One of the most consequential and certainly one of the most widely reported events in recent memory, the Egyptian Revolution of January 25, 2011, has irrevocably altered the political landscape of the Middle East and changed the very nature of global protest. Inspired in part by the success of the Tunisian Revolution a year earlier, as well as previous “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe, Egyptians understood from the beginning the historical importance and global context of their rebellion, which has since sent shockwaves of dissent across the world, inspiring both the Libyan and Syrian uprisings, as well as the more modest and short-lived Occupy Wall street movement in the United States. Though not nearly as spontaneous as it seemed to the Western media breathlessly reporting on its unfolding, the extraordinary events of that first month marked a radical cultural shift among ordinary Egyptians, the vast majority of whom had lived under the police state for their entire lives under the watchful eyes of Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled without rival for thirty years.
One remarkable and unexpected expression of this cultural shift was the birth of an arts movement that literally manifested itself on the very streets where the revolution was taking place. From the barricades on Sheikh Rihan and Mohamed Mahmoud Street off of Tahrir square to the walls of Suez, Luxor, and Alexandria, a sudden wave of political graffiti spread across Egypt as young people and artists, many of whom had been directly involved in the uprising, began to express the anger, outrage and hope that had been set free on January 25th. As Mia Gröndahl explains in the preface to her new collection of photographs, Revolution Graffiti: Street Art of the New Egypt, “The Egyptian people called for freedom, bread and social justice, demands that newly-hatched ‘graffitists’ translated into stencils and drawings that spread like wildfire in the street all over Egypt.” Gröndahl’s ambitious but hardly exhaustive inventory of street graffiti from across the country offers a glimpse of the spectacle of the Arab Spring as it unfolded, as well as an implicit antidote to the simple-minded technological determinism that defined much of the Western media’s response. Despite the importance of social media in helping protesters plan and communicate with one another, technology is not always destiny. Such political movements, after all, do not take shape because people are suddenly allowed to share pictures of their pets with each other. Though Facebook and Twitter allowed protesters to organize more efficiently and spontaneously, those tools were meaningless without the street level emotional and social connections necessary to inspire and maintain bonds between the many diverse segments of the revolution.
So while many of the protesters who helped to topple Mubarak were writing on each other’s Facebook walls, many others were reaching an equally wide audience by writing, stenciling, drawing and spray-painting on the walls of the cities and squares where the protesters converged. As Gröndahl, a resident of Cairo, makes clear, there was little graffiti prior to the January uprisings. Under Mubarak, any criticism of the government, whether in the form of the written word or in public conversation, could easily land one in jail, or worse. That so many artists and young people felt so deeply compelled to express themselves this way, despite the risks involved and the massive police presence dispatched to deal with the occupation of Tahrir, reveals the courage, optimism, and joy of the revolutionary moment. It also shows the very real affective power of the crowds that came together in those early weeks, a power that no doubt was bolstered by the very graffiti that they gave birth to. Indeed, looking at many of these works of art, the thing that stands out most is the incredible spirit of solidarity and steadfast resistance they so aggressively project. From the many spontaneous profanities against Mubarak (sometimes showing him and his wife, Suzanne, as snakes crawling along the walls of the city), to murals depicting the intense street battles between protesters and the Egyptian police and the clever, Banksy-like artwork of the graffiti artist Nazeer--whose trademark road sign graffiti literally directed interested Egyptians to the site of the uprising in Tahrir Square, announcing “Tahrir: your address is here”--the more than 400 photographs collected by Gröndahl provide an incredible window into the anger and passion generated by the revolution.
Mural by the Winged Elephant depicting clashes between protesters and police
In this respect, the images that Gröndahl has collected can best be understood as examples of both political expression and political action. Even as they seek to articulate grievances and memorialize events, they also seem designed to inspire and re-affirm commitments to the continuing struggle. As one graffiti artist named Khaled, known as the Winged Elephant, says about one of his murals depicting the violence of the Egyptian police during the protests: “The mural shows several moments from the revolution. I want us to memorize those moments.” Like the protest songs of the Wobblies, which captured the history of their struggle and could be easily memorized and shared in order to build greater solidarity and resolve among the working class, the murals and stencils of the Egyptian revolutionary moment operate as historical records of resistance meant to inform as well as inspire.
Though the images presented in Revolution Graffiti are well-curated, divided sometimes by theme or subject and sometimes by artist or art collective, Gröndahl provides little in the way of commentary, and the quality of the commentary she does produce pales in comparison to the intensity and vibrancy of the works themselves. The short opening preface and chapter introductions, for instance, offer scant historical or cultural background, and too often substitute cliché or empty platitudes for analysis. Phrases such as “I believe human beings from time immemorial have a strong need to communicate and tell the rest of the world: I exist! I am here,” do little to help her readers understand either the complexities of the Egyptian revolutionary movement, or the value and impact of political graffiti. Indeed, it is a shame that Gröndahl did not choose to collaborate with a journalist or writer better capable of providing a more nuanced historical and political context, or that the editors at the American University in Cairo Press did not encourage Gröndahl to more fully develop these sections. Despite this dearth of critical context, however, the images—many of which include large portions of text including slogans, manifestos and poems—almost literally speak for themselves, and Revolution Graffiti still has much to offer those interested in understanding the revolution from an Egyptian perspective. Toward this end, the organization of the book is quite helpful, as are the many excellent footnotes and useful translations. Whether it’s the blood soaked images of the Maspero Building (home to Egyptian state TV and radio), Hanaa El Degham’s extraordinary, almost Fauvist depictions of hijab clad women waiting in long lines to purchase cooking gas or the provocative calls for sexual equality expressed by the members of the Harimi project, a feminist graffiti collective, the book does a fine job of capturing the varied economic, political and social concerns of a broad swath of Egyptian society.
