created this interactive Google map, this blog, where he enabled artists to upload images, and their location, so people like me could upload and tag them to the artist. But the artists I follow and I am aware of, I think they are the tip of the iceberg. They are twenty percent of the graffiti crowd.”
“You have activists who use graffiti, artists who use graffiti for a certain phase then stop because it became too trendy, artists who joinbecause it is trendy … it’s hard to keep track … artists who sign their work, others who have no interest. These people, some of them I would only come across because I would drive by or walk by. In one or two cases they would reach out and say this does belong to me but I don’t want anyone to know.”
“I was included in this crowd, giving me access to their personal lives and their information. Someone like Sad Panda, who has created this anonymous persona for the media so no one knows his real name. I wrote a blog about when he welcomed me to his house. He introduced himself as a friend of the artist. So I walk in and I have no idea who this kid is, cutting up a stencil of a panda, then meeting his mum, watching him as he works, that was a privilege.”
The origins of graffiti
“The general view is that it [graffiti] started with the revolution. I completely disagree with this. I’ve seen graffiti for as long as I remember liking it. Graffiti on school walls, on mosque walls, whether it’s patriotic or, like, I love my school. There’s an argument that the Muslim Brotherhood started using graffiti, usually in the impoverished neighbourhoods. There’s an argument that it started in Alexandria, and many of the artists who are known as the pioneers of graffiti, were working there as early as 2003/4.”
“One of the images I took [of a fresh work of graffiti next to an older piece] when I posted it on Twitter someone I knew messaged me and said ‘I took a photo of the graffiti next to it in 2005!’ So there’s been a change in attention, attention and participation. And a sudden focus on the international media.”
“It started from an urgent need [during the uprisings] we had no internet, no phone-line. We were cut off from the media, there was no one there … As the intention increased, there was the glamorisation of people in the revolution, especiall the youthful ones, many artists felt the need to participate. And there was suddenly an audience, for something which [before] would have been received negatively.”
The gender of graffiti artists
“The gender is still predominantly male. I have noticed – in the collective, the Mona Lisa Brigade, who are using graffiti for social initiatives – they have thirty percent members who are female. Apart from the female artists I mentioned on my blog there are perhaps a handful more.”
The Mickey Mouse encounter (read about the episode here)
“Two years on I have a different perspective on it. It is a good example in Egypt [of the reaction to graffiti], when you are dealing with forty percent of the population being illiterate. It’s an environment to create art that would explain [itself] or be easily interpreted. The man’s conversation was a good example of – and I’m generalising – how we prefer to be told what it is rather than figuring it out.”
“We’ve lived under a dictatorship for so long, and it’s not only Mubarak, but Sadat and Nasser. We haven’t had a free space to come up with our own ideas. We are used to voting yes to everthing, so with every singly referendum people have voted yes. Because we just don’t understand saying no to our leaders.”
“When street artists make work which says no to military leaders, these are the works which are responded to most negatively. It was really interesting, you would have people getting really vocal: ‘you can criticise our leaders but the army is a red line.’ We couldn’t handle seeing our leaders, our heroes, our pharaos, criticised.
“That particular artist [Keizer – who she interviews here] was making graffiti which was really Western-influenced. I personally felt – and what I saw – was a certain confusion behind the messages. I think he received some flak from his peers. [The man on the street] would not recognise why George Bush is holding Mickey Mouse by the paw.”
“When you are dealing with traumatic events there is so much to work with. Why would you mystify the man on the street? The artist has since said that he is using Western graffiti to attack the elites, and that’s his theory. But he has since moved to making graffiti with Arabic language and Egyptian symbols. I have noticed a shift.”
Violence against women
“One artist [Zeft] made a stencil of Nefertiti with a gas mask. He distributed it via social media and said you can reuse this. It appeared on the Facebook page of Op Anti-Sexual Harassment, and you can see it in photographs of protests a few weeks back. This image appeared in Washington, Berlin and Gaza.”
“This was an example of one artist showing solidarity with women’s rights and rape. It became a symbol for social awareness campaigns. That’s a great success, but you are still dealing with a small segment of society. These artists, most of them are liberals, most of them are with the revolution. But the fact that women’s rights have been advocated by artists show that there has been a significant shift in awareness.”
The defacement of walls
“There was the Ganzeer tank versus bike grafiti, some of it was defaced. The artists are on the street, during the protest, sometimes the paint during the protest. I interviewed one artist during the protest: he was very upset, he said ‘this is the only thing I can do.’ So [working like this] is taking an artist from a sense of helplessness to a sense of responsibility.”
“This is the same thing the artists, Ammar Abo Bakr and Alaa Awad, who made the painting of the martyrs said. The guy and his friend made a mural on the AUC wall. They each spent two thousand Egyptian pounds, they said this is our way of paying them back. But it was so powerful and popular that alumni and members of the faculty circulated this petition asking the administration to stop the university from allowing government officials to paint over it. The artists came back and did a second paint.”
“Then the government workers arrived. The baladiya – they are the bottom of the food chain, assigned to clean up – went down in the middle of the night. They actually had a line of soldiers protecting them as they cleaned off the graffiti. The reaction of the public was so heavy. You had street artists going on TV – who had previously avoided the media – who became very vocal in their criticism of the government. To the point that the prime minister had to release a statement.”
“I’m going to go ahead and say this was probably the most important moment in the history of graffiti. You had the prime minister, the second most important man in Egypt, having to apologise to a group of graffiti artists, who have been repeatedly criminalised.”
Soraya Morayef is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at Kings College London, as well as working with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles on a series of videos documenting the graffiti scene in Cairo, Beirut, Libya and Palestine.