revolution

Paint and Tear Gas: Ganzeer’s Art and Egypt’s Revolution

It was the most thrilling and exhilarating time of my life. Seeing people band together and sacrifice themselves in the face of armed troops with nothing else but their voices, and all for what? For other people, people they didn’t even know, future generations they would never meet… It was such a glorious thing to experience. The closest thing I’ve ever experienced to seeing God.

On January 25, 2011, one of the greatest days in Egypt’s history took place. Inspired by what he was seeing, a 29-year-old man decided to record the Revolution the best way he knew how —through his art. He was born Mohammad Fahmy, but today he’s recognized by another name: Ganzeer, inspired by the Arabic word for “chain”.

Ganzeer’s first work for the Revolution was unplanned because he didn’t expect to be in the crowd of revolutionaries. He describes the elated feeling he experienced that day in Tahrir Square as “the most thrilling and exhilarating time” of his life. Armed with spray paint, he climbed to the top of a billboard — his canvas. On it he wrote simple, yet powerful words over the face staring back at him. The crowd of protesters below him responded with loud, enthusiastic cheers. Down with Mubarak! The freshly painted words glistened atop the face of Hosni Mubarak, former president of Egypt.

It was on February 2nd that Ganzeer created his first visual reaction to Mubarak’s continued refusal to resign: a stencil of symbols that read, “Mubarak doesn’t equal Egypt”.

Eight days later, Mubarak decided to confront protesters with a defiant and pleading speech: “I am addressing you today with a speech…of a father to his sons and daughters,” he began. “Those who have committed crimes against our youth will be out on trial according to the courts and the laws. They will get severe punishments.”

The next day, Vice President Omar Suleiman briefly addressed Egypt, and the world, with important news; Mubarak was no longer president. Egyptian flags waved throughout Tahrir Square while protesters sang, cheered, prayed, and cried under the thunder of fireworks exploding above them; protesters like Ganzeer who’d been fighting for three weeks for this moment of freedom.

Ganzeer was raised in a “semi-quiet residential neighbourhood with many stray dogs [that he and other kids his age] befriended” in Ard El-Golf, Heliopolis, “City of the Sun”. There, in the northwest corner of Cairo, he admired his older brother’s Nintendo games and copied the figures from their superhero comics; influences that led him to become a graphic design artist, writer and painter years later. In college it allowed him to connect to the hub of Cairo, a source of inspiration for his work. “I am fascinated by cities and megacities and how they function,” he explains.

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While Ganzeer was experiencing life in Heliopolis, a neighbourhood with a mix of low to high income families, Mubarak was often at work nearby in one of his presidential palaces. During his three decades of control, Mubarak ruled Egypt, unjustly imprisoning citizens and restricting freedom of speech and expression.

On Mubarak’s last day in power, February 11, 2011, the army kept watch over thousands of protesters as they waited outside Heliopolis Palace for Mubarak to leave. In the vice president’s address, he gave another piece of important news. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) — a group of senior military men headed by General Tantawi at the time — would protect Egypt until elections took place. Protesters turned to them for help with ongoing changes. Removing emergency law was one of the many demands of change from the start. After Mubarak’s resignation, the army had promised to remove the law, but failed to do so.

The hopeful relationship between protesters and the military on February 11th was soon dividing Egyptians in their loyalties and making them doubt the Revolution. Chants of “Down with the army!” would soon replace the chants of “Down with Mubarak!” that had filled Tahrir Square earlier in the year. People began to march against the army’s rule.

Tensions between the military, the police and the people had reached a dangerous point by November 19, 2011. Lining Mohamed Mahmoud Street for five days, the riot police, or Central Security Forces (CSF), stood and blocked the advancement of unarmed protesters. The police threw teargas onto the road and continued to act as a human barricade, blocking the path towards Tahrir Square and the site of the Interior Ministry while the heavy haze of gas stung protesters’ eyes.

Many died during those five days. Doctors who treated the injured said that protesters suffered serious side effects from the use of teargas; either coughing up blood or suffering damage to their nervous systems. Others lost their eyes as a result of snipers’ shots to their heads.

