The year 2011 was one of Egypt’s most colourful, and its canvas was painted spontaneously.
Millions lined the streets, a stretch of red, white, and black across the country. The pulse of an entire nation was captured by masses on the move—breaking out from the darkness and into the light—a myriad of faces, from all walks of life, marching for their lives.
Blood splattered the canvas with a sudden force, raw and messy, overtaking the scene. But the bright spot of hope kept it fluid—far from a still-life.
Egypt lives. Egypt is alive. Art lives. Art is alive. Art revolts. Art changes. Art narrates. Art is alive.
As Egypt transitions from oppression to freedom, the many twists and turns are reflected in its art scene.
As people chanted through the streets, contemporary Egyptian artists silently held canvases of raw emotions speaking for them. As the revolution continued, the masses also took up art as a means of political expression. There has been no shortage of cartoons, graffiti, floor murals, and even body art relating to the revolution. Even as the numbers in Tahrir Square waned, Egypt’s art only grew.
In a country where opposition was long-stifled and self-expression subject to myriad red lines, art has recently become a therapeutic outlet, but it has always been a struggle to exercise a basic human right.
Their voices muted in the era of pseudo-democracy, artists had nothing but paintbrushes at their disposal. They challenged cultural and political issues on canvas while tip-toeing around the scrutiny of censors. Before Mubarak was overthrown, the streets spoke of their disillusionment in hushed tones, while artists struggled to freely paint society's plight.
When unwelcome outbursts of colour met the wrath of state security during the past three decades, artists vented their frustrations through complex compositions that were harder to decipher. Egyptian artists challenged cultural and political issues on canvas, maneuvering under the scrutiny of censors in a cage of do’s and don’ts, while forced to wrap their views in elaborate symbolism.
Among Egypt’s renowned artists who have long expressed dissent through art are Helmi El Touni and Mohamed Abla. While today both artists proudly include the Egyptian flag on their canvases, this was not always the case. El Touni painted clowns in dark tones making satirical gestures to express the melancholy he felt toward his country pre-revolution. Abla painted overly crowded streets and comically stacked buildings to show the claustrophobic sentiment of the artist.
But when freedom called from Tahrir Square on January 25, Touni and Abla, among other artists, took their place among the masses in the streets and their art claimed its place in Egyptian society.
The emerging cultural hub of Tahrir Square was soon overflowing with colour, even in its darkest moments. The sky full of flags was always a blur of red, white, and black. Witty cartoons and posters held by protesters added more bright spots. The walls and ground were decorated with celebratory bursts of spray paint.
A key force echoing the revolutionary pulse is street art. Graffiti mirrors how art can be used to boldly express a country’s political ups and downs. In the wake of revolution, murals commemorated both the loss of martyrs and flaunted victory. As the political scene started showing signs of conflict and uncertainty, graffiti mirrored that too. Street art provides contextual visuals that illustrate the country’s political play-by-play. Cairo’s walls resemble a giant newspaper, sprawling with socio-political updates.
The January 25 revolution bridged the divide between high-end, gallery-bound art and popular art. The style is less traditional and more experimental, more youthful, and less commercial. Whereas art had previously been restricted to that stratum of the population with the money to spend on it, it now belongs to the masses. Art is now for the people, and by the people.
Galleries across Cairo showcase artwork that pays tribute to the uprising. A series of exhibitions bombarded seasoned art enthusiasts and brand new art fans in the months following the revolution: “Art for Mother Egypt” at Zamalek Art Gallery, “To Egypt with Love” at Safarkhan, and “Our Egypt” at Khan Al Maghraby. The country’s art scene suddenly existed to pay tribute to the revolution.
A few independent art galleries, including The Gallery, Gallery Misr, and Arthropologie were launched against the odds, for the Egyptian economy has been suffering in the wake of change. With a firm belief in the power of art in society, and the future of the contemporary art scene, curators and artists alike are investing to create an open and free art scene.
Cairo has also witnessed a handful of exhibitions dedicated to showcasing revolution art by up-and-coming artists, starting with “The Popular Show” at Townhouse Gallery in March, which was filled to the brim with amateur artists’ work. Tache Art Gallery also opened its space to an assortment of art by emerging artists in an exhibition entitled “Pulse” in October. “To Egypt with Love” and its sequel also brought revolutionary photography to the tiny Safarkhan gallery in Zamalek in March and July respectively.
This year’s Youth Salon was the ultimate showcase of budding revolutionary art. The Palace of Arts at the Cairo Opera House overflowed with over 200 works of art submitted by artists at the start of their careers. The theme was change, reflecting dynamics of a revolution.
Marching on, artists are producing artwork left and right, commemorating the revolution and honouring its martyrs, and capturing life in the era of freedom in diverse styles.
The art landscape has been redefined to include a wide range of art forms. Whether a witty cartoon, body art saying "Mubarak-leave, I want to shower", photography, or painting on walls and tarmac—it’s all art.In the shadows of this dynamic revolutionary atmosphere, Egyptian artists are not really in control, but rather rolling with events in a breaking news atmosphere.
The revolution had one end in sight: freedom, and the absence of shackles now pervades the arts (perhaps it is even limited to the arts), giving free reign to creativity and expression. Much of the initial revolutionary art was simply depictions of Tahrir events, devoid of conceptual refinement. While the pre-Tahrir era was inhibiting, it drove artists to find creative ways of cryptic expression.
"Freedom always changes art," said artist Abla in February. "Art flourishes with freedom."
Many artists confess that they are unsure of how to handle suddenly facing an unprecedented amount of freedom. They have expressed their frustration with the pressure to conform and create art that falls under the revolutionary theme. Indeed, much of this year’s art has become repetitive. Contemporary artists have tirelessly painted the Egyptian flag.
Despite the art scene’s apparent dynamism, the uncertainty pervading the public and political life is trickling down into the arts. Like a painting in the making, colours collide on Cairo’s cultural canvas, capturing emotion in a series of fluctuating brushstrokes. The landscape is rich and vibrant--but it is nowhere near complete.