North Africa, West Asia

Graffiti: a new form of expression on the walls of Cairo

Despite restrictions on expression in Egypt, cultural trends like the spread of graffiti show that the marginalised have created a space for themselves in the public sphere.

Imad Rasan
6 June 2014
Political graffiti near Tahrir Square. Demotix/Shawkan. All rights reserved.

Political graffiti near Tahrir Square. Demotix/Shawkan. All rights reserved.

It was a sunny day, as usual, on one of Cairo’s streets. A slight fog gradually settled with the rise of the sun toward the sky. There were young people, women – some of whom were veiled – and men as well, busy painting on the empty wall of a downtown parking lot in a street close to Tahrir, the square that witnessed the historic moments which triggered the revolution and toppled presidents Mubarak and Morsi. The colours were bright on a wall earlier painted white as a background. On the corner of the street – close to a crossroads and to an old church next to an old mosque – there were some parked cars, and there was no barrier to prevent curious passers-by from seeing what was happening. The grafitti activists stood on plastic chairs borrowed from a local coffee house to help them reach the higher parts of the wall.

What were they attempting to sketch and what would the young people do with their coloured hands - they were asked. They gathered momentum with the participation of young female Swedish graffiti artist, who symbolises women’s expressions through paint to publically present women’s issues. It was a female portrait, a woman’s face with white eyes to express her depression, and there were also some words to represent the organization that arranged the event, Women on the Wall.

Painting the wall was not without problems. I saw some portraits painted on the wall of a church where the eyes of the portraits had been disfigured, to convey the message that this form of expression was not acceptable to society. The day before, someone among the lookers-on shouted: “your ideas have destroyed our society, go and do something valuable, something better than this useless work.” Policemen also stopped and asked what was going on, but they did not intervene. Shops on the street in front of the painted wall gave their permission to the activists to paint the wall – unless their paintings dealt with politics, in which case it would be impossible for the artists to use the empty space.

Nevertheless, not everyone was disappointed. Many were very interested to see it and asked questions about what the symbols meant, while others expressed their admiration for the graffiti as stunning art that made the street more beautiful.  

By talking to people and through their organisation’s website, the activists explained that they sought to change people’s minds and make them more conscious concerning women’s issues using this innovative form of expression. To them the goal was not fun, but a more indirectly effective means of leaving an impression on people’ minds. It was about influencing and changing society’s collective mentality – which is dominated by strong patriarchal norms and values – by leaving an impact on the collective memory and becoming a permanent part of a narrative intent on reaching a just and democratic society. Indeed, the art might become an emotional method of interaction, through which audiences could become part of a scene, not only passive spectators. This is a technique for visualizing the subculture, representing the different discourses composed of the norms and values of those who have been marginalized in the public sphere at large, in order to change the societal imaginary.

The question is: to what extent does this have an effective impact in the quasi-liberal – and sometime il-liberal – public sphere following the 2011 uprising? The public sphere is dominated by conservative discourse adopted by the state and religious institutions, even though this public sphere has seemingly undergone a change towards more inclusion of many groups in society.

Theory of public sphere

Jürgen Habermas' theory of the public sphere (1989) may not be a helpful tool to explain this phenomenon because it is based on the stance of the eighteenth century bourgeois elite in liberal European societies, and revolves around critical-rational debate in institutional communications within the structure of the society. Nancy Fraser (1992) and Michael Warner (2002) criticise this from a feminist point of view, calling for the concept of a counter-public sphere, where subordinated groups present their discourse in reaction to the dominant discourse of the public sphere-at-large.

However, cultural production and consumption are still too often excluded from theories of the public sphere and counter-public sphere. The motivations and identities that encourage people to assemble and become a public, in collective forms, cannot only be analytically related to the socio-political dimension of public sphere. How is it possible to explain communicative interaction through art, aesthetic and entertainment production, made visible in the forms of popular culture in the streets? It is not only graffiti which has recently become prominent in Cairo’s streets and on social media websites like YouTube and Facebook, but also new forms of music, theatre and dance with the aim of changing the collective mentality of society and sparking an awareness of daily struggles.

Cultural public sphere

In this context, Jim McGuigan and others have suggested the idea of a "cultural public sphere” or “aesthetic public sphere” - to help us understand what may be obscured in the public sphere yet pertains to ordinary people’s experiential emotional interactions in their everyday lives, and is reflected and expressed in mass-popular culture and entertainmentAccordingly, the focus is on mass-popular culture, which mediates traditional aesthetics and emotional reflections concerning how we live and how we imagine a good life. It is about the hidden side of ordinary people in their everyday lives, about how the [non-] or pre-political becomes political.   

This form of discursive interaction – that occurs in lasting deliberation, continuous debate or circulation of discourse and criticism – may give us a very different glimpse of the future of Egypt, and the role of youth and women in particular, i.e. of those who now are marginalized by the mass media and find it difficult to make their voices heard. Through art and aesthetic production like graffiti, audiences and spectators are not merely recipients; they become effective actors. This kind of art is not about survival; it is produced to make change, but it may also shed light on the hidden struggle between traditional and modern cultures, between two kinds of norms and value systems or paradigms, between old and new thoughts concerning how Egypt ought to be after the incomplete revolution.

It is not only graffiti that is perceived as a clandestine art reinventing public space in Egypt. A few days after the graffiti event, a group of women danced to the song Break the Chain in one of Cairo’s streets. The display was a protest aimed at highlighting the issue of violence against women, part of an international campaign.

But how far can these forms of expression through art, which is essentially visionary, reach their goal toward changing the structure of the society? This is a difficult and important question; it is also an open question. However, scholars in the field assert that both the physical and virtual public sphere in Egypt has been transformed into a more open space since the 2011 uprising, in which new voices emerged and are now heard, both through the use of social media and culture as means of change.

This space will never be closed again or bounded by the state, having become accessible to people outside the elites and institutions related to the authorities. This sheds light on the role of ordinary people in Egypt and their increased power in decision-making for the future. It is not only a matter of achieving a just society. Rather, this may give us insight into an arena where people’s on-going struggle for recognition and the ability to represent their identities is no less important. 

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