street art

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.