“So on concrete canvas under cover of dark,
On a concrete canvas, I go making my mark,
Armed with the spray can soul…” — Nooneswa, gender equality graffiti collective of Cairo
Under capitalism street art is an expression of an essential desire to reclaim public space. Cities are both sites of collective experience and alienation. Art produced by those struggling within their borders, often represents the most societally marginalized voices. These voices share stories of trauma, defiance, and betrayal. Paint, wheat paste, fabrics, or found objects become the tools for challenging the privatization of the space they recognize as rightfully theirs — spaces that have been commercialized, and sanitized of a popular aesthetic.
This art in and of itself signifies a desire to move toward a participatory politic. When people are disallowed from shaping the public spaces that surround them, a desire to take it back, to own that space, manifests. I would say definitively that unsanctioned street art is indicative of a desire for a more participatory city. The most pressing and inspiring examples of this above assertion would be the woman-driven street art of the Arab Revolution. They seem to define what it means to take space and power back from the oppressors.
Since the first #JAN25 the protests, street fights and organized campaigns have seen fits and starts — and that is admittedly an understatement. The Western media was quick to highlight and focus on every instance of sexual violence, harassment, and attacks against women in Tahrir Square, in an obvious attempt to discredit and demonize those participating in the anti-government demonstrations. What was not highlighted or given even a shred of a mention from these talking-heads were the brave, determined women who formed coalition groups to protect themselves and advance their interests and cause for gender equality during the uprising. Anyone watching the videos streaming over YouTube could see the women at the forefront of the street fights, arm in arm with their brothers. For those of us on the Left we knew much of their stories were being deliberately erased from the news- and we would have to look to popular and underground channels to hear from the women themselves.
We found their voices and their stories spray-painted across the cityscapes of Egypt.
The ferocity of the murals, stencils, posters, stickers, and collages of both the independent street artists and the collectives are hard to ignore. Their messages clear and relevant to their local audiences, but also transnational and inspiring other Arab feminists groups from Tunisia to the UK, even radicalizing those of us who practice street art in the U.S. Their slogans and messages range from explicit threats against violence to the challenging of the subtly subconscious. When a young protestor was beaten to the group by riot police and her burqa pulled up over her head- and her bra exposed. This sight captured in photographs and video created a sexist buzz that both attacked the young woman for wearing a body covering like a burqa, and also for what she was wearing underneath it- that bright blue brassiere. The Graffiti artist Bahia Shehab, created a series of stenciled pieces featuring that same blue bra- a statement of solidarity and a demand to end the stereotyping and shaming of Arab women’s dress. The most popular of these pieces is entitled “No,” the rest of the text of this stencil reads, “No Attacks against veiled women.” Another of her pieces has a stylized woman’s head, face in pain, painted in red with the slogan: “There are people who have had their head put to the ground so that you can raise your head up high.” In discussions of her work the artist professes a strong commitment to gender equality, and political action.
The street art from these women and their fellow collective members is often defaced, or destroyed. After one such attack on a popular wall site on Mohamed Mahmoud street, graffiti artist El Zeft created the now famous “Nefertiti in a gas mask” as a tribute to the women of the revolution. In the article, Egyptian Graffiti and Gender Politics the journalist being interviewed, Soraya Morayef speaks about El Zeft’s piece in particular, “This was an example of one artist showing solidarity with women’s rights and rape. It became a symbol for social awareness campaigns. The fact that women’s rights have been advocated by artists show that there has been a significant shift in awareness.”
Perhaps one of the most widely shared images challenging sexual harassment was the red dress-clad beauty spraying out all of the bigots in her way with a smirk by Mira Shihadeh. This piece quickly caught on as a powerful, and defiant statement of being fed up with the disgusting cat calls, and street harassment that women face on a daily basis.
Had it not been for social media, the artist’s own desire to defend one another’s art in the wake of government repression and “clean up campaigns,” and the diligent documentation of dozens (like blogger suzeeinthecity) much of this art would have never reached us in the West or elsewhere. Street art has a knack for finding its way- into our line of sight, on our public transit hubs, our space. It refuses to give up. Try erasing it, sandblasting it, covering it up- it will show up elsewhere threefold. Just like its tenacious paint, and wheat paste the message sticks.
In a surreal and unexpected moment in Spring 2013, the prime minister of Egypt had to publicly apologize to dozens of regularly targeted street artists. He was forced to do so only because of the vehement public outcry after the government’s attempts to remove and destroy the Port Said Mural of AUC commonly referred to as the"‘Martyr’s Wall." This wall on a campus building of AUC, American University of Cairo, featured the prominent slogan: “Glory to the Martyrs, Martyr Mohamed Mohsen, Martyr Ahmed Youssef, Martyr Anas, Martyr Mohamed Gamal Mohamed!”
The surrounding walls near the campus gate were (and are still) filled with images of women and men fighting side-by-side, and powerful Pharaonic imagery. Morayef took the words right out of my mouth when she remarked, “You had the prime minister, the second most important man in Egypt, having to apologize to a group of graffiti artists, who have been repeatedly criminalized. I’m going to go ahead and say this was probably the most important moment in the history of graffiti.”
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Brit Schulte is a Chicago-based activist and writer. She is pursuing a Masters from the School of the Art Institute Chicago and is a founding editor at Red Wedge.