Graffiti has long been a way of asserting power, splashing and spraying imagery of cultural resistance over the structures and buildings of the ruling elite. And so it is no surprise that, as the uprisings in Middle East countries like Egypt have gradually become the white noise of the Western news cycle and public protests have become far harder to stage, graffiti has exploded into the streets.
Where in the United States, graffiti art has become something of a fetish among collectors, curators, and celebrities alike, in the Middle East, it is a political tool, a far cry from the subject of a blockbuster retrospective, like Jeffrey Deitch’s Art in the Streets. Additionally, as the popularity of graffiti and its begrudged brother, street art, has grown in the US, its identity has become increasingly fragmented. Battles over street artists vs. graffiti artists (i.e. art school kids who create intricate wheatpastes in their studios vs. those who spray paint with bottles in illicit dark spaces) pervade the genre, as well as questions like: Is exhibiting with celebrity curators like Deitch selling out? Is working with major fashion brands like Louis Vuitton selling out? Is working with real-estate moguls like Tony Goldman — aka king of gentrification in New York’s Soho and Miami’s South Beach, the same Tony Goldman that partially subsidizes the graffiti-happy New York gallery The Hole, which also curates the Houston wall, one of the most legendary graf-spots in New York — selling out? If so, then a substantial number of American graffiti artists, are, well, sold.
Last week, Gareth Harris of Art Newspaper published an article investigating the way the uprisings in the Middle East have affected artistic production, reporting that while more Middle Eastern countries than ever participated in the international fairs like Art Basel and the Venice Biennale (and received a great deal of attention), the real effects can be seen on the streets. Fatenn Mostafa, a Cairo-based art adviser, shared that “Art patrons emerge from the wealthy. Many of Egypt’s business tycoons and mega art collectors are either on trial, in jail or have escaped following accusations of illicit financial gains … as dictatorships fall, so do many of the business people surrounding old regimes. We will see this in Syria very soon … It will take time for the Arab Spring to translate into art collecting. The wealthy are more focused on reviving the economic wheel and the intellectuals/artists do not want to miss the chance to fight for ‘serious’ democracy.”
As a result, artists have taken to the streets, inscribing the demands of their particular revolution across the walls and buildings of their respective cities. In nations of political unrest, art has a job to do, a message to spread, and Mostafa says that artists are subsequently motivated by a unifying political objective: you either have artists who act as “spokespeople of their impoverished, struggling jailed population” or artists who begin to paint their revolution across public spaces: “some of these graffiti walls are so strong visually that they are now used as logos among the masses.”
It is thus interesting to consider the crisis over graffiti and street art in America next to the emerging landscape of graffiti and street art in the Middle East — which last month found itself in the Western media spotlight after a handful of Egyptian graffiti artists were detained prior to the May 27 protests. While as illegal markings on walls, graffiti is by nature political, the Egyptian works are explicitly so, as there is no debate over subject: The subject is, must be, political resistance. Egyptian artists are then creating graffiti and street art within a sort of contextual constraint, which forces one to be more precise and creative (the way a poet working within the structure of sonnet or haiku must be).
The following selection of Egyptian street and graffiti art evidence what working within a unifying subject matter and with a common goal can do. Each work is bound in a blustery rage that reminds one how invigorating it can be to use aesthetics to fight for a certain freedom — be it from an oppressive government, against a war, for basic human rights. Perhaps these are lessons American artists need to remember as they consider lending their time and creativity to designing bikinis for Lindsay Lohan or helping beautify Goldman’s walls in the hippest possible way, instead of creating work that imaginatively tackle subjects that desperately need public address: healthcare, marriage equality, reproductive rights, the rapidly disappearing funds for the arts. The latter was made most palpable yesterday, when the Brooklyn Museum pulled Deitch’s exhibition, which was to travel from Los Angeles to New York, as the museum lacked the funding to exhibit the artworks of the most legendary American street artists. How ironic.
Click through below for a gallery of powerful graffiti from Egypt:
Photo courtesy of The Guardian