Saturday, March 31, 2012

Art Conquers Walls in Cairo

Foreign Policy
Art Conquers Walls in Cairo

Friday, 23 March

Mohamed El Dahshan

Walls. The Egyptian army's answer to protests has, for the past six months, been to build walls. The construction of these walls at a few key points in downtown Cairo, blocking major streets in one of the world's already hardest-to-navigate capitals, is severely damaging the neighborhood, both economically and socially. But that was the least of their concerns. (How very Israeli of them!).

The aesthetics of these walls is, naturally, horrendous. They're little more than cubes of stone piled up across the streets, sometimes several meters high.

Some Egyptians, mad as only true artists are allowed to be, decided to do something about it. And thus was born the "No Walls Project," a series of landscapes to be painted on the six SCAF Walls in Cairo.

The artists presented themselves with a challenge: to re-open the blocked streets by making the walls invisible.

In one case they came up with an image that placed the silhouettes of children under a colorful rainbow. On another, they superimposed ancient Egyptian poetry on a rich landscape. Some used the original beige of the stone as the base of their images, while others covered it completely in paint. Others set the bar higher by transforming the wall into a window by showing us what lies on the other side. So the wall depicts what lies behind ... minus the barbed wire and the soldiers manning their checkpoints.

And if, for just a second, you look at the wall and you do see the continuation of that street, the lady with the stroller, the streetlamp on the sidewalk, the car parking on the left, then the wall becomes invisible. And the artists have won their bet.

I believe they have.

The artwork is brilliant. It is both as raw as graffiti should be, and as deft as can be summoned up only by hundreds of man (or woman) hours. It was no easy job replicating the depth and perspective of an entire street, particularly on a such a massive, unwelcoming, and irregular canvas. But Mohamed "El Moshir" Gad, Ammar Abu Bakr, Alaa Awad, Laila Maged, and their fellow artists succeeded. In fact, their own skill may have betrayed them a little - the streetscapes depicted by the painted walls look nicer than the real ones.

Take a look at these excellent-360 degree views. (Go ahead, click through the six walls. I'll wait.)

One thing does leave me uncomfortable, though.

The story has it that when British street art icon Banksy went to Palestine to tag the apartheid wall (remember the graffiti of the little girl being carried to the top of the wall by the balloons she's holding?), an elderly gentleman walked up to him and told him that he was making this ugly wall look beautiful. Banksy thanked him for the compliment. "You don't get it," the old retorted. "We don't want it to be beautiful."

As I stood inside a chalk-drawn circle (to get the right visual perspective) on Sheikh Rihan street, admiring the artists putting the final touches to the mural, I asked myself the same question as the elderly Palestinian.

Isn't it wrong, in a way, to embellish SCAF's criminal act? Shouldn't we leave this abomination in its current state in order to remind people who the true criminal is, who's the one making their lives more difficult and killing local businesses?

"We're not embellishing the walls," Mohamed El Moshir tells me as he wipes yellow paint off his fingers. "We're simply stating that the streets are open. And at the same time, we're telling a story." He points at a small painting to the side of the main work.

The painting, tucked between the SCAF wall and the adjacent Scientific Complex library, shows a young man carrying books as he is pursued by flames. This isn't an artistic conceit; it shows what actually happened when the complex caught fire months ago. It reminds people of the bravery of the revolutionaries who risked their lives to save the invaluable books in the library.

After pondering my question for a few seconds, activist Loai Nagati ventured this thought: "We're building, not destroying - and this is what the walls are about. They show that the revolution is creative."

And when the murals were completed this Tuesday, after a week of intensive work, the artists and activists held a small party, with Hasaballah, the famous troupe of traditional musicians, invited to celebrate the opening of the streets and the victory of revolutionary art over the military boot.

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