Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution – A Review

Author ········· Angie Balata
Published ······ Online, Jan 2015

Section ·······  Art & Design

Writing a book review, in general, is a tricky business, one where you must attempt to balance an objective outlook on something that is highly subjective. Reviewing a book that focuses on art and highlights a historical moment in which you were a participant is simply complicated. Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution is the brainchild of graffiti mogul and co-owner of From Here to Fame Publishing Don Stone, and designer and professor Basma Hamdy. Within this massive 268-page book, they have tried to retell the story of the first three years of the Egyptian Revolution through graffiti and street art. This book has been the subject of much local debate among graffiti artists and the wider art community over various issues, including funding, the biased focus given to certain artists, the division of potential financial profit, and the contributions and effect of the book on the local graffiti scene. Getting through it was not an easy task and reviewing it has proven to be complicated.  

Semantics and Aesthetics

Walls of Freedom is a colossal undertaking of grand proportions. The back cover makes many claims as to the book’s directions and goals, and describes the project as:

“…a powerful portrayal of the first three years of the Egyptian revolution that began on January 25, 2011…Created in close collaboration with the artists on the frontlines of the battle, the book documents how they converted the streets into a dynamic newspaper of the people, providing a much needed alternative to the propaganda-fuelled media… ‘Walls of Freedom’ traces the revolutionary journey, from the early pinnacle of extraordinary hope and inspiration, to its decline into today’s violent Orwellian nightmare…Enriched with essays by artists and experts across many fields, Walls of Freedom contextualizes the graffiti in the historical, socio-political, and cultural backgrounds that have shaped this art of the revolution.”

Books that attempt large endeavours in historical venturing, particularly if the political situation of the subject is in a state of chaos and transformation, are often alarming as it is an impossible attempt — akin to trying to write the history of French Revolution as it was taking place. More often than not, the attempt ends up being a sensationalised and one-sided account of a constantly changing moment that lacks the foresight and depth of post-event analysis. Unfortunately, this book floats dangerously close to being an entertaining picture book rather than a historical account of one of the most important moments in modern Middle Eastern history and politics. The narrative is a mixture between essays, written by a diversity of authors, including the authors of the book, and a detailed chronology recounting the almost daily events between 2011 and the end of 2013. Where the essays focus on various issues and are, in general, to be taken as the authors’ own opinions, the day-to-day accounts of events are a very slanted political history that oscillates between retelling the events and propagandising an ‘activist’ account. Commendably, the book is able relate the events of every single day of importance, which during the first three years of the Revolution, meant almost everyday. While not an easy chronological task, admittedly, the authors have essentially translated the events into an ongoing drama involving the army (and by extension the state), the Muslim Brotherhood (and by extension all other Islamists) and the activists (and by extension the artists-turned-activists). The description of events is an apologist’s view of history, where the artists/activists are constantly struggling to enlighten the people and fight away the evils of both the state and the Islamists. The end of the book leaves one with the burdening weight of hopelessness and pity for the artists/activists. It is particularly disheartening that if the events were told just as they had occurred, without the plethora of propagandising adjectives, the reader would have already come to the conclusion that the author’s are desperately trying to force in every sentence — namely, that the Egyptian state (including the army), is in essence quite evil and very corrupt. Moreover, the simplification of a very complicated history and a very chaotic political moment into a chronology that has, for the most part, only three continuous characters for 268 pages does serious disservice to the telling of the Revolution.

Laying it out

How do you visually design something from nothing to tell a story about everything? For a book whose main subject is graffiti and visual art, the layout design is an important element in the telling of the story. To create a package from which to tell the story of the Revolution through street art, or vice versa, would have likely been a far simpler goal than to tell the story of the Revolution, which is what this book ends up trying to do. The talented Torge Peters, designer of several graffiti books for Stone’s publishing house, designed the book layout. Walls of Freedom incorporates an exhaustive three-year timeline, short texts, essays, and additional quotes and comments from an assortment of authors in a less than seamless design. Navigating the written content to follow both the storyline of the Revolution and the arguments of the authors, while trying to absorb the photographs from the events of the Revolution, the photographs of people writing on walls during the Revolution, and the photographs of the graffiti/artists, renders the book excessive in its content and  makes it confusing to follow. This is the result of having unclear goals for the book, as the reader is left wondering whether this is a story about the Revolution told through street art or a story of street art told through the Revolution or a story of both street during the Revolution and the Revolution itself.     