Soon Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo would be known as “The Eyes of Freedom Street”. From north to south, art covered the walls of this street and told stories of loss beside stories of continued hope. Ganzeer also used these walls to help tell these stories and reflect the conscience of the Revolution. Working with other artists, he was determined to paint faces of martyrs of the Revolution. Ganzeer wrote about the project on his blog: “On one hand, the goal is to honour the martyrs, and on another hand provide passers-by with a reminder of Egypt’s struggle for freedom, democracy and equality.”

Many times work like this would be whitewashed under the SCAF’s time in power, but the images would always reappear no matter how many times they were cleared.

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It’s not like doing graffiti was a totally safe game up to this point.

By the time Morsi had won the elections on June 30, 2012, and the SCAF had relinquished its power to the new president, many felt that the Revolution was coming to an end. In exhibits like “The Virus is Spreading” in October 2012, Ganzeer encouraged people to continue fighting for civil liberties and human rights. He also looked at political, social, cultural and artistic establishments and their misuse of power.

Giving individual willpower over to the will of establishments is something Ganzeer critiques as being the cause of changing opinions about the Revolution, saying, “We are in an obvious phase of pretend-adoption, void of any traces of true change, but just enough of a pretense to put revolutionary fervor to sleep.”

It wouldn’t be long until Morsi’s face appeared next to those of Mubarak and other government and military leaders on the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Since July 2013, a counter-revolution between pro- and anti-Morsi protesters has continued. Brotherhood supporters have been rounded up in mass arrests by the SCAF under General el-Sisi — in power once again until the next election.

On May 26, 2011, Ganzeer was a target of the authorities for his art activism. He was arrested for leading Mad Graffiti Weekend — a movement to get artists worldwide to use their art as peaceful protest against injustice by SCAF and other authorities.

“When I was detained,” he begins, “I was welcomed into the office of a high-ranking military officer who offered me a soda and then a Nescafé. They were all eerily nice and I was released on the very same day.”

This is the opposite of recent targeting by the SCAF and authorities of the media, Morsi supporters, and anyone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Supporters of Morsi have tried to use graffiti as a tool to fight back against what they believe was a coup on July 5, 2013, but they may have another battle to face in the near future. A proposed law wants to make graffiti illegal, where anyone caught doing it will either be fined 100,000 Egyptian pounds (15,967.40 Canadian dollars) or face up to four years in jail.

Regardless of the situation, Ganzeer and other artists continue to use their art as a weapon to fight for change. “One could have easily been charged with plotting against the state with the type of graffiti we’ve been doing, [but] we’ll always try and do what we think is the right thing, even if the government oppresses us.”

Read the original at: markermagazine/paint-tear-gas.

Shut Down In Egypt: One Artist’s Story Of Struggle And Oppression

DURING THE 2011 REVOLUTION in Egypt (commonly referred to as the January 25th Revolution), artists in Egypt began to express themselves in ways they never had before. Their work caught the world’s attention, inspiring us all to believe in change. Ganzeer was one of those artists whose work covered the walls of Cairo, documenting the spirit of the revolution, supporting its call for “bread, social dignity, and justice.”

Fast forward 3+ years, and artists and revolutionaries in Egypt are facing uncertain times. On May 29, after a two-day election, a new leader — Abdel Fattah-Sisi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) — was elected Egypt’s president. Support for SCAF has created divisions between revolutionaries in Egypt, and the leaders of SCAF have often been a focus of Ganzeer’s work.

Today, Egypt is undergoing a counter-revolution driven by the supporters of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which believes former President Morsi’s ouster — as demanded by many Egyptians in July 2013 and enforced by the army — was unwarranted. This accusation has led them to be labelled as “terrorists” who are now facing mass trials and much worse. In addition, the government has been widely criticized by human rights groups for the mass arrests of protesters and members of the media.

But the ongoing revolution hasn’t stopped Ganzeer from fighting for positive changes in Egypt’s future. I interviewed him to discuss the role of art in Egypt’s struggles. He also talks about his childhood pleasures and the daily issues he faced as a resident of one of the world’s largest metropolises, Cairo.

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Ganzeer stands to the left with a friend and fellow artist in front of one of his murals depicting a zombie soldier. Ganzeer has been critical of the role of the army and other groups in power throughout the ongoing revolution. Photo: Abdelrhman Zin Eldin

 

Did you grow up in Cairo and what were some of the best things about growing up in the city? 

