In 2003 The Economist wrote an obituary for the “Arab street”. It proclaimed the power of popular social movements null and void in the light of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the turmoil in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The magazine was not alone. Many scholars, writers and bloggers were asking a similar question: why had the Arab street failed to rise against suppression to demand democracy and justice?
The events of 2011 have disproved many of these assertions. The popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya sought to reclaim the city streets for the masses. Street art has become part of this process. From the destruction of former vestiges of authoritarianism, such as the cars of the Ben Ali family, to the painted murals of Mohammed Bouazizi – the self-immolating vegetable seller often seen as a catalyst to the uprisings – art has taken on a political tinge. The streets serve as painted reminders of the events both behind and ahead for Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan populations.
Art has featured in revolutions before. Ask any art historian and they will tell you that art is often shaped by external conditions and experiences. Take, for example, the rise of the constructivist movement after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, or the stark work emerging from the Maoist period in China. But these were different. For the Bolsheviks art was transformed after the event. For Mao’s China, art became a way to justify the revolution with dictatorial political propaganda. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, art is as much embroiled in the events still unfolding, as it is a reflection of it. This is not art of the revolution, but art that is undergoing a revolution itself.
Where the streets are open art is public. Here art is owned by no one…
Protesters are seeking to reclaim their socio-economic and political rights, their spaces, and their lives from the grip of a corrupt regime. Walls, which usually feature graffiti loyal to football teams or Islamic messages, are now scrawled with political slogans; on buildings formerly housing the RCD (Ben Ali’s political party) pictures of Che Guevara are positioned alongside phrases such as Anti-imperialisme.
The story is similar in Egypt. Here murals often reflect ideological issues. Phrases such as “Allah Akbhar” (God is great) sit alongside the Communist image of the hammer and sickle. Christian and Muslim unity is also a contentious theme used to colour the streets. In Libya, the walls of old army bases feature brightly drawn caricatures of Muammar Gaddafi. Illustrations show the former leader not only soaked in blood, or walking through an afterlife, but also as a clown and as Count Dracula. In a similar way, the seafront of Benghazi is a swathe of red, black, white and green – the colours of the national flag – providing a backdrop for phrases such as “We have a dream”.
Where the streets are open, art is truly public. Here art is owned by no one, visible to all and, perhaps most interestingly, taking on a new purpose. Works such as those of Egyptian street artist, Ganzeer, and the Tunisian artist collective, Ahl el-Kahf, seek not to dictate a message to their audience, unlike the political propaganda of many other revolutions. Instead quotes, images and odd juxtapositions look to engage the viewer, allowing them to experience what they call a “personal revolution”. For example, Ahl el-Kahf illustrate old warehouses with quotes and images wrought from the works of Deleuze, Foucault, and Negri.
…a man with a bird cage for a head, doves flying out to freedom.
Style, content and form are also evolving. In Tunisia, Banksy stencils have been copied and adjusted to fit the political climate. There has been an explosion in calligraffiti – the merge of traditional calligraphy with graffiti styles. Artists also mix Arabic, French and English scripts. New media is often used. For example, Amine Lamine’s website collects videos of young Tunisians putting up art across their cities under the label #tagtunis.
These streets have even drawn artists from abroad. Zoo Project, a French-Algerian artist created several striking monotone murals across Tunis last April – one depicting a man with an open bird cage for a head, doves flying out to freedom. He also made 40 life-size figures and scattered them around the city – a reminder of the protesters who died in clashes with the regime during the uprisings.
As new democracies struggle to take hold, the art in the streets exists as a mirror. It echoes popular sentiments and draws attention to what are often sensitive, and neglected issues. Z.I.T. (Zombie Intervention Tunisie), a group of Tunisian street artists, see the battle as far from over, “It’s the same situation – democracy and freedom didn’t (and don’t) exist and we must continue working to create it”. For Zoo Project, the tenuousness is told with a picture: a series of men standing on each others’ shoulders, playing hopscotch and trying not to topple over.
Banksy put it best: “Graffiti has been used to start revolutions, stop wars and generally is the voice of the people who aren’t listened to”. And, even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty, at the very least graffiti has the power to “make someone smile while they’re having a piss.”
Images courtesy of Jason Pack, Sara Ashour, Norhan Nabeeh, Maya Gowaily and Graffiti by El-Teneen G