It is not uncommon for gallery directors and museum curators to turn up their noses at street art. That’s not real art because it is reactionary and the artist didn’t study for years to produce this, many of them say. In fact, graffiti is the world’s oldest art form and most likely originated in the Middle East. It has been discovered on cave walls dating back to 30, 000 BCE and was popular in Ancient Egypt.
It is possible that graffiti may very well be the only art that most people in the Middle East will ever see.
In most urban centers in the region, museums have a substantial entry fee that prohibits working class people with large families from being able to afford the cost of admission. Art is something for the university educated, not the factory worker, the taxi driver, or the shoe shiner. It is possible that graffiti may very well be the only art that most people in the Middle East will ever see.
Egyptian street artist, Keizer is working full-time to make street art accessible to everyday Egyptians, and risking his own security to do it. In Cairo he is undertaking the controversial project of memorializing the fallen, calling out the apathetic, and encouraging the disillusioned. In order to maintain his anonymity, he agreed to be interviewed via his Facebook page and photographed with his face obscured by a hooded sweatshirt.
Q&A with Keizer
DANNA: What is it like to be a graffiti artist after the revolution in Egypt?
KEIZER: It’s a dream come true. The fact that I can I draw and display what I want when I want under the slightest whim of inspiration is truly artistic freedom through expression. There are no superiors to check my work proof read it, edit or modify my work, I jump over the lines of censorship and social taboos when I desire.
DANNA: What message are you trying to send to ordinary Egyptians through your art?
KEIZER: My art is supposed to be thought provoking, with open-ended themes. I’m telling people its time to think for themselves. My art also operates under the umbrella of love vs. fear. I’m always attacking fear through my art. It seems to have gripped our world and its inhabitants, rendering the humanity into a state of paralysis and humans into passive observers. My art is that slap on the face or that provocative element that will shove people out of their comfort zone.
DANNA: How did you get into graffiti in the first place and who have been your major influences?
KEIZER: My influences are everybody and everything. We are influenced by everything around us. We are being bombarded by a billion messages very minute, it’s very intrusive, so one needs to filter all the ads and the crap to reach a calmer state of mind where one’s soul has a chance to realize and express itself.
DANNA: You often stencil the words, “You are Beautiful” onto city walls. Who are you complimenting?
KEIZER: I’m speaking to everyone that reads it, that has forgotten or hasn’t heard the words in a while or ever.
DANNA: I particularly admire your piece on Um Kulthum, the legendary Egyptian songstress. Can you please explain why you decided to memorialize her with the quote, “art is not a sin”?
KEIZER: With Um Kulthum, it was a very prophetic piece. It was created a year before the Muslim Brotherhood took over. I made it knowing there would be a time when some authority would consider drawing to be a sin. I know there is a psychic thread running within me. I’m just not going to get into the details here! The more you go back into my body of work, you’ll understand that the dates I made the pieces and events that unfolded later could not be considered coincidences. Understanding the system makes it easier to predict what is coming up ahead.
DANNA: What does graffiti communicate that other mediums cannot?
KEIZER: Street art has the ability to induce change through socio-political artistic expression. Unlike the news, which desensitizes us, street art humanizes a message or image. We focus on a snapshot and we give it volume, character, and life. We don’t skip to another story with a commercial break in the middle. We give the message or piece respect and space in order for the observer to breathe and contemplate. Street art needs to be critical—embedded with universal common threads that weave through us and are provocative enough to stir something within everyone who views it.
DANNA: Do you first create your work in a studio or is a lot of your art created spur of the moment? Take me inside your creative process.
KEIZER: I don’t have a studio but I dream of owning one. I work in a tiny room that used to be my sister’s room when she was younger. The space I work in is 2 meters by 2 meters—sometimes I have to split pieces (into panels) because they can’t fit. My creative process is ambiguous even to me. It’s always different; sometimes the ideas filter in slowly, sometimes it’s a flash, sometimes ideas take a lot of refining and polishing, and sometimes the whole thing is given to me on a golden plate. Usually the ideas come rushing in.
DANNA: Why did you choose the tag Keizer?
KEIZER: Keizer means bread in Egyptian Arabic. So I’m saying I want my art to be as accessible to the public as the daily bread, and not just secluded for a certain slice of society away from the common people. The fact that people have to pay to get cultured is wrong.