Reading Beyond the Lines

The essence of Walls of Freedom is not to be found in the photographs of the street art, the small sections on the artists, or in the Revolution timeline, for most of this has already been widely available online and numerous articles have been written on these. Rather, it is in the essays written by the contributors. From journalists and activists to graffiti artists and academics, the wide range of topics covered is engaging. The crux of the book’s direction is best summarised by Chad Elias’ piece, “Graffiti, Social Media and the Public Life of Images in the Egyptian Revolution”, in which he discusses the importance of street art’s role in the public space as not only limited to the challenges it presented to art confined in ‘institutional settings’, but, more importantly the impact that the proliferation of street art and graffiti have had on making new forms of democratic participation in the public space possible. He credits graffiti for having been able to counter the stale government propaganda spread by state-owned media and maintains that “graffiti could be seen as an extension of this activist model of the consciousness-raising” (Elias, p. 89). While Elias parades the various attempts made by different graffiti artists to challenge the state and its media and expand access to the public space, he curbs his enthusiasm that graffiti alone can’t “dismantle the ideologies of aggressive ignorance and intimidation”, but can in the very least reach more communities than electronic activism (Elias, p. 89). The Foreword of the book by Ahdaf Soueif echoes most of Elias’ contentions and sets much of the tone of what is to be expected in Walls of Freedom. She expresses the emotional side of what it meant to be in the streets, especially during the first few weeks, and the marvel at seeing revolutionary sentiment expressed on walls and in public. She sums up the impact, the emotion and the contribution by saying

“our street art exemplified the difference between the revolution and the system: the system murdered, the revolution immortalized…the system built brutal, obstructive walls partitioning the streets of downtown, the revolution transformed these walls into rainbows, tropical beaches, and playful trompe l’oeil vistas of the streets themselves” (Soueif, p. 5)

This would be all interesting and hopeful for the future, if only it were actually true. By no means insinuating a lack of sincerity on the part of the writers, but the picture painted is one that applies a generalised view of street art constructed from a single moment in time. There is no doubt that street art (graffiti included) and independent music have been the ultimate winners of the Revolution, in so far as they remained consistently present and have continued to grow even as the iron curtain of the army returns. However, it would be highly misleading to credit so much of the limited gains in freedom and the opening up of the public space from Revolution to street art and graffiti artists. Moreover, it is almost impossible to ascertain the actual impact of street art on the public sphere when we consider that most of the street art referred to in the book, and done in actuality, has been around downtown Cairo — so it would be akin to suggesting that theatre is accessible to all those in New York City because Times Square is full of theatres. Rather, except for fleeting examples, including the work of the Mona Lisa Brigades, most graffiti has been done in highly affluent neighbourhoods with already significant access to the arts and rarely have any of the graffiti artists ventured out into low income areas where the majority of the population is to be found. And herein lies one of the major problems with this book: it is very much a one-sided view of what street art was during Revolution, how it was received by the public, and the role of graffiti artists. Beside the glaring misstep of being heavily weighted in the favour of a few artists, with the authors and many of the writers emphasising the role of three artists to the detriment of the collective, the book provides no platform for critical debate on the street art scene in Egypt, in general. Sadly, opportunity was wasted to delve more into the serious issues concerning the scene, which arose precisely because of all the attention given to graffiti by media, particularly foreign media. The global attention given to graffiti artists over the period of the Revolution translated into an influx of opportunities, projects, and financial gain — thus, dramatically altering what graffiti was about when it first became the new ‘thing’ and what it eventually turned into (a moneymaking venture). That whole period of transformation, which incidentally is still in motion, opened up questions about what graffiti was, who had the rights to claim it, the authenticity behind the message, the opportunity of the job, graffiti superstars versus those left in the shadows, financial gain versus financial stigma, and what the message is actually about. None of these are tackled, though all these issues, while related to the graffiti scene, on a broader level are part of that greater conversation on the Revolution.

