Walls Of Freedom Documents The Art Of The Egyptian Revolution

The Egyptian Revolution incited an outpouring of graffiti, most of it politically motivated and aimed at an audience of ordinary Egyptians. A multitude of artists including Ganzeer, Keizer, Ammar Abo Bakr, and the late Hesham Rizk, put their lives on the line to write on every surface available, from walls to military barricades and even army tanks. Basma Hamdy and Don ‘Stone’ Karl meticulously documented the street art that came before, amidst, and in the aftermath of the Revolution and ultimately collaborated with a large group of artists, writers, and intellectuals to publish “Walls of Freedom”, a powerful collection of photographs and poignant storytelling that makes the street art of the Egyptian Revolution accessible in English to a global audience.

Ammar Abo Bakr’s large scale portraits of weeping mothers clothed in black, mourning the loss of their sons. Ammar Abo Bakr, Mohammed Mahmoud Street, Cairo. Photo by Basma Hamdy.

Ammar Abo Bakr’s large scale portraits of weeping mothers clothed in black, mourning the loss of their sons. Ammar Abo Bakr, Mohammed Mahmoud Street, Cairo. Photo by Basma Hamdy.

Closeup of Ammar Abo Bakr’s walls on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, Cairo. Photo by Basma Hamdy.

Closeup of Ammar Abo Bakr’s walls on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, Cairo. Photo by Basma Hamdy.

I interviewed the co-authors via email correspondence:

Danna Lorch: The most prominent feature of Egypt’s graffiti during and following the Revolution were the martyrdom murals commemorating those who had fallen. When did you first see these?

Basma Hamdy: The first time an actual Martyr Mural was created was when Ganzeer painted Islam Raafat in 2011. Ammar Abo Bakr was responsible for the most memorable Martyr Murals, the last one commemorating Hesham Rizk in July 2014, a young street artist who was found drowned in the Nile the same month.

The text on the mural reads,  “When I first opened my eyes, and before my mother knew me, they applied kohl to my eyes reaching my temples, so I can look like your statues.” Project by Haitan — painting by Ammar Abo Bakr, calligraphy by Sameh Ismael, poetry by Ahmed Aboul-Hassan, sculptures by Alaa Abd El Hamid / Kasr El-Nil Street, ­Downtown / June –July 2013. Photo by Basma Hamdy

The text on the mural reads,  “When I first opened my eyes, and before my mother knew me, they applied kohl to my eyes reaching my temples, so I can look like your statues.” Project by Haitan — painting by Ammar Abo Bakr, calligraphy by Sameh Ismael, poetry by Ahmed Aboul-Hassan, sculptures by Alaa Abd El Hamid / Kasr El-Nil Street, ­Downtown / June –July 2013. Photo by Basma Hamdy

DL: In your opinion, what difference has graffiti made?

BH: Every historical event related to the revolution was captured on the walls. The walls became the real “newspaper” telling the story of the revolution and reiterating its importance.

Don ‘Stone’ Karl: For me, one of the most striking things I ever saw in relation to graffiti was the powerful way that mothers, siblings, or friends reacted to mural depicting their loved ones, some of whom we describe in the book.

Trompe-l’œil  by Ammar Abo Bakr, Mohamed Elmoshir, Layla Magued, Hanaa El Degham and team, Sheikh Rihan Street, Cairo. Photo by Munir Sayegh.

Trompe-l’œil  by Ammar Abo Bakr, Mohamed Elmoshir, Layla Magued, Hanaa El Degham and team, Sheikh Rihan Street, Cairo. Photo by Munir Sayegh.

DL: Do you believe that street art in Egypt is democratic?

BH: I think graffiti in general should be, or is democratic. It stems from the anarchic principle of revolt and rejection of authority. Perhaps in some respects graffiti has lost some of this edge due to commercialization and the entrance of mainstream pop culture.

In Egypt specifically, graffiti was created for all people. The ‘No Walls Campaign’ visually opened up the barrier walls erected by the military to impede pedestrian movement downtown; the artists used trompe l’oeil techniques to open the wall visually and this was aimed at everyone, from the shopkeepers to the residents. The bulk of graffiti was created in downtown Cairo and a lot of work was painted in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which is considered the aorta of Tahrir Square.

DK: The graffiti of the revolution was democratic in a sense that its role was to capture and carry the mood and grievances of those protesting. It was a direct extension of the chants and wishes of the people. You could see this especially in the very early days of the uprising when it seemed that virtually everyone felt the urge to write his thoughts on the walls of downtown and everything up to the tanks got covered with graffiti.

DL: Ganzeer is the artist whose tag has become best known outside of Egypt in association with the street art of the revolution. Why do you suppose that is the case?

BH: Ganzeer does not like to be called a street artist and I think that’s precisely why his work is effective. As a formally trained graphic designer, his aesthetic is reminiscent of comic illustrations and pop art, which traditionally challenged fine art and were characterized by graphic work that heavily drew on pop culture and advertising.

His poster ‘Mask of Freedom’, which was later a popular sticker, was a work that earned him an international reputation.The irony in borrowing advertising terminology and graphic design elements to express the human rights violations committed by the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) caused the piece to go viral.

 Parallels between the long voting queues for the parliamentary elections and the long queues to refill gas cylinders inspired Hanaa El Degham to portray the tragedy that Egyptians suffer amidst the preoccupation with political wins. The extreme shortage of gas cylinders in some cities even triggered violent clashes between citizens.  Hanaa El Degham, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo. Photo by Munir Sayegh

Parallels between the long voting queues for the parliamentary elections and the long queues to refill gas cylinders inspired Hanaa El Degham to portray the tragedy that Egyptians suffer amidst the preoccupation with political wins. The extreme shortage of gas cylinders in some cities even triggered violent clashes between citizens.  Hanaa El Degham, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo. Photo by Munir Sayegh

DL: What made you decide it was critical to document these walls before they were painted over?

BH: Somebody needed to tell the story accurately, truthfully and from every angle possible. History needed to be documented because we are aware that history is rewritten and fabricated easily in authoritarian states. The visual story of the revolution is an honest one that cannot be fabricated and erased. Thousands of years later we understand the Ancient Egyptians because of the visual legacy they left behind.

“Glory to the unidentified/unknown” written next to a colossal mural of the martyred Sayed Khaled, a homeless street child depicted with angel wings. The mural highlights the reality of street children in Egypt, homeless, unknown, and forgotten / Ammar Abo Bakr. Left: a military officer stands on a mountain of skulls, originally a poster for the Mad Graffiti Week in January 2012 / Ganzeer / 28 November 2013.

“Glory to the unidentified/unknown” written next to a colossal mural of the martyred Sayed Khaled, a homeless street child depicted with angel wings. The mural highlights the reality of street children in Egypt, homeless, unknown, and forgotten / Ammar Abo Bakr. Left: a military officer stands on a mountain of skulls, originally a poster for the Mad Graffiti Week in January 2012 / Ganzeer / 28 November 2013.

Good Ideas: To learn more about ‘Walls of Freedom’ and order a copy for yourself or a friend go here.

Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution. Don STONE Karl, Basmy Hamdy. From Here To Fame Publications, 2014

Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution. Don STONE Karl, Basmy Hamdy. From Here To Fame Publications, 2014

Credits: Images were all published in “Walls of Freedom” and are provided courtesy of the artists and photographers, as noted in each caption. A version of this post originally appeared in ArtSlant.