Artist Ammar Abou Bakr, who organized a mural on Qasr al-Nil Street, one of Cairo’s main boulevards that passes through Tahrir Square, explains of the piece: “Art must now be in the street with the people.” Abou Bakr set out to create the 25-meter long by 4-meter high mixed-media mural with other artists ahead of the June 30 demonstrations, at a time when fellow artists were resigning from their positions in protest of the feared stifling of the arts by the Muslim Brotherhood government. Well before this, however, Abou Bakr and his fellow artists have been creating artworks in the street, driven by a conviction that art belongs in the public, rather than private space.
To create this mural, Abou Bakr was joined in his work by a sculptor, a calligrapher and photographers. The result is a dialogue of form and topic, where viewers can appreciate ancient Egyptian symbols amid poetic calligraphy and sculpture in a work designed to bring beauty and color to Egypt’s dusty, trash-lined streets.
The work fuses the visual and literary arts: calligraphy, painting, poetry and sculpture. Most notably, the art infuses verses of a poem by writer and journalist Ahmad Abou al-Hasan. Penned before the revolution, his words are meant to convey an ancient history often forgotten in a country struggling with ongoing socio-economic challenges. Abou al-Hasan says, “We have so much history and life that everyone should know about, because the future is mixed between peoples.”
For this mural, a young Egyptian woman painted in shimmering gold and wearing a blue, red and yellow beaded necklace draped across her neck and shoulders stands out as the centerpiece. It calls on the passerby to identify with the image – a common Egyptian face with braided hair that takes on the regal symbols of ancient Egypt. The portrait is adorned with the collar of the famous Nefertiti bust and surrounded by layers of Sameh Ismael’s calligraphy in red, black and yellow that brings to life the poetic verses of Abou al-Hasan, repeated many times across the length of the mural.
“This piece is a way to remind people of what they’ve lost,” says Abou Bakr, who teaches at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Luxor. “Egypt has 7,000 years of history that should be defended – a great civilization that left behind amazing beauty and history. We need to defend all of Egyptian civilization.”
The comment is a veiled reference at Islamists who have, for example, taken aim at displays of nude Pharaonic statues, which they say conflict with Islamic sensibilities. “But that is not right,” argues Abou Bakr. “Art is close to religion – it’s in our ancient temples and Sufi tombs.”
Like the Mexican muralists in the early 20th century, Egyptian artists make use of ancient and religious symbols in their indirect political commentary. Reappropriating cultural heritage is a defiant act when deliberate policy keeps local communities walled away from archaeological sites appreciated by foreign tourists.
Now run down from neglect and covered in a thick layer of dust and grime, downtown Cairo’s wide boulevards were once home to a flourishing cultural scene. Just a stone’s throw from the mural is Qasr al-Nil Theater, which once served as the location for the legendary Umm Kulthum’s recorded concerts, although it has largely closed its doors as of late. Amid this eerie backdrop, on June 27 the artists scraped clear a wall covered with Arabic graffiti, mismatched paint and a large real estate advertisement. Abou Bakr says, “Everything has become so ugly in our cities over the years. We need to give people a chance to appreciate beauty again.”
For members of a construction crew working across the street from the mural, viewing art is something far removed from their daily lives. Mohammad, a 21-year-old, says, “In our schools, there are too many students. No one cares if we have art classes or music. For me, democracy in Egypt would mean all Egyptians have better schools.” With decreasing budget allocations to education, the arts remain sidelined or simply nonexistent. This denies young people – often marginalized though 32 percent of Egyptians are under 15, according to government statistics – the chance for self-reflection and dialogue that accompany arts education.
Alaa Abed al-Hamid, a 27-year-old sculptor and fine arts lecturer, agrees: “A lot of my students come from villages and are afraid to even use their name and photo on Facebook and talk openly about things. Street art in Egypt is its own kind of revolution. We are breaking taboos and fighting a system that denies us our dreams.”
For the mural, Abed al-Hamid contributed four winged statues made out of discarded car parts meticulously painted to resemble colorful birds by Abou Bakr. The statues were previously part of Abed al-Hamid’s first solo exhibit, “The Solution is the Solution,” a play on the Muslim Brotherhood’s famous slogan “Islam is the solution.” Although held more than two years ago, Abed al-Hamid recently found posters advertising his exhibit in the streets around Cairo. “This really made me think about how the posters had so much more freedom than my sculptures,” he says. “The only people who go to exhibitions today are artists, collectors and journalists. Normal people don’t know anything about the art scene. This is why I decided to put my statues in the street and my work in other cities.”
The final panel of the mural becomes the work of Germany-based artists Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles. The artists had wanted to create a billboard out of their photographs of German wheat fields as a comment on how speculation had driven up food prices in 2010 to the point where the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization had actually predicted riots. Although self-sufficient in food production prior to the 1960s, Egypt is now the world’s single largest wheat importer – making the country extremely sensitive to world grain price fluctuations. In 2011, the FAO food price index was at its highest since it began measuring food prices back in 1990.
Badri and Nelles mount their three photographs to the wall in frames they found thrown away on a Cairo street, but not before first tearing down a billboard advertisement for a real estate mogul at the urging of filmmaker Ahmad Hasan, who tells them, “We’re against these kinds of big businessmen here in Egypt.”
According to a report by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights released in May 2013, over 40 percent of the country’s people live on less than $2 a day, while 2 percent of the population controls 98 percent of the economy. The report goes on to say that a corruption-riddled private sector has sold subsidized housing units intended for low-income people at very high prices. An estimated quarter of the population now lives in informal housing, an urban and environmental disaster in one of the world’s most rapidly urbanizing nations. Social justice, one of the aims of the revolution, is far from being achieved.
Thus, the mural on Qasr al-Nil Street serves as a kind of critical medium and a form of dialogue, as well as a means to reappropriate cultural heritage and as a source of much-needed beauty in the neglected public space. “The wall is our newspaper, our media,” Abou Bakr says. “Over the past 60 years Egypt has lost a lot of things, and we’re asking people to study this country’s history for its future.”
The mural’s creation, a kind of public exhibition, prompts dialogue between the artists and the public around the ideas of Egyptian identity, the loss of culture, social division, beauty and art.
Angela Boskovitch is a Cairo-based writer, researcher and cultural producer. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).