The mural “Pyramid of Crisis” by Hanaa El Degham
The daily concerns and human consequences of the revolution are perhaps best expressed in the many images of “martyrs and heroes” that began to appear all over Egypt immediately after the fall of Mubarak. These murals and stencils capture the likenesses of many of the more than 800 protesters killed in the first weeks of the revolt. Though some of these works commemorate the lives and deaths of fallen activists and movement leaders, most of the men and women depicted are not well known leaders or organizers, but simply ordinary people who gave their lives, or who sometimes lost their eyes, resisting the regime. In fact, perhaps one of the most revelatory and emotionally intense sections of Gröndahl’s book is the one titled: “Lost Eyes.” These images are dedicated to one extraordinary mural by Egyptian artist Amaar Abu Bakr that memorializes twelve of the more than sixty protesters shot in the eye with rubber bullets in the November 2011 protests against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The twelve portraits, all of which are drawn with a bandage in whitewash over one eye, are set against a backdrop of the red, white and black colors of Egyptian flag. Though the larger-than-life images are remarkable in themselves, equally intriguing is how the whitewashed spaces of the eye patches become a kind of canvas for viewers and other graffiti artists who were inspired to add their own messages of anger and resistance. Over the patches, one visitor scribbled: “Ha, ha, I can see,” while another wrote “The Interior Ministry are thugs.”
The mural “Lost Eyes” by Ammar Abu Bakr
Such palimpsestic layering of political commentary is not unusual, and many of the murals in Revolution Graffiti express the lively and sometimes contentious spirit of a movement still trying to find its political footing. This dialectic back and forth can be seen in one of the most iconic murals of the period: Ganzeer’s comically titled “Tank vs. Biker.” Though originally painted as an image of defiance and working class resistance, the mural continued to develop and transform as the revolution became increasingly violent and troubled. As Gröndahl explains, the original mural, which depicts the immanent collision of an Egyptian military tank and a lone bike rider carrying a large tray of bread, was changed dramatically after the 2011 Maspero Massacre, one of the first massacres of the revolutionary period: “After the ‘Maspero Massacre’ of October 2011, when more than twenty-five Christian Egyptians protesting the destruction of a church were killed by the military, graffiti artist Khaled…arrived at the wall and added images of people being crushed by the tank—just as it had happened in real life.”
Though not the most deadly of the many conflicts between protesters and the military, the Maspero Massacre, in which Egyptian military forces drove tank-like armored vehicles full speed into crowds of Coptic protesters (the online video evidence of this is enough to make a revolutionary out of even the most hardened government supporter), was an especially disturbing development. By the end, more than 28 protesters were dead and more than 200 injured. What happened next reveals the true explanatory value of the graffiti collected by Gröndahl, which offers a unique perspective on the diversity, complexity, and internal divisions of the revolution in those early months, divisions which have become increasingly important as the movement struggles to maintain its relevance in the face of renewed military rule.
Winged Elephant’s addition to the mural “Tank Vs. Biker”
Shortly after the Winged Elephant’s additions to the mural, Gröndahl explains, members of the Badr Brigade (revolutionary supporters of the military who saw SCAF as liberators from the abuses of the police) added their own voices to the mural, literally whitewashing the crushed victims of Maspero and replacing them with pro-SCAF graffiti claiming that the “army and the people are one hand.” This revisionary act sparked a series of responses from graffiti artists with wildly different agendas. Both the Winged Elephant and the Mona Lisa Brigade (a brigade of feminist graffiti artists) responded by painting over the pro-SCAF graffiti of the Badr Brigade and replacing it with their own images. The Winged Elephant responded with a visceral critique of the military, painting an enormous soldier feeding like a wild dog upon a hapless female protester. The Mona Lisa Brigade, meanwhile, added a colorful stencil-like collage of several revolutionary figures, including the folk hero Suleiman Khater, formerly of the Egyptian Security forces, who, for many Egyptians, has become an emblem of the ongoing struggle against Israeli occupation, flanked on either side by an image of Lenin with his fist raised (a symbol of resistance, which, appropriately enough, dates back to ancient Assyria). These images of Khater and Lenin standing side by side are especially interesting because of the way they juxtapose the popular anti-Israeli sentiment represented by Khater with the communism of Lenin, a move that reveals the great political diversity and hybridity of the revolution. Though many of these images have been painted over or otherwise obliterated, Gröndahl’s fierce commitment to document the several incarnations of “Tank vs. Biker” is itself an act of significant historical preservation to be emphatically applauded.
“Tank Vs. Biker” by Ganzeer
Like any popular movement against entrenched power, the Egyptian Revolution will no doubt continue to face its share of troubles and setbacks for a long time to come. The 2013 coup and the continued oppression and violence of the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood have generated new problems and new intrigues of their own. Clearly there are no easy solutions, but as the people of Egypt try to find a path forward through these crises, and as the revolution continues to unfold, those looking to understand the full impact of future events would be well advised to keep their feet in the streets and their eyes on the walls.
James D. Hoff has a PhD in English from the Graduate Center, CUNY. He lives in New York City, where he teaches Literature and Writing.