How Arab revolutionary art helped break the spell of political oppression
Graffiti, murals and other dissident art have transformed public spaces and mobilised public opinion in the Middle East
Julia Rampen and Laurie Tuffrey
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 5 May 2012 08.00 EDT
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In January 2011 the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali fled Tunisia. Ten months later, his giant smiling face appeared on the side of a building in the busy port city of La Goulette. At first people just gathered beneath it and stared. Then they started to get angry. Urged on by the crowd, a group of men pulled the dictator's image down. The poster crumpled – and revealed a second poster: "Beware, dictatorship can return. On Oct 23rd, VOTE."
Half-ad, half-performance, this was one of the examples of art as political statement selected by Professor Charles Tripp, a specialist in Middle Eastern politics, who spoke at the University of East London on Tuesday night. He argued that graffiti, murals, posters and other visual art forms helped to "break the spell" of dictators like Ben Ali, continuing to mobilise protesters against threats to the revolutionary ideals.
For instance in January this year, as tensions between Egypt's interim military leadership and the crowds in Tahrir Square grew, the prominent street artist Ganzeer declared: "Art is the only weapon we have left to deal with the military dictatorship". When the authorities put up barricades around Tahrir, they were soon transformed by the city's artists. The use of visual tricks further undermined the installation of the barricades - many of these paintings simply depicted the forbidden street that lay behind.
Such innovation may be a reaction to the Egyptian leadership's action, but Prof Tripp said 2011 was not, as often thought, "year zero for Arab creativity". Rather, he argued, the Arab spring represented a more focused concentration of well-established dissident art, pointing to the defacement of a picture of Saddam Hussein by defeated Iraqi soldiers in 1991 as a powerful smashing of the symbolic power of the dictator's face. Works like Democracy is Coming! by Huda Lutfi and Mohammed Abla's No More Killing, a visceral depiction of the "violence of the everyday state".
Perhaps the most powerful form of art in the Middle East is graffiti. For Prof Tripp, its potency lies in its "reclamation of public space" and he argued that as well as creating a sense of solidarity, graffiti can powerfully represent the public's hold over territories: "The infrastructure is not enormous – as long as the spray can holds out". While the Israeli West Bank wall has long been a target for street artists, the open space of Tahrir Square has demanded further inventiveness. Children became billboards for scrawled messages, as did carefully arranged plastic cups. According to Tripp, this effected a psychological change – the square became a place of "everyday public, rather than an everyday police state".
Many locals feel, understandably, that walls and pavements are not a suitable place to commemorate the personal tragedies that come with revolutionary events. One of the images Tripp showed was of the graffiti commemorating martyrs of the Port Said football riots in February, where at least 74 people were killed. An audience member who had lived on the same street noted that some neighbours did not understand why victims of a serious tragedy were to be commemorated on something as undignified as a public toilet.
What Tripp's talk underlined was that this art is a reaction against oppression, and a danger for any observer, particularly in the west, would be to separate the art from its context. There is a risk of imposing a western interpretation, or embracing only the most "western-friendly" face of Middle Eastern Art that western commentators like ourselves have to guard against. Near the end of his talk, Tripp related a story of Banksy painting on the controversial West Bank wall. An elderly Palestinian told him it looked beautiful, before adding: "We don't want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home."