Eliza Lass casts a skeptical eye over the artistic outpouring resulting from the Arab Spring...
Three years have passed since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia. About two years have gone by since Gaddafi's assassination in Libya and Mubarak's forced resignation in Egypt, but nobody could expect an ending, happy or otherwise. Among protests and violent clashes, another form of outspoken rebellion spread across the Arab world, requiring equipment rather different to Molotov cocktails: paint, aerosol cans, cameras?anything, provided the results could stick to a wall or be shared online. The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya provoked an explosion of artistic expression, aided by the vital platform provided by social networks.
Middle Eastern and North African countries are often combined into one vast revolutionary region, and it is all too easy to reduce changes in the art scenes of diverse nations into a homogenized, easily digestible "cultural reawakening." Examples abound in the contemporary art world. The same month that Assad's forces killed over one hundred protesters in Syria, The Guardian described a London exhibition of Arabic art as encapsulating 'the energy and unpredictability of the Arab Spring'. Many have blamed the 'revolutionary art' trend on the widespread perception that every piece of work emerging from the Middle East or North Africa must be commenting on Arab identity or themes of revolution and change. But during the uprisings, graffiti and street-art undoubtedly became an essential tool of communication and criticism. Using public space both as canvas and battleground is more than trendy, more than a style. Take, for example, the graffiti on houses, arches, and walls in Libyan cities in 2011. Damning caricatures of Gaddafi shared space with lashings of red, black and green paint?the colours of the pre-Gaddafi Libyan flag. Artists risked death to depict hopes, fears and frustrations in public. In Tunisia, the artistic infrastructure was transformed after ousting President Ben Ali, before which there was only one representative artistic association. There are now several.
Egypt's post-Mubarak street-art collectives and festivals have garnered the most international attention. Blogs like Suzeeinthecity, documenting street art and its practitioners, reveal the phenomenon's rapid rise. Su Zee's virtual tours of Cairo graffiti show iconic works like Check Mate by El Teneen, an image on a wall of the American University Cairo campus that shows Mubarak as a toppled king in a game of chess. Graphic artist Ganzeer established streetartcairo.com, an interactive map to which users add the locations of artworks as they spot them. Works developed during the revolution by artists like Keizer, eL Seed and Aya Tarek still adorn many public spaces in Cairo, though many of them now take part in international, indoor exhibitions. Tarek has recently exhibited in Paris and Frankfurt, while El Teneen shared a show in Washington D.C. with graffiti hero Shepard Fairey. The increased appearance of collaborative exhibitions are a direct result of the revolution, allowing creativity to flourish in an art world that seemingly exists without curfews or police interrogations.
But the fact that artists express their political dissatisfaction through street-art and receive media attention for it is no indication of struggles ended. When The Guardian hailed the Bedouins, an American skateboarding collective, as the "arty skate gang...bringing peace to Tunisia," I had to laugh. Aided by local artists and friends, the Bedouins transformed the empty house of a disgraced government minister into an informal exhibition space covered in bright graffiti and murals. Symbolic? Yes. Political? Surely. But no amount of graffiti or rose-tinted media coverage could establish governmental stability, or erase the poverty and unemployment caused by years of exploitation. President Ben Ali's departure is hardly synonymous with freedom of expression, or a triumph against censorship. This week will see the trial of two Tunisian graffiti artists?they could each face five years in jail for writing "The People want rights for the Poor" on a wall. Likewise in Egypt, Morsi's authorities continue to whitewash murals commemorating martyrs of the revolution, and new murals painted by the determined artists of Cairo now show Morsi and Mubarak as one and the same. It comes as no surprise that Islamist authorities are not usually supporters of controversial political art, so the conflicts continue. Earlier this month, Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi inadvertently summarized this paradoxical climate with a point that made up in accuracy what it lacked in grammatical correctness: "We are not seeing so much changes, not really."