Can Graffiti Remake Egypt?- by Alessandra Bajec
Last week, a dozen of female artists turned the walls of a downtown parking lot in Cairo into a street art gallery. Colourful group murals carrying personal stories and spreading messages to increase women’s visibility, and positively affect public consciousness.
Women on Walls (WOW), Sit El 7eta in Arabic, celebrated its second edition taking to the streets of Cairo to paint walls and talk about women. Counting over 60 local street, graffiti and visual artists, WOW is a dynamic street art collective using graffiti to focus on women’s empowerment.
Launched in December 2012 by Swedish street art documentarian Mia Gröndahl, author of Revolution Graffiti: Street Art of the New Egypt, and local cultural manager Angie Balata, the project rapidly expanded to a nationwide campaign aimed at empowering female street artists.
The campaign seeks to spark awareness of the daily struggles that Egyptian women endure, and advocate for their better treatment. Creating a safe space for female artists to go out and work in groups encourages more women to get involved in an otherwise male exclusive street art scene
Gröndahl had first become interested in graffiti while she was living in Gaza, until she moved to Cairo 13 years ago. Caught up in the chaos of 25 January revolution, the documentarian was captivated by the start of the graffiti scene in Egypt, where there had been no sign of street art before. She spent over a year and a half following graffiti artists around Egypt.
Although the book Revolution Graffiti includes a section called ‘Women Power on the Wall’, Gröndahl was only able to find 253 graffiti images featuring women out of around 17,000 pieces of art from her archive. A too small number that motivated her and Balata to make an open call inviting artists to gather and do women’s graffiti.
‘’I felt there’s was a need to support female artists, and there’s a very strong need to address women’s issues’’, Gröndahl emphasized, ‘’Egypt is one of the worst countries when it comes to women’s rights.’’
WOW effectively pulled so many artists from all over the country to work together on such a big issue because, indeed, there was need and interest to do it.
Lamis Solyman, visual artist and production designer, has been involved with WOW for a year. She thinks doing graffiti helps her deliver a simple message of being a woman, a living being.
Salma El-Gamal,19, began drawing on walls two years ago just to do graffiti. El-Gama joined the project to get her message out. She’s affected by the politics of her country and women’s role in society.
‘’I’d like the final mural to express something radical, that can change things for women in Egypt’’, El-Gamal said.
Enas Awad, 21, has grown up as an independent graffiti artist. She wanted to play a part in the campaign to address sexual harassment, and promote better rights for women in Egypt’s male-dominated society.
‘’Whenever there’s an issue regarding women who have been sexually harassed, it’s always the woman’s fault. We’ve had enough of that,’’ Awad voiced out.
Male street artist Mamoun Mahmoud came on board because he’s a supporter of the women’s cause.
Khadija El Ghawas, professional Arabic/English/Hindi calligrapher, fully endorses the idea behind WOW. Although she’s not used to drawing on walls, Ghawas signed up right away.
Egypt’s society traditionally relegates women to a secondary role. Women always get some remarks about their appearance or presence in the public space, they cannot be left on their own, they aren’t very visible, there are very few places where they feel comfortable. Just walking in the street is a problem for women.
‘’It’s important to make the public feel it’s natural to have women out there, it’s their space too. Just like men, they have the right to feel ok in the street’’, WOW’s founder pointed out suggesting that one way to do it is painting women on walls.
Browsing through cards with some of the murals produced in last year’s WOW edition, Gröndahl hinted at one mural by Faj Soliman showing a huge cat to protest against the way women walking are treated on Egyptian streets, being often called by men ‘pussycats.’
WOW touches upon many different issues from domestic violence to sexual harassment, equal opportunities and female genital mutilation. This year’s theme was women in the public space.
This year’s WOW edition involved a series of graffiti workshops along with brainstorming sessions, with women’s organizations like Nazra for Feminist Studies and HarassMap, to discuss issues concerning women, and how to get the message out on the street.
Each of the artists told their own personal stories on walls by designing female figures or bringing attention to women’s issues.
Nurah Farahat, video artist, admitted she only recently learned to walk slowly, to feel the street is her space too. ’’It’s very stressful for a woman being in the street. It’s a place that you have to navigate through quickly,’’ Farahat explained, ‘’But I exist, I’m not a prey that has to run past’’.
First timer to street art, the video artist was thrilled to both experiment wall painting and express herself in the open air.
As a graffiti artist, Awad considers her role is to display on the wall what’s wrong in the society, and let people act on by responding positively to the negative. Through graffiti, in her view, women can reclaim free space and make a statement that can reach people’s minds.
El-Gamal believes murals can effect a change, no matter how small, they can trigger something among people and invite passersby to stop and ask questions. ‘’The fact that there are emerging female graffiti artists is an improvement in itself. And the fact that we’re now here trying to get a message out is also a step ahead," she stated.
It´s Mahmoud’s first time working on a graffiti related to women. He hopes he can use street art as a resistance tool to convey a message about women. ‘’Women have their role to play in society just like men. Graffiti is my way to fight back,’’ the male artist said.
El Ghawas thinks street art is the easiest way to deliver a message adding that, unlike the media, graffiti is real. ‘’It goes from the street to the street, from the artist to a regular person passing by’’, the calligrapher commented.
Similarly, for Awad graffiti is a very immediate art tool that easily attracts from the streets, that everyone can access, interact with and respond to.
Solyman highlighted: ‘’In the 2011 revolution, graffiti was a popular tool to talk about youth and politics. Now, the time has come to talk about women through graffiti.’’
Gröndahl argued that street art reflects what’s going on like what women are facing in Egypt, and translates that into short effective messages.
Illustrating one of the murals, Farahat cited the poem ´The Thunder, Perfect Mind’, discovered among manuscripts at Nag Hammadi: ´I am the whore and the holy one, I am the wife and the virgin, I am the mother, the daughter and every part of it´. Farahat and other artists were inspired by the poem for its inclusiveness concerning the divine feminine nature. The mural displays a woman’s face split, half is partly Phaoronic and modern, and half is traditional.
Holding her design sketch, calligrapher El Ghawas described her graffiti, with a feminine eye depicted, stating the message ‘I’m not licensed for your eyes’ to express that, as a woman, she´s free from anyone’s judgement or glare. She was confident that the mural would empower women, and let men think about the message behind it.
Mahmoud anticipated that many people would look at and relate to the murals, they would become more aware that women have rights to claim.
The wall painting attracted mixed comments among passersby, as Awad explained. Some made negative remarks, others showed interest and even requested designs or writings to be put on the wall. The artists received support from women, who liked the idea of talking about women´s issues through graffiti, and were encouraged to keep going.
To help empowering female graffiti artists, WOW invited Swedish feminist graffiti artist Carolina Falkholt to introduce participating artists to basic techniques of spray paint, and guide them throughout the week-long workshop.
WOW’s co-manager noted the women's empowerment graffiti campaign is trying to combine the artistic expression of celebrating women’s strength with the activist message about the harsh reality affecting women.
‘’We can’t just portray women as victims, we also have to show that women are strong, and give that message back to women in the streets,’’Gröndahl said illustrating some cards with positive images of women on graffiti from local artists.