Artistic freedom on a grand scale
Venus Fouad reads the message in Taha Qorani's murals
Murals are back. Indeed, since the January Revolution graffiti they have become all the rage in our city streets, bringing to the fore the energy and creativity of a young generation of artists.
Then there is Taha Qorani, a veteran artist for whom murals are almost a way of life. His dramatic murals, created over the past five years, introduced us to real life crowd scenes and brought us closer to the hustle and bustle of ordinary life.
Qorani broke into big time with his 2007 mural Suq al-Gomaa (Friday Market), a 23 X 1.5-metre piece which made it into the Guinness Book of Records. He followed this with the even bigger Moulid (Saint's Day), measuring 32 X1.5 metres. His latest, Al-Thawrah ( Revolution), is a stunning 44 X 1.5 metres.
In all these pieces, Qorani tackled socio-political issues with an eye to documentation. In Revolution he worked from sketches he made every night after coming back from Tahrir Square. He says that his murals aspire to become an "open art book about the young men and women who took it upon themselves to launch the country onto a path of democratic change."
The mural depicts a series of sequential events, from the planning period to small gatherings; from peaceful demonstrations to the Battle of the Camels and beyond. We see the iconic speech by Omar Soleiman; the lines of voters in the parliamentary elections; courtroom scenes from the Mubarak trial; and a sequence of the protests that followed.
The mural opened on 17 May in Abbasiya Square, moving to Tahrir on 19 May and relocating to the garden of the Opera House for a ten-day display.
The mural, which consists of 16 panels, is relatively easy to transport. Why, though, does Qorani feel the need work on such big scale?
He says that by working with massive dimensions he is able to catch the imagination of ordinary people, including those who do not normally pay much attention to art. Epic stories and panoramas entice viewers to engage, and they are therefore a democratic form of art.
So how does Qorani's work compare with the explosion of political graffiti that has sprung up all4apture the full range of human emotions surrounding the political scene. His message goes beyond politics to record how the public reacted to various situations.
One of the most powerful panels shows former President Mubarak and former Interior Minister Habib El-Adli as lifeless statues. The pharaonic writing nearby recreates the tyranny of dynastic rule.
Another panel depicts a protest on Qasr al-Nil Bridge, with the famous lions looking as if they are taking part in the revolutionary moment.
Does any of this remind him of the art of the July 1952 Revolution, I ask?
Qorani says that the urgency was greater in the January Revolution. "I had no time to work on small pieces. I needed to capture the most dominant emotions among the revolutionaries, for which I used an expressionist style suitable for the epic drama," he says.
The July Revolution, as he says, was inspired by the need to end the stratification of society and the hegemony of existing capital. Now, while there is a call for social justice, most people seem to have accepted capitalism as a system.
"In the 1950s, art addressed the working classes. Now there are no targets in terms of class. What we have is a general understanding of rights and equality and a rejection of corruption and hegemony," he says.
Qorani says the emotions he has depicted run smoothly from one scene to another.The background of the work is Egypt as a whole, he adds.
"In my work I do not need to depict the background to relate to one venue. I use the symbols and the clothes to indicate the nature of the place. It is true that Tahrir Square is the main symbol of the revolution, but there are other iconic venues such as al-Qaed Ibrahim in Alexandria, the Arbayin Station in Suez, etc."
Qorani says people react to art differently from the way they did before. The public in general is growing expressive with pain and grief.
"The revolution has changed things. The square has become a venue for art just as it is a venue for political protest. Now everyone discusses politics, and everyone appreciates art too. Also, after the revolution, I can display my work in public places. This was unimaginable before."
Are the figures in his art different from before?
Qorani says the main figures have not changed. In the past they were victims of oppression and injustice, but now they are more vocal and have taken sides with the young revolutionaries.
There has been a subtle change in his paintings before and since the revolution. There is more energy in his compositions; a brightness of colour, a mood of cheerfulness.
Does he feel that the Islamists resent his art?
Qorani says he has not been harassed by any political or religious groups, and that he will be taking his mural to Alexandria and Mansoura. He does not expect any opposition.
One of his panels, Kandahar Friday, Qorani depicts a huge Salafi demonstration. The Salafis are painted in black and white to emphasise their detachment from modern life. His depiction did not seem to disturb the religious crowds at all.
"I noticed that they were watching the mural with interest, having come to the realisation that art is not necessarily a breach of social traditions. My work is an attempt to reconcile and bring together various brands of society. Those who believe that art is a sin are a tiny minority," he says.
Qorani is no stranger to persecution. He was imprisoned twice and summoned three times for interrogation by the State Security. Officials in the old regime suspected him of trying to rouse the working classes against the regime, because most of his depictions in Friday Market and The Moulid were of ordinary, poor folk.
A staunch believer in artistic expression, Qorani says that he resents the lawsuits filed against artists.
"Lawsuits are stupid, because they take a scene or a word of dialogue out of context and overlook the point work is making. I am against any restriction of the creative freedom."