In the U.S., graffiti is often condemned as vandalism. But during the Arab Spring, artists say city walls were often the only places where they could talk back to tyrants.
Street art can be found across the Middle East and North Africa, and the Arab Spring protests inspired an artistic revolution. The "Creative Dissent" exhibit at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan is putting that art on display.
Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee spoke to guest curator Christiane Gruber, an Associate Professor of Islamic Art and Visual Culture at the University of Michigan, and Nazeer, an Egyptian street artist featured in the show.
Facing government brutality...with a smile
Nazeer: There were lots of people being shot by the Egyptian police. My good friend said, they built these walls, and they keep killing people. But we're so used to being killed here, it became something that doesn't strike a lot of people anymore. So it's something normal that we have to live with and it's part of the struggle. And he said, OK, we will be consistent and we will be happy about it, because the revolution will win in the end. So let's do a huge smiley face on the wall that they built.
Defying tyranny – and death – through art
Gruber: Creating satirical lampoons of [former Libyan dictator Moammar] Gadhafi had serious consequences. For example, Kais al-Hilali is a famous Libyan political cartoonist who created murals also in Bengazi. And he was gunned down and killed by pro-regime militias earlier on. We see that time and again, we see rappers and musicians killed. We see cartoonists whose hands have been broken. So being a street artist, like Nazeer, and being highly critical of the government will have consequence.
No law will stop them
Nazeer: We always hear about lots of laws being put in Egypt. For example, when they set curfews or something we don't really listen because that's how it is. We're working against them. When they issue a law, the Minister of Development says people will be in prison for four years and pay $100,000 in fines [for graffiti], we don't listen to something like that because we will continue doing what we do. And regardless of what they say we will continue to do the things that we feel like doing.
Finding humor despite the violence
Gruber: What I find really inspiring about all of this, and Nazeer described it through his happy face, is that even in the most violent of situations you see cultural entrepreneurs, you see artists, again and again using humor in their artwork. I see that the humor is a kind of release of tension. It's poking fun in a sense. It's a killer joke, if it's more malicious. But we see a lot of wit and satire being used to mock incumbent power and that shows to me the level of creativity and intelligence of the younger street artists that are out there practicing and putting themselves in harm's way.
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
Now we turn from art in the Midwest to art in the Middle East and North Africa. When the Arab world erupted in protest more than two years ago - it's now known as the Arab Spring - millions of photographs and videos captured the crowds, the chaos and the hope for viewers around the world. But another way that story was told closer to home was street art. A new exhibit called "Creative Dissent" is now putting that art on display, and it opens Friday at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Christiane Gruber is the exhibit's guest curator. She's also an associate professor of Islamic art and visual culture at the University of Michigan. She joins us now. Christiane, nice to have you with us.
CHRISTIANE GRUBER: Thanks for having me.
HEADLEE: And also with us is Nazeer, an artist who is featured in the show. And he's on the line with us from Cairo. Thanks for joining me, Nazeer.
NAZEER: Thank you for having me.
HEADLEE: Christiane, in the materials, the exhibit's described as the 21st century addition of creative dissent. What exactly does that mean?
GRUBER: In the description, what we're trying to get at is that, as an exhibition, it really breaks the mold because what we've tried to do is, in a sense, echo what happened on the streets. So we're bringing in graffiti. We're bringing in mural arts, photography, cartoons, songs, chants, blog postings, even puppetry. So we're really going multimedia, and that's a tribute to all of the different expressive media that we saw unleashed in the streets and online over the course of the past couple years.
HEADLEE: Nazeer, did the art help to spark dissent, or was the art inspired by dissent?
NAZEER: It was inspired from the revolution. We Egyptians consider that the revolution was for us to start hitting the streets and doing stuff on the streets. So it was - the birth of graffiti and street art came from the revolution itself. That's why most of the stuff we do here is inspired from the revolution.
HEADLEE: And one of the works you helped paint in Egypt was a giant smiley face on the wall of a government blockade. You know, I mean, we see smiley faces painted all over the United States, and it has no particular significance whatsoever. Why the smiley face? What was the significance of that?
NAZEER: On that day, there were lots of people being shot by the Egyptian police. And my good friend, Zeft - he's an anonymous graffiti artist - he said, they built these walls, and they keep killing people. But we're so being used to being killed here in Egypt that it became something that doesn't strike a lot of people anymore. So it's something normal that we have to live with, and it's part of the struggle. And he said, OK, we will be consistent, and we will be happy about it because the revolution will win at the end. So let's do a huge smiley face on the wall that they built.
HEADLEE: Christiane, I want to play you a comment from another street artist that's featured in the show. This 22-year-old Libyan Ibrahim Hamid, and he created cartoons of the now late dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Take a listen.
IBRAHIM HAMID: (Through translator) I draw because this is the only way I can express myself. I wanted to expose Gaddafi. I wanted people to see his reality. The shackles on the feet represent his oppression. The chain was also meant as a leash. You know, how you put a dog on a leash? This is how Gaddafi was treating us, like dogs.
