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As Egypt's presidential election presents extraordinary challenges, GlobalPost offers this continuing series to shed light on how the country will move forward under its first-ever civilian head of state and how the soon-to-be-drafted constitution will protect civil rights in a new Egypt. 

Revolutionary art mirrors Egypt’s changing pulse

A generation of artists is discovering itself in a post-Mubarak era.

CAIRO, Egypt — Five years ago, long before Egypt’s January 25 Revolution broke out on Police Day in reaction to alleged brutality and corruption by the force, a young artist named Hany Rashed found his muse in painting policemen in white uniforms.

One canvas portrayed a policeman with his back turned. This particular acrylic painting became a poster announcing a solo exhibition entitled “Faces of Egypt” at a downtown gallery in Cairo.

A state security officer saw the poster and called Rashed at home to invite him over for a cup of coffee at the state security building. He wanted to know what the story behind the art was.

“Are you implying that the policeman is turning his back on society?” the officer asked him.

“No, no, he’s just a face among many others I chose to paint to represent Egyptian society,” said Rashed, 36, recounting his interrogation.

“Before Jan. 25, any flower that bloomed too high off the field needed to be cut.”
~Wael Omar, founder of Radio Tahrir

“No, no, stick to painting belly dancers and pretty ladies,” the official advised.

Rashed complied. His terror of the possible repercussions kept him from taking the risk. Like many others who received curious phone calls about their art over the past few decades, he chose not to dabble in politics for fear of police retaliation. For five years, the artist strayed away from artful political
satire. He traveled through Europe, painting life in Sweden and exploring Italy’s cultural dynamics in his art.

But on January 25, Rashed shed his fears and risked his life. “In Tahrir, we wanted freedom, not bread,” he reminisces. “Hunger is easy, unlike the inability to express yourself.” Rashed, who went hungry for years, knows firsthand.

From the start, Tahrir Square was brimming with artists desperate to break free. The Square emerged as a culture hub in a state of turmoil.

Today, Rashed sits in his studio in Maadi, paint cans lining the wall, hungry for inspiration. “I don’t know what to paint at the moment,” he says. In this period of political uncertainty, artistic energy fluctuates as it attempts to capture people’s turbulent emotions synchronized with a revolutionary pulse. But at least it moves.

Like the stifled political arena in the era of Hosni Mubarak, art was constantly under close scrutiny. Artists were forced to either wrap their socio-political reflections in elaborate symbolism or to stop working altogether. So when freedom overflowed in Tahrir Square in January and February, art swiftly claimed its place in Egyptian society.

But much of the initial revolutionary art was blatant documentation of Tahrir events, devoid of conceptual refinement. Artists in Cairo have now suddenly experienced a surge of freedom. While the pre-Tahrir era was inhibiting, it drove artists to find creative ways of cryptic expression. Artists confess that they are unsure about how exactly to use their newfound freedom. Most of the artwork emerging in the Square onwards is overly literal. In galleries across the city, the Egyptian flag figures heavily as Tahrir Square photography raids their walls.

Despite the art scene’s apparent dynamism, the melancholic uncertainty pervading the public is trickling down into the arts. Many artists are delving into activism, trying to ensure change through art. For them, freedom is as essential as bread is to the layman. And having tasted it once, they refuse to let it go.

Four galleries have opened up since January 25, their curators are keen on showcasing young talent, mirroring the revolutionary landscape.

"Freedom always changes art," says established contemporary artist Mohamed Abla. He set up art workshops for children in the Square during the 18-day uprising, and his career has been bedecked with artistic endeavors to encourage young artists. "Art flourishes with freedom," he says.

Abla believes that contemporary Egyptian art is more youthful and less formal, with young artists and graffiti taking the lead. "It's true that the structure of art is still vague, but change is activated." Abla does not deny that struggles are inevitable as the road to freedom unfolds.

Art can be engaged to unify ideologically scattered people in the face of political tensions, says Mohamed El Sawy, director of arts hub El Sawy Culture Wheel. “Art can change realities,” says. He believes