Egypt’s art scene has been transformed since the January revolution. After decades of censorship and state-sponsored cultural production, artists now scrambling to make sense of a new creative landscape in which little appears isolated from its broader political context. Inevitably, the events of 2011 form the focal point of many new creations. If under Mubarak it was a sin to be political in one’s art, it seems that being apolitical is now the ultimate creative crime.
During the 18 days, the demonstrators’ creativity and humour found spontaneous expression through a range of different mediums, from poetry to protest signs. This creative energy has since been channeled into a multitude of artistic forms, the fruits of which are plain to see both in the open air and online. Not only do these represent a burgeoning forum for dissent, but they are also being used to bridge social and cultural divides.
Inevitably, implicit pressure to acknowledge the events of 2011 has also led to the creation of some incredibly mundane pieces. Critics argue that such creations run the risk of commodifying revolution, turning artistic recreation of the novel and challenging into something altogether more routine. This perception has been exacerbated by the encroachment of market forces onto the art scene. According to Mona Said, the owner of the Safar Khan Gallery in Cairo, a ‘revolutionary art show’ held in March 2011 was so successful that sales outstripped expectations fourfold, leading Said to ship works to clients all around the world.
Graffiti has been one of the few art forms to escape such criticism. In recent months, the walls of Cairo have transformed into a new space for dissent (as documented in this excellent blog). Nowhere is this clearer than on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, the site of ongoing pitched battles between protesters and the Central Security Forces back in November. Today, its walls are lined by murals; walk the length of the street and you will see images of the ruling junta overlaying the faces of those who died in the Port Said stadium massacre. Although a handful of street artists have come to be associated with these images, the murals’ power comes less from the vision of particular individuals than it does from the collaborative and organic manner in which they appear. The fact that they exist out on the streets has prevented them from falling under the ownership or control of any specific group, transforming the walls into an open space for symbolic protest and counter-protest.
As with so many of the revolution’s gains, Egypt’s newfound artistic freedoms remain fragile; where old taboos are being publicly smashed, new red lines are cropping up. In particular, criticism of the military remains a punishable crime. Yet the events of the January revolution have underlined the fundamental relationship between politics and art, creating a revitalized space in which to challenge the status quo and decreasing the possibility of any one power centre remaining above criticism. The battle for Egypt’s future will continue not just at the ballot box, but also across its walls.
Louisa Loveluck works with the Egypt Dialogue project at Chatham House, London, and blogs on the Middle East, with a particular focus on Egypt and Yemen. Follow her on Twitter @leloveluck.