HEADLEE: So, Christiane, in what way was the art, I guess, changed in response to these kinds of oppressions, I guess? Other forms of political expression - editorials, blogs, demonstrations - they were all cracked down on. To a certain extent, art became - street art, in fact, became one of the only ways to express dissent.
GRUBER: To me, what's interesting in this case with Ibrahim Hamid is that he literally is unleashed, and he's allowed to express himself the way he wants to. And so he painted quite a few images in Benghazi mocking Gaddafi. And that is particularly important in Libya and in other cases, in fact, because creating such satirical lampoons of Gaddafi had serious consequences - for example, Kais al-Hilali a famous Libyan political cartoonist who created murals also in Benghazi. And he was gunned down and killed by pro-regime militias earlier on, and we see that time and again. We see rappers and musicians killed. We see cartoonists whose hands have been broken. And so being a street artist, like Nazeer, in the streets and being highly critical of the government will have consequence.
HEADLEE: Well, Nazeer, are you still creating street art?
NAZEER: Yes. We're actually working on a new mural. It's right next to Mohamed Mahmoud Street. The idea came from Ammar Abu Bakr, and he decided to do something that is equivalent to the mural of Mohamed Mahmoud that he created over a year and a half ago.
HEADLEE: And yet, this week, the Egyptian government is considering a law that would ban some kinds of graffiti. Artists could end up spending four years in prison for creating some types of street art. Does that worry you?
NAZEER: We always hear about lots of laws being put in Egypt. And even when they, for example, they set curfews or something, we don't really listen to it because that's how it is. We're working against them. So when they issue a law, Adel Labib, the Major General and the minister of development, he said people will be imprisoned for four years and pay 100,000 fines. We don't listen to something like that because we will continue doing what we do. And regardless of what they say, we will continue to do the things that we feel like doing.
HEADLEE: Christiane, I know a lot of Americans don't have the best grasp of geography in the Middle East. They may not really understand how large an area we're talking about when we talk about North Africa and the Middle East. But we are talking about thousands and thousands of miles and very, very different cultures. But I wonder, when you're looking at this, when you were curating this exhibit, what kind of similarities do you see between the art, say, made in Libya and in Egypt or in other places that were involved in the Arab Spring?
GRUBER: There are many similarities across these geographies and cultures, even though we see that the opposition movements may take on different constituencies, whether we're talking about youth movements or labor movements or sectarianism popping up a different areas from Libya to Bahrain. But what I try to do is pull out some common themes that I saw emerging time and again. And some of the themes include the use of street photography because we see sort of rough-and-tumble photographs used, taken by cell phone or by digital cameras, that are then disseminated through alternative medias because of course in many of these places, state-sponsored media is terribly censored.
So photographs are front and center as evidence over battles over the truth, and I think then, the truth and realities established through photographic means time and again. And then photographs and other events on the ground prompt and catalyze other forms of expression including murals. And across the board, the murals serve almost like entombments. They commemorate martyrs. They tell stories. They sound claims, and in a very basic sense, if you go to a wall like Nazeer and you do a painting or a graffiti, you're claiming presence. And in a sense, you're gaining power for yourself when you might be muted or perhaps incarcerated. And then, last but not least, what I find really inspiring about all of this - and Nazeer described it through his happy face - is that even in the most violent of situations, you see cultural entrepreneurs, you see artists, again and again using humor in their artwork.
I see that the humor is a kind of release of tension or it's a poking fun. In a sense, it's a killer joke if it's more malicious. But we see a lot of wit and a lot of satire being used to mock incumbent powers. And that shows to me that the level of creativity and really intelligence of the younger street artists that are out there practicing and putting themselves in harm's way.
HEADLEE: Nazeer, I wonder what you feel when you create a piece of street art and you put so much passion and effort into it, knowing that it won't last.
NAZEER: Something on the street, you don't pay money. For example, you don't have a canvas to put in a museum or something. It's something that belongs to the street, and it's part of a struggle. And some people don't like the kind of messages we put on the wall. So we do expect that these things won't last, and it's not only the government that removes it. Lots of times, normal people, they look at the message, and they find it maybe offending, maybe against what they believe in. It's something shocking for them, so they just remove it. But for us, we feel that it's part of the process. And it's normal to happen because this wall is not ours.
HEADLEE: That's Nazeer, an Egyptian street artist. He joined us from Cairo. Also, spoke with Christiane Gruber, guest curated the "Creative Dissent" exhibit at the Arab American National Museum. It opens Friday. She's also an associate professor at the University of Michigan and joined us from Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor. Thanks so much to both of you.
NAZEER: Thank you.
GRUBER: Thank you.
HEADLEE: Tomorrow, Michel Martin is going to talk with you from St. Louis Public Radio. And if you want to share your thoughts on what St. Louis means to you, you can send us a tweet. Just follow us. The handle is @TELLMEMORENPR. And then use the hashtag #TMMStLouis. And that is our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.