The three most interesting essays of the book seem to be almost a lapse in choice considering the overall direction of the book. In “Art and Social Transformation”, Basma El Husseiny lays out an interesting argument on the importance of art to social change (El Husseiny, p. 154). She argues that “participating in an act of creativity enables people to feel and think beyond their immediate reality and outside their usual capacity” which, more broadly, translates into creative power, a key component for social change. No grand claims are made here; quite the opposite, art is relegated to its actual role as a tool that can catalyse that desire for change and over the long term, result in actual social change (the step before political change). Unexpectedly, the most interesting artist essay comes from Nemo, a graffiti artist from the town of Mansoura, who has gained acclaim for his persistence in using graffiti to highlight fundamental social issues. Like El Husseiny, he understands that graffiti is a tool, albeit a powerful one. Its impact being in the confluence between a message that resonates on the street and a location that reaches the masses. Nemo has been able to offer a small window on what graffiti can mean after a Revolution. Specifically, he discusses his move away from political graffiti to graffiti that deals with more dangerous issues including poverty, illiteracy, street kids, scarcity of food supplies and sexual harassment. For him, neither he nor the graffiti are the stars of the show, rather, like El Husseiny, he understands that the issues he deals with in his art are what ‘moves’ people. Aya Tarek, one of the most popular street artists in Egypt and the region, takes on the thorny issues of being a woman doing art and being a woman doing art in the street. She expertly discusses the gender discrimination she deals with as a street artist, emphasising that the fascination with her being a female has offered a massive spotlight where Arab women are considered to be all the same producing similar art — a standard that has never been applied to the male artists. Moreover, she argues that public space has been dominated by male artists and this has alienated females. Beyond these issues, which are common to the global graffiti scene, Tarek does make an important point in so far as her artistic inspiration is not derived from her gender, but from the need to “creat[e] beauty within the chaos” (Tarek, p. 218). El Husseiny, Nemo and Tarek offer the glimmers of a new and interesting debate, unlike many of the other essays which essentially regurgitate and recycle much of the same ideas and debates. Sadly, though, the spark of critical deliberation ends with the endless hailing of street art and graffiti artists.

Final Thoughts

Walls of Freedom sets out to accomplish a lot, which is one of the main reasons why it isn’t able to fully achieve the goals it initially set out for itself. It is unclear what exactly the key arguments of the book are, beyond highlighting an assortment of graffiti (i.e. the almost ad hoc appearance of words and lines from random people) and the artists featured in the book. If the idea was to tell the story of the Revolution, the reader is forewarned that the accounts of events offered in the timeline are both a limited and slanted view of the events that actually took place. If the idea is to have an overall sense of the street art, specifically graffiti, produced during the first three years of the Revolution with a bit of discussion on the artists, then the book has achieved this. In all cases, most of the documentation was already available widely and freely online. Thus, it is safe to assume that the book wanted to achieve more than these two goals. Perhaps its main goal was to contribute in some way to the understanding of the graffiti scene in Egypt and its impact on the political situation and the general public, and to provide some insight into the issues beneath the surface. If this were the case, then the book falls far below expectations. In addition to much of the critical debate taking place within the graffiti scene that has been left out and the over emphasis on the words and ideas of a select number of artists to set the tone of the book, the authors fail to highlight the people as an important element when discussing the impact of the art on the general public. Instead, much of the focus has been on the army, the government, and the Brotherhood — whereas the people should have been one of the major considerations of the book. In world where graffiti is a form of self-expression, the people don’t really have a role. But, where graffiti is a tool to reach the people, then they must be accounted for. Consequently, Walls of Freedom is both an amazing marketing tool for activists and ‘artivists’, and a superbly executed book of photos on street art from the Revolution.

Angie Balata is a Cairo-based culture writer who prefers watching Turkish soap operas as an escape from inanities of life in Egypt. Formerly the project manager for the Women on Walls graffiti project, Angie left it in search of a career working in music where she now manages a studio and a band.