Egyptian Association for Books 2011
In modern times, graffiti continues to explode during periods of social unrest. The student protests and general strike of May 1968 saw Paris bedecked in revolutionary, anarchist, and situationist slogans such as L'ennui est contre-re'volutionnaire ("Boredom is counterrevolutionary") and Lisez moins, vivez plus ("Read less, live more"). It also is a rapidly growing art form in Israel/ Palestine and Iran. The Israeli West Bank barrier has become a site for graffiti, reminiscent of the Berlin Wall.
Al-Ahram Weekly featured AUC's bestseller exploring the popular art of the revolution Messages from Tahrir: Signs from Egypt's Revolution by a collective of photographers, including editor and medical doctor Karima Khalil. Megid's Surface-to-surface, winner of the LE10,000 prize for best art book at the Cairo Book Fair, is a fine complement to Khalil's.
Most graffiti is handdrawn but much is also stencilled and spray painted. An inspiration for Megid and the greatest contemporary graffitist is the British Bansky -- his actual identity is unknown to avoid arrest. His political, anti-war stencil art can be seen from Los Angeles to Palestine, is sought after by art galleries, and auctioned for large sums, though he spurns this attempt to co-opt him: "When you go to an art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires."
Governments invariably take a hard line on this disruption of the status quo. Most famously, Britain's New Labour passed the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 -- "Graffiti is not art, it's crime" -- and in August 2004, the Keep Britain Tidy campaign called for zero tolerance of graffiti and banned the sale of aerosol paint to anyone under the age of 16. Artists in Britain have been imprisoned for up to two years and even lackadaisical property owners who tolerate graffiti are fined.
Megid is a great fan of Banksy, who has contributed his graffiti to the project to turn the Israeli separation wall into a huge outdoor art gallery, while making fun of Israel, "turning reality on its head". His favourite: a little girl frisking an IDF soldier.
Megid's revolutionary credentials as graffitoman are impeccable: his father was a Communist and imprisoned from 1959-63. He was a bona fide working class intellectual, writing poetry in Nubian. "He would have been on the frontline during the revolution," Megid told the Weekly proudly. Sherif inherited his father's love of the printed word, and managed to get work in TV writing scripts. In 2007 he organised an exhibition Walls which was praised in New York's Fray Magazine and shown at the El-Sawi Culture Wheel.
In 2009 graffiti began to appear spontaneously in Egypt with the growing opposition to the Mubarak dictatorship. Apart from propaganda on school walls, the Culture Ministry only allowed public art that was devoid of politics. "After the revolution, the genie was out of the bottle," explained Megid to the Weekly. "The main gallery for graffiti has been Mohamed Mahmoud, Saad Zaghlul, Abdel-Minaim Ryad and Falaki Square. It was like a collective sigh of relief, inspiring the peope. The streets became an open-air exhibition ground, with ordinary people interacting with artists during the creative process, finding mutual inspiration," Megid told the Weekly.
Sherif's title Surface-to-surface suggests graffiti is the artistic answer to military attempts to change society. He dedicates the book to all the revolutionaries and the artists who took part in this historic moment in Egypt's art history. In its pages you can see Khaled Said, whose martyrdom in 2010 was the catalyst for Egypt's revolution, just as Mohamed Bouaziz sparked the revolution in Tunisia. Other revolutionary icons immortalised (at least temporarily) include Google executive Wael Ghonim, martyred artist Ahmed Basiumi, and Lieutenant El-Batron who was killed defending his station from escaped prisoners.
Not all artists are trained, but they make a bridge with the people. Graffiti in Sherif's view is "one of the heroes of the revolution, inseparable from it, taking inspiration from it and inspiring revolutionaries." He is already working on a second volume devoted to Ultras graffiti which he hopes will be off the press in June.
Unfortunately for hawagas, there is no English title and no captions to identify the contents of the various graffiti, but this book earned its Book Fair First Prize as a valuable archive of the revolution. Perhaps a second edition can add some English and captions for non-Egyptians. So, graffitophiles, take note of the ISBN number. It is available at the Egyptian Association for Books retail store near Maspero and at Amr Bookstore near El-Felfela restaurant in Talaat Harb.
Reviewed by Eric Walberg
1/ I was here, Martyr's Square,
5/ Wael Ghonim Google administrator
8/ return of security, dignity freedom and social justice, clean up the media, get rid of corruption, the right of protest, minimum/ maximum wages