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The  World Policy Institute understands that policymakers and opinion leaders need creative ways to catalyze innovation and engage wider coalitions in solving some of the world’s biggest challenges.  By working with artists focused on the same issues, this cross-cutting initiative seeks to build a new, collaborative model for social change. 

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Street Art Illuminates Egypt's Lingering Problems

By Sarah Lipkis

Under former President Hosni Mubarak, street art in Egypt was heavily monitored. The threat of punishment, prison sentences, and fines, coupled with ubiquitous police presence, made it nearly impossible for artists to carry out their craft as forbidden by the regime.

The January 2011 protests in Tahrir Square, however, gave street artists the opportunity to elevate their work onto the global stage. By using affordable tools like stencils and graffiti, artists were able to publicly critique the Mubarak regime and express solidarity with the protesters.

This relatively brief opening allowed for artists like Adham Bakry, The Mozza, and others to use street art as a tool for social and political commentary.

While both artists focus on current events, there is a difference in the way they approach the medium. For example, while The Mozza’s work looks at social issues, such as the treatment of women, Bakry focuses on the political landscape. Regardless of their differences, however, both are street artists who encapsulate how art is deeply intertwined with socio-political issues.  

Citing the work of street art pioneer Aya Tarek, Bakry states that prior to 2011, Alexandria was the epicenter of street art in Egypt, boasting a large underground art scene. Street art in Cairo, on the other hand, was very rare. Bakry attributes this rarity to the fact that Egypt’s capital was “the heart of the centralized system, the regime. So they would immediately arrest you if you sprayed graffiti and were caught. They would cover it up immediately.” Since the 2011 protests, however, street art has become more common as a form of political discourse.

Bakry considers his work to be more explicitly political. Street art, he states, was “another front that we were fighting. It was one of the most important tools in empowering people, in telling people not to be afraid, voicing our demands, making areas that were just full of graffiti — the protests areas. It just spread like a virus.”

This politically charged sentiment is especially evident in various graffiti stencils Bakry produced in 2011, after Mubarak resigned. In the picture "Safwat in Prison," Bakry puts Mohamed Safwat El-Sherif, former Secretary-General of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, behind bars. (Shortly after the protests, El-Sherif was arrested for corruption.)

In another piece of graffiti, Bakry’s takes on Tantawi, the former Field Marshall under Mubarak and head of the Council of Armed Forces, which took control of Egypt between Mubarak’s resignation and Mohammed Morsi’s swearing-in. Bakry’s piece "Tantawi" is a picture of Hussein Tantawi’s underpants. The underwear, dotted with little blue helicopters, creates provocative, farcical commentary on the serious problem of the country’s military presence.

Images like "Safwat in Prison" and "Tantawi" epitomize a growing frustration with the status quo and a desire to change it. “It’s really an honor to be a part of history, and to work with activists who want to spread ideas and empower people,” Bakry says. “I don’t think I could have asked for a better opportunity to a flourish as an artist.”

Unlike her counterparts, who have focused specifically on Egyptian politics, The Mozza’s work primarily focuses on issues pertaining to women. When asked why, she responded, “probably because I am a woman and in a sense being a man is a kind of default, equal to being human. Being woman is always a special case of being a human you keep being reminded of all the time. Even this question, if I [had] drawn or painted men nobody would ever as me, why do I paint men?”

 

The Mozza also plays off the concept of public space, which she describes as generally male-dominated. In Cairo, she describes, public areas are usually understood to be “masculine space.” Wanting to change that perception, she began to think of ways to depict women that would also challenge the prevailing masculine notion. By creating enormous, lifelike murals of women, The Mozza brings women into the public space. The murals, typically in black and white, represent groups of women talking or driving in cars. Another example of The Mozza’s work is of an individual woman, dressed as queen with a crown, sitting out on the street corner. The massive murals help reclaim the public space for women.

Strikingly, none of The Mozza’s murals have faces. “To me a face is a person,” she explains. “I am not interested in [a] particular person. Also, there is a certain mirror function if you want, without a face it is easy to project oneself in place of the figure represented, identify with it.” The work is not about the individual person, but about the society. The Mozza strategically places her murals that compel pedestrians to interact with them and ask, “Why is it [seeing women on the street] unusual?”

For Bakry, and artists like him, art is conversation. “A great responsibility because we’ve been branded as the revolutionary aesthetic. So we are a mouthpiece.” Since 2011, Egyptian artists like Bakry, and The Mozza, have enjoyed this flourishing period for street art.

There is a growing concern, however, that the new government regulations will once again heavily limit this form of creative socio-political expression. In November 2013, the interim government proposed a bill that would reinstate prison sentences and fines for artists whose work was deemed to be “political or abusive graffiti” — a vague concept left open to interpretation per the ruling government. In May 2014, the bill became law. With the political situation in Egypt still in flux, the question remains how will street art in Egypt continue to evolve, if at all?

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Sarah Lipkis is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Adham Bakry and The Mozza]

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