Yeah I grew up in Cairo. In a little neighborhood in Heliopolis called Ard El-Golf, which is right behind the abandoned Baron Empain Palace constructed in 1911. Far from the hustle and bustle of Downtown Cairo, or even Egypt’s lifeline: The Nile River. I feel like I never really got a taste of “city life” till much later. Today Ard El-Golf is a go-to hangout area, with many popular cafes, sushi spots, and bridges and tunnels and high cake-like buildings and what have you. But back in the 80s/90s it was pretty much a semi-quiet residential neighborhood with many stray dogs befriended by me and other kids my age. My school was around the block and the couple friends I made were in the neighborhood.

I feel like I only really faced the city – understood the scope of the city and all that – when I had to go to college which was in a town called Banha, a 30 minute train ride from Cairo. But I would spend roughly an hour and half in public transportation just to get to the train station. I don’t think I’m a big city kinda guy. I find myself much more comfortable in more intimate communities that are more connected with nature. But don’t get me wrong! I am fascinated by cities, and megacities and how they function. Cairo’s crazy in just the layers of history that are apparent in every facet of the city. The architecture, the food, the conversations, it’s such a culturally rich city but it’s also one that carries a lot of baggage!

What are some of the most important things that are needed for a better quality of living in Cairo and Egypt right now?

First off, about seventy-five percent less people! There’s no way any city on the planet can accommodate [over] twenty million people! The number of people living in Cairo are having such a huge toll on the transportation system, the architecture, the environment. On the urban planning front, the city just can’t keep up – it’s always much, much behind. I’d put most of the development money into the rest of the country’s towns and villages, get people to decentralize and spread out.

Secondly, private cars need to be banned. Of course, it’s difficult to get around a city and spread out in Cairo without a car, but seriously, it’s just out of hand. I understand that it’s easier for the government in the short run to let people buy cars (making money in the process), but in the long run, it becomes unbearable for everyone. The city really needs to ban cars and focus entirely on developing its public transportation options to reach capacity and maintenance.

A view of the Baron Empain Palace built between 1907 and 1911. The architecture was inspired by Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and by palaces in India. (Amr Moustafa Shalaby)

A view of the Baron Empain Palace built between 1907 and 1911. The architecture was inspired by Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and by palaces in India.
Photo: Amr Moustafa Shalaby

Thirdly, all this stuff should be running on solar energy or electricity or whatever. I’ve seen solar energy panels cladding the roofs of farm houses in freakin’ Germany. GERMANY … it’s cloudy most of the year. But Cairo, the sun shines bright even all winter. It’s just dumb to depend on gas the way we [all] do. It’s the only way if we don’t want our people [in Egypt] to all drop dead and die from lung disease, which by the way, a lot of us already suffer from.

And lastly, water canals. It’s ridiculous to grow up in some part of the city two hours away from the Nile, with no direct access to it and only read about the Nile and its significance in history books. If they expect to teach us the importance of the Nile and our historical connection to it, then whenever a new extension of the city is planned, a Nile artery should be the first thing in that plan. Plus, it would offer a good alternative to getting around the city, much better than overcrowded asphalt roads (which discharge so much heat throughout Egypt’s extended summer months).

Did you ever join the sit-ins in Tahrir or any protest gathering points in Cairo? What was it like for you?

I just so happened to be there on January 25, 2011 when the revolution first broke out and boy it was the most thrilling and exhilarating time of my life. Seeing people band together and sacrifice themselves in the face of armed troops with nothing else but their voices, and all for what? For other people, people they don’t even know, future generations they will never meet. It was such a glorious thing to experience, the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to seeing God or something. Indescribable.

Photo taken by Mostafa Hussein. On his blog on March 16, 2011 Ganzeer wrote this about his project to create murals of martyrs, “The goal is to, on one hand, honor the martyrs, and on another hand provide passers-by with a reminder of Egypt's struggle for freedom, democracy, and equality.” This particular mural depicts 16 year old Seif Allah Mustafa who lost his life during the January 25th Revolution.

On his blog on March 16, 2011 Ganzeer wrote this about his project to create murals of martyrs, “The goal is to, on one hand, honor the martyrs, and on another hand provide passers-by with a reminder of Egypt’s struggle for freedom, democracy, and equality.” This particular mural depicts 16 year old Seif Allah Mustafa who lost his life during the January 25th Revolution. Photo: Mostafa Hussein

When did you first realize that you enjoyed art?

