Since the 25 January revolution, events have dramatically escalated; and graffiti ‚ê" as moving as it is stimulating ‚ê" has tended to punctuate them. Artists and photographers were inspired by this as much as the revolution itself, and they gave exhibitions inside and outside Egypt to express their engagement. Mohamed Abul-Naga is one such artist; an established figure, his Cairo 11 is one of several solo exhibitions inspired by the rich diversity of both slogans and graffiti that the revolution brought about. The exhibition can be seen as a document of this uniquely chaotic declaration of principles, which prevailed in downtown Cairo. It is also a reproduction of the graffiti, drawings, slogans and posters painted or pasted on the walls. In all 25 paintings, the artist applies mixed media techniques, using photography, paper and printing.
"The parliamentary elections, which took place last year, have contributed a huge number of new slogans and electoral symbols, some of which are funny and inspiring. Thus downtown Cairo has become a melting pot for this unprecedented war of slogans," Abul-Naga says. Graffiti has dramatically revived in downtown streets, he explained, to mirror the protesters call for freeing political prisoners and putting a stop to military rule, as well as demanding the retribution for the dead and injured, and most recently to express rejection of the political Islamist sweeping the country. "Such wonderful graffiti has become a symbol of resistance and counter-resistance, a medium for young artists to express their anger, and an impetus to the government to continue its suppressive policies, as it recently removed the graffiti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street‚ê¶"
Last year, Abulnaga, 52, busied himself with photography tours to document the graffiti, posters, drawings and calligraphy on the walls. "On my photography tours, I happened to find layers of graffiti, posters and drawings on the same wall, something that reflected the momentum of the very special moment. Posters for one electoral candidate would be removed or replaced by posters for another; in a moment this interaction between added and removed posters of candidates would merge, creating a third or fourth picture," Abul-Naga explained, stressing how such vivid confusion drove his exhibition. "As the tension of the moment heightened in Cairo's famous downtown streets such as Talaat Harb, Mohamed Mahmoud and Shiekh Rihan, all leading into Tahrir Square, the living walls were changing every day, if not every moment, pushing me to document this rare moment from an artistic, social and historical viewpoint. What I am going to present in my new exhibition is an artistic treatment such documentation."
The word "freedom" is a recurrent catchphrase in many of Abouelnaga's paintings: a direct message, but nonetheless one that echoes the pulse of the street after almost two years after the revolution. "In my paintings, I was keen to reflect this ever changing pulse; the changing faces on the walls, using the famous iconic slogans of the revolution, which have been spread all over the country such as 'Revolution is on', 'Down with the Regime', 'Bread, freedom, and social justice'," he noted. The paintings are the unique outcome of his attempts at reproducing such documentation; in many paintings, walls vivid with layers of posters reflect the revolutionary movement at the time in downtown streets and the artist's vision of new, gloomy realities. "I believe my own changing emotions towards the revolution are an essential part of this experience; my joy and enthusiasm in the aftermath of the revolution, and my depression when the Islamists took over the country. The spirit of graffiti has endowed me with greater scope for freedom, pushing me into a more expressive, dynamic and spontaneous experience, more than what I used to have in my small studio."
One particularly beautiful painting illustrates a prayer rug encrusted with the shapes of stars used as icons in military costumes. "A sarcastic representation of the current coalition between military and religious fascism," as Abulnaga puts it. During the demonstrations and sit-ins in Tahrir Square, protesters wrote down their demands and complaints on small pieces of papers, connected and hung them together with ropes on the trees. Such symbolism has its roots in the ancient Egyptian practise of sanctifying trees. Along ancient and modern history, Egyptians have always made a sort of connection between their wishes with trees and palm trees; it is as if the tree would play the role of middle agent between man and heavens, Abouelnaga explained. In one series, the tree stands alone in the middle of darkness, loaded with dozens of messages on paper, whose colorfulness adds an aura of majesty to the scene. Elsewhere the tree vibrates, shaking with its load of wishes and revolutionary demands that have not been met, reflecting the angry pulse of people. In this series, the vision is vague; concepts and elements are mixed up in a messy order.
Yet the exhibition is closely linked to previous exhibitions by Abul-Naga. In 2007, The Lion took place at the Arts Palace, Cairo Opera House. The mixed media paintings posed a question about limitations on freedom of speech; the narrow space given to this free lion to live and play in. "The Lion exhibition had truly mirrored the miserable situation of Egypt before the 25 January revolution, and anticipated its outbreak. The exhibition participated in artistic festivals last year in many countries, including Mexico, Chilly and Argentine," Abouelnaga comments. Yet, like the present exhibition, it offered a vague and hazy view, chiming with the views of mainstream of intellectuals in Egypt. But why did Abouelnaga decide to hold his exhibition in a politically stable Gulf country disconnected from Arab Spring countries?
"It is just because I currently work and live in Doha. I have not got a good deal yet to exhibit my work in Egypt," he replied. "However, I don't believe in this 'Arab Spring' slogan. Actually, the Arab Spring materialised perfectly in the 1940s, before 1952, when Egypt's prominent artists and intellectuals such as Taha Hussein and Tawfik El-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz created an enlightenment movement, and made Egypt the heart of Arab world. What is going on now in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya cannot be labelled the 'Arab Spring'. It is the spring of fanatical political Islam ‚ê" the spring of Jihadi and Salafist movements in the region, and we are definitely going to suffer during the coming decades at the hands of those who have hijacked the true revolution. The Islamists did not participate in any stage of the revolution; they only appeared when they were certain of the demonstrators' ability to topple the regime. From that time on, they cautiously started to show up in waves, while the true revolutionaries exited the frame. It is a pity that the revolutionaries are on the margin of the scene now."
Abul-Naga is currently busy with two projects: The Warrior and Faces of the Revolution, both of which are linked to the theme.
Cairo 11 will be on show 3-27 October at the Qatar Visual Art Centre.
Nicola Giuseppe Smerilli's photographic exhibition
I was lucky enough to be invited by the Italian cultural attache Arnaldo Dante Marianacci to Nicola Giuseppe Smerilli's photographic exhibition, writes Sherif Sonbol, which opened at the Opera House last Sunday. Disliking openings other than my own, I seized the opportunity for a preview. When I arrived no one was there but Smerilli hanging his work. I was particularly impressed by the powerful, extremely tight composition “ê" as in the eagle's eye view of white buildings “ê" which, due to powerful balancing of geometry and colour, forces the eyes to the centre and keeps them within the frame. While many photographers portray details with relative ease, few indeed are those who can present volume and extent with the skill of Smerilli.
As I discovered, to my regret, the photographer speaks no English; but, like many Italians, he could communicate effectively enough with me with his face and hands “ê" uttering words I could not understand. Through the mediation of Marianacci I found out he teaches photo editing and scenery at the Rome Academy of Fine Arts, which made me think of my own woes as a photographer in a country where photo editing is not even recognised as a valid job “ê" and no space is made for it even in the best newspapers. While we walked and talked in the garden of the Opera, I had a pleasant surprise when I saw Smerilli take out an advanced camera to photograph a monkey tree “ê" known by that name because of thorns that prevent monkeys from climbing it “ê" because, unlike so many photographers, I noticed he was using film. Unlike so many others who take any number of photographs they can simply delete on their little screens “ê" those who have given up on the decisive moment as photography's perennial principle “ê" here, I thought, was a true photographer, loyal to his art.