Graffiti explodes in periods of political and social changes and becomes itself a form of public power to resist authoritarian power. An artist, or group of artists, chooses a crowded street to convey the message in words or picture or both, that most of the times contain bitter sarcasm. The power of graffiti as a mean of free expression is increasingly alarming for many governments and ruling Systems. Repressive measures are taken to “shut-up” the voice of the streets; the best example of such reactions is that of UK with the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 and UK MPs signing a charter saying “Graffiti is not art, it’s crime.”
In an attempt to trace the relationship between political awareness and the public mood reflected on city walls, Hani Naim dives into graffiti and the stories behind each wall painting in his book “Graffiti of Uprisings”. With its easy flowing text and a collection of illustrations (more than 50) the book comes as a fruit of the author’s years-long interest in graffiti as a politico-artistic mean of expression. Naim takes you in a tour though Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Tunisia studying the significance of this wall art as a reflection of the changes taking place in the Middle East.
The book starts tracing the relationship of “the dictators and the public space”, where the author sees the presence of statues and ruling party slogans as a part of the systemic reproduction of “the leaders” features on each and every face. When a nation liberates the public space all other spaces follow. The fall of a dictator’s statue or figure standing in a city center (the scene repeated in Iraq, Libya and Syria) means the rule of this dictator is already trembling.
More than 30 of the book’s 134 pages are dedicated to Egypt. Naim brings to his readers the general atmosphere of revolutionary Cairo: anti- Mubarak graffiti mix with anti- Muslim Brotherhood and anti- militant rule slogans that reflect the true mood of Egyptian public. Social problems of Egypt – the issues of personal freedom, dignity and sexual assaults are also addressed in several palaces. Samira Ibrahim and Alya al-Mahdi become icons of freedom in street art while conventional media stays calm. The patriarchic System is challenged in graffiti and the blue-bra of the demonstrator beaten by police in Cairo spreads as a symbol in several aspects: political revolutions, feminist uprisings and a loud scream in the face of the violent System.
In Syria the regime and its supporters use graffiti to threaten the opposition with slogans like “Either Assad or we burn the country”. Other regime sponsored graffiti can depict the symbols of pro-regime political parties and a remarkable “humiliation” of pro-revolution channel al-Jazeera, whose symbol was painted on waste containers in Damascus. On the other hand, in other parts of Syria you can see graffiti depicting Bashar Assad with Hitler-like mustaches and the slogan “down with Bashar” and “FSA protects us”.
Beirut is also present as a leading graffiti city. Naim studies graffiti in Beirut before the Arab Spring and after. While the walls off Beirut before 2011 carried graffiti addressing different aspect of social struggle in Lebanon (the rights of sexual minorities, sectarianism) many Graffiti pieces addressed Arab political issues (supporting Gaza, al-Zaidi-Bush issue) and didn’t miss to make fun of the witless fatwa to kill Mickey Mouse. After 2011 Beirut walls carried pictures and slogans of support addressing the uprisings in Egypt, Syria and other parts of the Middle East.
The Book then captures shots of graffiti from Tunisia to Bahrain passing through Libya and it overthrown dictator.
The relationship of media and uprisings from one side and media and the public from another side is also addressed by graffiti artists. Naim studies these relationships in one of the last chapters of the book where he shows the street art used to criticize mainstream media and the public addiction to TV when it becomes part of the suppressing System.
“Graffiti of Uprisings” is a wonderful tour in the cities of the changing Middle East. It is also a historical document that will preserve the mood and art of the street in these crucial years.
It would have been more expressive to have the graffiti illustrations printed in full page colored pictures with some elements of detective search about the authors of these remarkable pieces of art. But I believe the book can be the first in a series of books to come in the following years documenting new tendencies in the art of graffiti in the cities “between the two blue seas” as Hani Naim loves to call the Arab World.