Egyptian artists ignited the Cairo uprising last year, and they’ve kept the coals turned up under the current military regime. Far from drifting into the shadows and returning to their former occupations as graphic artists or portrait painters, many are feeling the burden and responsibility to follow through to the end. But do their pictures of peace and democracy include Christians or the Coptic Church in any way?
A year ago it was common to see joint symbols of support for the beleaguered church and oppressed Christian population in street art. Splashed across walls and bridges, a new icon of hopeful reconciliation between Muslim and Christian appeared– a combined crescent/cross.
Priests and Muslims publicly prayed together for peace and democracy, and no one seemed to mind. I still believe this is the feeling of many of the street artists in Cairo, but with the Islamists’ genocidal onslaught against Christians, will Egypt’s art stars come to their aid?
Egypt’s military regime is currently accusing outsiders of fomenting trouble, a common diversionary tactic of dictators, although it may be true in a few cases. Certainly the West is supportive of democracy and human rights in general. Please excuse us. The Tantawi regime wants our $1.3 billion payments, but preferably without the sticky flotsam of religious and civil rights attached.
Close on the heels of the U.S. government (and almost as well funded), several Soros organizations are involved in support of what they loosely label “democracy,” including the arts, and have been for at least 20 years. Soros Open Society Foundations, The Ford Foundation and several Scandinavian groups among others have been involved in the region for decades with ostensibly good motives.
Few, if any, of their funds, however, seem to be benefiting Christian minorities or championing their cause. Tantawi can rest assured that Soros-funded groups will likely do little to deliver true democracy, as they haven’t so far.
It can be easily proven that Egyptian Christian Copts are the most unjustly persecuted and oppressed population in Egypt. Christians in Iraq and other nations are in the same boat, but western cultural groups are busy championing “Palestinians” as their token oppressed people. While expressing the desire for “just futures,” minority rights and freedom of expression, these western groups are neither delivering nor modeling much of the above in Egypt.
An example is last November’s spectacularly irrelevant exhibit by Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia in Giza, Egypt: “Transverse-City” shows interviews with different taxi drivers, who visit places that hold sentimental value to them. Sentimental value? I suppose the show must go on.
Slightly less inconsequential for the times was their attendant workshop on video installation for artists in Cairo. It is conceivable that an artist may document the fragmentation or genocide in Egypt, but sentimental taxi drivers are much more likely to be gallery sponsored by one these “human rights” organizations. I rest my case.
No one can deny that the arts are a major player in the tempests of cultural warfare. This is plainly evidenced by the Tantawi government’s vigilant surveillance of anti-regime graffiti and occasional arrests of a few of the more politically-oriented street artists. One of these is “Ganzeer,” who created the notorious “Mask of Freedom” freely distributed on the streets and who was briefly held last May.
Ganzeer and a handful of other street artists have prospered because of media attention and opportunities to stay in the public eye. He was well-established in the art scene before the upheaval and has created some of the most iconic and striking images to date. Ganzeer’s ambitious “Martyr Murals” attempts to memorialize all fallen protestors but is occasionally painted over. He and a few others (Sad Panda, El Teneen) have become so globally popular that elaborate tracking sites have been set up to locate specific works in Egypt.
Local art galleries are seeing boom times, too, with huge crowds and exhibits celebrating the political scene such as “Shadow of Freedom,” “Drink Freedom” and “People Demand.” Mona Said with Safar Khan Gallery in Cairo told Reuters her March show of revolutionary art sold four times what she had expected, bringing new them clients throughout the world.
While most street art doesn’t overtly deal with the treatment of Christians, Aya Batrawy recounts graffiti artist Karim Gouda’s rough expulsion from a Cairo neighborhood while pasting up posters. The reason? He was accused of encouraging Egypt’s Christians “to take over the Muslim majority.” Ironically, this was shortly after the military murdered and injured many Christians. Apparently the residents of Sayeda Zeinab think the militia are doing a bang-up job and didn’t much care for Gouda’s message to “open your eyes before it’s too late.”
Battling such denial and hostility, many of Egypt’s Copts are pouring out of their native land (100,000 as of October) rather than putting hope in western cultural foundations or the possibilities of the new “democracy.” They’re also not finding too much help from Cairo’s graffiti artists, including the ones who have become media-magnets through intense scrutiny of their work.
While there hasn’t been a war won by art alone, this one seems to have captured the attention of Egyptians and western media, as if the artists were actual combatants. The “Arab Spring” has been massively featured in exhibits and panel discussions and sponsored by everyone from the mayor of London, the Tate, banks and art institutes. A sample workshop by Egyptian artist Wael Shawky hawks “artists as instigators” fueling the suspicions of the Egyptian authorities.
Other than the obvious victims in this movement, Egypt’s Chrsitians, not everyone is utterly satisfied with Tahir’s “revolutionary art” to this point. Negar Azimi, in a thoughtful piece in Frieze, expresses some hesitation over the use of political art in general and this in particular. She feels they’ve jumped the gun with articles and exhibits indicating a truly emerging democracy while masking “more trenchant realities.” Azimi questions the use of culture alone as an indicator of real-life freedom, which may in reality “take generations” to materialize.
A year since the fall of Mubarak, Egypt’s artists are still congratulating themselves and memorializing the people’s feat with trendy art but aren’t advancing much in the hard work of building a democratic state. Perhaps they should direct their efforts at a broader target, which includes justice for the nation’s ancient Coptic Church, and settle down for some hard work and a long road. This would be a sample of true freedom, rather than a momentary world art frenzy that only ponders the possibility.