Graffiti, capital and deciding what’s inappropriate
Courtesy: Wafaa AlBadry

Mohamed Mahmoud Street in downtown Cairo is widely known for sad reasons. It’s where protesters were closed in and brutally attacked in November 2011, leaving over 50 dead and many wounded.

It’s also where several buildings and part of the wall surrounding the American University in Cairo (AUC) campus became a canvas for memory and narration, for martyrs and for critiquing the state, the police, the military, and Egyptian society, for mocking and silly flirtatious doodles. It’s a wall through which people have communicated, mourned, remembered, provoked and laughed.

For this year’s Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), much of the program is taking place at the so-called GrEEK Campus, the AUC’s former Greek Campus, which businessman Ahmed al-Alfi leased for 10 years in 2013 in order to create a hub for technology startups. The GrEEK Campus happens to share a wall with the famous Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

“This once modern stoic building on Mohamed Mahmoud Street is now scattered with bursts of colourful graffiti since the revolution, a reminder of how much change the city has seen,” reads the D-CAF website.

Part of this year’s D-CAF program is Women on Walls: Street Art Workshop ‘Unchained,’ which started on April 3 and ends at 7 pm on April 7. For a LE20 ticket, one can join artists from Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan and Sweden, and “add your own ‘unchained’ graffiti to the open wall, in support of women’s rights (paint brushes and spray paint will be available).”

On D-CAF’s Facebook wall, we can read that the WoW Unchained project “wants to express the female hero succeeding in being unchained from all the anger and the fear that is controlling us” and “empower women by giving them a platform to express and display the associating conflicts through graffiti.”

WoW started in Egypt in 2013, and more than 60 artists have participated so far. The project is funded by the Swedish Institute, a public agency that “helps Sweden reach various international goals concerning foreign policy, education, international aid and development,” and in 2013 and 2014 it was also funded by the Center for Culture and Development (CKU), “a self-governing institution under the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs” (quotes taken from their respective websites).

Nothing is wrong with venting anger every once in a while, or with supporting women’s rights. And women in Cairo have most likely been empowered so many times by northern European and American projects and the “western” gaze that they are no longer offended by the moral authority intrinsic to the approach of empowering the other — a concept that arguably should have been buried quite some time ago. It remains problematic that meaning is being produced through this focus.

The term “revolutionary art” (or “dissident art,” “revolutionary graffiti,” “art and resistance,” etc.) in relation to the uprising in Egypt was coined right at the beginning of 2011. An enormous number of talks, articles, lectures, papers, dissertations, panel discussions, “documentaries,” movies, exhibitions, coffee-table books and more have since been realized on the subject, as well as on the counter subject, as critique of the mainstream has become mainstream itself and a sort of a code: Not only are the graffiti, the hype and the repeated images commodified, but also the critique of that commodification.

To cite just a couple of examples, there’s the 2011 book Graffiti and Street Art: Art and Political Protest of the Arab Spring (Webinar Harvard University), articles such as The Guardian’s  Arab artists flourishing as uprisings embolden a generation and the Cairo Review of Global Affairs’ Graffiti Nation (both 2012), the 2013 “Inverted Worlds: Cultural Motion in the Arab Region” conference in Beirut, the 2012 “Revolutions – Art as Activism” festival in Berlin, and Marco Wilms’ 2014 film Art War.

There are many ways of analyzing the graffiti that has emerged over the past four years. Who are the artists or activists (or activist-artists)? How is this connected to questions of (urban) space, of class, of gender? What can we say about the concept of martyrdom? And who represents graffiti, where and why?

Despite its messages, whether political or non-political, graffiti can produce various forms of capital. The person doing the tagging may gain social or even monetary capital, and the same may happen for the person who photographs and circulates the image, like in the case of Mia Grondahl, who initiated WoW and hired program manager Angie Balata for the project.

And this brings us to the crux of the matter: What is perhaps most interesting currently regarding the WoW project is the appearance and disappearance of a graffiti portrait of Grondahl. It appeared on the wall of the GrEEK Campus last year as a mocking response from graffiti artists who felt too pushed by her demands as to what should be painted,  and it has been painted over in the last couple of days.

mia grondahl.jpg

mia grondahl

Grondahl is a photographer. In 2009 she published a book about graffiti in Gaza (Gaza Graffiti: Messages of Love and Politics, in English and Swedish), and in 2011 her first on Egypt (Tahrir Square: The Heart Of The Egyptian Revolution). A book on street art in Egypt followed in 2013 (Revolution Graffiti: Street Art of the New Egypt), together with a calendar for that year (Street Art of the New Egypt). The books on graffiti in Egypt are in English.

Grondahl’s graffiti book about Palestine received less attention than the one she published about the Egyptian revolution. Maybe this is because Palestine is a tiring affair that many people don’t seem to care about anymore, and because “revolutionary art” in connection with the uprising in Egypt has received such an interest globally. Yet it is surprising since there has been so much material and knowledge produced about “revolutionary graffiti” that the aim of any new material seems questionable.

In the graffiti piece on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Grondahl was depicted with a dollar sign in one eye and the faeces emoji in the other. On her T-shirt, one could read “CKU,” the acronym for the Center for Culture and Development.

On April 3, rumors circulated that the WoW project was aiming to whitewash the graffiti on the walls of the GrEEK Campus in order to make space for the new project of empowering angry women through graffiti.

It turned out that these rumors were in large part incorrect, but they shifted attention to the graffiti of Grondahl, which was co-initiated by former participants of the WoW project who then decided to withdraw from the project for political reasons. In the end, this year’s WoW project has been implemented on a separate area of the wall, and new graffiti can be marveled at.

Nevertheless, Grondahl and with her the critique of her project have been whitewashed: Neither her face nor the logo on her shirt are visible on Mohamed Mahmoud Street anymore. On the WoW Facebook wall on April 5, pictures appears with a man painting over the graffiti. The caption reads “Ahmed Alfi, the founder of the The Greek Campus, removing graffiti from the walls of the Campus that he found inappropriate.”

mia grondahl.jpg

mia grondahl

Deciding what is inappropriate is crucial in this story. Who decides? Who deletes and paints over? Grondahl has capitalized on the international interest in Egyptian “revolutionary graffiti,” partly because the graffiti has fairly regularly been whitewashed by the Egyptian authorities, feeding the notion of oppression versus resistance (even more so after the reported confiscation of the book Walls of Freedom by Egyptian authorities earlier in February this year, which created quite a stir).

In this framework, Grondahl standing by while a whitewashing occurs of a critique of her own work speaks for itself.

This act might seem insignificant compared to what’s happening elsewhere around us, but it is yet another example of power through knowledge production and the construction of meaning: It helps if you have the ability to simply remove something that someone finds “inappropriate.”

Note: Angie Balata’s role in WoW was changed in this article from “co-initiator” to “program manager” upon her request on April 8. A clarification was also added that the CKU funded WoW only in 2013 and 2014, as it is not supporting the program this year.

Ilka Eickhof 

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