[When] I was about four or five years old. My older brothers had lots of Dungeons and Dragons catalogs, and Nintendo game cartridges, and superhero comic books, and I was just always fascinated by the art in those things and would spend many hours trying to copy them.

What’s the first work you did on the walls of Cairo as part of the Revolution? 

The very first thing I did was not at all planned. Nor was it an artwork at all really. But being in Tahrir Square on January 25th when the revolution broke out, and just so happening to have a can of spray paint, I climbed an NDP (Mubarak’s National Democratic Party) billboard in the middle of Tahrir Square and spray painted what people were chanting “Down with Mubarak”. The crowd erupted with cheers and whistles.

The first “artwork” I created however, was on February 2nd – a black stencil of visual symbols that pretty much visually stated that Mubarak does not equal Egypt. This was after Mubarak’s second public speech since the revolution broke out – a highly emotionally charged one that many, many, people were actually starting to fall for.

A protester holds up one of Ganzeer's stencils on February 11th, 2011. This was the day when Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak's three decade presidency in Egypt had finally come to an end.

A citizen holds up one of Ganzeer’s stencils which expresses that “Mubarak does not equal Egypt” on February 11th, 2011 in Cairo. This was the day when Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that former President Hosni Mubarak’s three decade presidency in Egypt had come to an end. Photo: Ganzeer

Was street art common in any part of Cairo before the revolution? How did people react to it before the Revolution?

Not really. Just a hand-full of rather content-less stuff in Heliopolis and Alexandria [Egypt’s second largest city]. Very cool and pretty to look at but without much meaning to it.

Egyptian jail cells have gained a notoriously bad reputation in the world’s eyes since the Revolution began in January 2011. For your work as a multi-medium artist helping the Revolution you were briefly arrested. Would you be able to tell me about your experience and how it happened?

So far, I’ve been lucky enough to not have to set foot in a jail cell at all. When I was detained, I was welcomed into the office of a high-ranking military officer who offered me a soda and later in the day a Nescafe. They were all eerily very nice and I was released on the very same day.

This design entitled "Evil Military" by Ganzeer references "the girl in the blue bra". After a video was released online during a December 2011 protest, showing the brutal beating of a female protester – whose shirt during the beating was opened, revealing her blue bra underneath – by soldiers, the video became a rallying call for protesters demanding an end to the military's power.

This design entitled “Evil Military” by Ganzeer references “the girl in the blue bra”. After a video was released online during a December 2011 protest, showing the brutal beating of a female protester – whose shirt during the beating was opened, revealing her blue bra underneath – by soldiers, the video became a rallying call for protesters demanding an end to the military’s power.

Read more about Ganzeer’s incident in jail in his own words here.

Much of your work is critical of (SCAF) or establishments – ie. Political, Religious, Art, etc. – that oppose freedom or change and growth. Have you faced a lot of negative reaction to your work by these groups?

All the time. Hardly anything I do is not met with a negative reaction from someone [such as Ibn Salaama].

This work, Tank vs. Biker, is one of Ganzeer’s internationally recognized murals which clearly shows in black and white stenciling his opinion about the relationship between the army and the people. On the left, a huge tank rolls forwards aiming its main gun at a target. A young man riding his bike on the right carries the city on his head in place of a loaf of bread. The Arabic word for bread sounds similar to that for life. Photo: Mehri Khalil

Has the SCAF or any other group in your opinion taken the Revolution away from the people and their goals of gaining “bread, social justice, and dignity”?

Yes. Particularly SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Salafist groups.

How do you feel about the proposed law to ban graffiti in Egypt and send accused artists to jail for four years? Do you fear being a target?

Well, it’s not like the revolution itself was ever legal. It was illegal but we did it anyway. And it’s not like doing graffiti was a totally safe game up to this point either. One could easily have been charged with plotting against the state with the type of graffiti we’ve been doing so y’know… we’ll always try and do what we think is the right thing to do even if the government oppresses us. It’s always been that way anyway.

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Check out Ganzeer’s website for more of his work: www.ganzeer.com.

For more insight, read my profile piece on his work and the events on Mohamed Mahmoud Street — a street not only recognized for its revolutionary street art but for the stories of struggles that occurred on it: markermagazine.com/paint-tear-gas.

See this interview on Matador Network: matadornetwork.com/change/shut-down-egypt-artist