Yazan Halwani, Ali Abdallah.

Protest and poetry: recent graffiti from the Arab world

Whether to express oneself or communicate and unite others, the impulse to write a public message reveals one of the quintessential traits of graffiti. In countries where voices go unheard and communities stand united against governmental regimes, it becomes a powerful instrument of expression and a tool in the fight for freedom and justice. Recently across the Arab Nation, graffiti has become the voice for many unrepresented by political leaders, and a trademark of revolt. From ongoing struggles and recent conflicts to a poetic script celebrated for its beauty across the world, graffiti from the Arab world has evolved in a number of poignant ways.

In Palestine, graffiti has been prevalent throughout a conflict lasting generations. Despite attempts made by both Israeli forces and Palestinian political factions to control graffiti, it has been a valued form of public communication for decades and is often community-organised and painted by trained calligraphers. Employed widely for religious and political means as well as marking celebrations, it depicts a range of imagery from holy sites and names of martyrs to cartoon characters and elaborate murals.[1] On a major scale, the towering concrete barrier walls marking Palestinian/Israeli divisions have become another canvas for the expression of Palestinians and their supporters. In December 2007 a handful of some of the most famous street artists in the world descended upon Palestine for the ‘Santa's Ghetto’ project, taking the opportunity to create pieces that would reach a global audience and bring the plight of the Palestinians back into the world media. Subsequently the wall became a destination for international artists and supporters, as well as a place for youth to express themselves through their own graffiti in a world forum. For the locals the wall remains an inescapable part of their environment and a constant reminder of their situation, inciting a range of passionate responses. Some residents mimic and contribute to the pieces by visiting artists while others remain opposed to any interaction with the wall that may give cause to its existence. Meanwhile the heavily guarded Israeli sides of the wall remain inaccessible and bare. Author of Against the Wall, William Parry describes the wall as “an enormous visual petition, an ephemeral forum, a pictorial rant and reprimand, calling for resistance, justice, freedom and solidarity, and a plea for understanding and humanity.”[2] Such manifestations, in the space of one of the most contested political sites in modern times, are compelling indications of the capacity of graffiti.

Yazan Halwani

Since December 2010 the Arab Spring uprisings have dramatically affected further parts of the region, seeing people take to the streets for demonstrations and painting their messages on the way. In a number of countries graffiti has become the signature public sign of these events. Syria has proven to be one of the most volatile and sustained conflicts, and also home to an act of graffiti that marked a poignant moment in recent history. In March 2011, 15 schoolchildren were arrested in Daraa, southern Syria, for writing anti-government statements on school walls. This event was a catalyst, at least in part responsible, for causing two and a half years of bloody, violent clashes. Critical graffiti by this stage had become so common in Syria that an ID was required to buy spray cans, but the children’s suppressive treatment after painting their messages, which included “the people want to topple the regime”, sparked outrage and calls for revolution throughout Syria.[3] An uprising that has truly taken place in the streets, images in the worldwide media have continued to depict the graffiti-laden walls of Syria. These have been written in both English and Arabic, featuring “free syria” slogans as well as waves of torment towards Basher Al-Assad. From 14 to 21 April 2012, a number of activists organised Freedom Graffiti Week, where people from Syria and across the Arab world were encouraged to take up spray cans and paint their messages. This was partly in response to “A violent week of graffiti”, similarly organised by protestors in Egypt, the difference in the name signalling a heavy-handed response was expected from authorities.[4]

In the very early days of the uprising in Egypt, anti-government words and images began to appear on the streets and even on tanks in Cairo. Tahrir Square was the centre of the uprising since it began in January 2011, and the square became a platform for waves of graffiti. As a valued means of protest, the square was painted with text and images, many calling for the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, while still representing various religious and political beliefs. These were intended as a peaceful and sophisticated means of protest, lasting long after gatherings had dissipated. When government authorities placed concrete blocks to try to control the protestors, a campaign bearing the slogan “No Wall” became widespread. The square has now become a gallery of the revolution. Huge wall paintings, great in number, can be found in the surrounding neighbourhoods, in underground railway stations, and across the city. As an organised and conscious part of the uprising, large graffiti groups, often based in social media, have formed so that elaborate works can be produced in the public sphere. Initially motivated by the protests, these continued after the main events (still as an illegal activity), celebrating the revolution and expressing new possibilities for civil liberty.

eL Seed

During 15 years of civil war in Lebanon (1975-1990) graffiti was prominent and served as a highly visible political tool. Stencils in Beirut carried the symbols of political parties and marked territories and divisions of loyalty around the city, as well as expressing concerns and opinions that would never have been spoken. After three years of crisis between government forces and the Hezbollah-backed opposition, agreements were finally met in 2008 and political leaders ordered the removal of political signs from the streets of Beirut. This, along with a new interest in hip-hop culture, caused a new wave of graffiti that finally became more artistic and expressive.[5] Yazan Halwani has been painting murals in Beirut since the age of 14, and now combines calligraphy and portraits on a massive yet detailed scale. Similarly Ali Rafei combines both Arabic and images on the streets of Tripoli and Beirut, while the twin brothers of Ashekman are established rappers/graffiti artists and have a clothing line, all imbued with social and political messages expressed in Arabic. As people have been forced to flee Syria and Egypt, the walls in Lebanon have also been found with paintings and messages that continue the active graffiti campaigns of these neighbouring countries, expressing concerns across borders.[6] However censorship has increased on the streets of Beirut also, with works found blacked out and replaced with pro-political messages.

As walls throughout the Arab world bear messages and images in the language of Arabic, the script has carried across into styles beyond its original home. For centuries the written word has been considered the highest form of art in Arab culture and featured heavily in architecture; now graffiti artists around the world are also beginning to embrace the script in their painting. With a diaspora most visible in France, the script has begun forming a vibrant part of world graffiti, as the poetry and beauty of Arabic, a pertinent part of many cultures, has come to inspire ornate and unique styles.

eL Seed

Several artists have developed signature styles of calligraphic graffiti, a number connecting their own cultural backgrounds with established graffiti practices, seeing influences flow both ways. These include French-born eL Seed, a graffiti writer since 1998, who was compelled to learn calligraphy in 2004 and now paints in Arabic across the world including in Arab countries. In part to explore his own Tunisian background, he stopped tagging his name, instead attending to the traditional use of Arabic to express proverbs and convey the unifying aspect it represents.[7] Similary L’Atlas was already a graffiti artist in France before studying calligraphy in Morocco, Egypt and Syria. His recognisable style combines the Kufic form of Arabic with an encoded Latin alphabet, resulting in a heavy block-like style of solid lines, punctuated with squares and breaks to form text.[8] The English-born artist Mohammed Ali (aka Aerosol Arabic), became interested in graffiti in the 80s, however it was much later that he became drawn to the faith of Islam and sought to combine the strength and poetry of Arabic with the accessibility of graffiti. An outspoken figure on the power of art and multiculturalism, he was invited to speak for TedX at the Vatican and his works are featured in cities across the world, combining traditional motifs and poetry with contemporary messages. Connecting cultures and communities, in 2008 Ali collaborated with Crooked Rib, a collective of young Muslim women in Melbourne to create a mural for the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

While protests may dissipate and situations change, the power of graffiti perseveres, expressing voices that may otherwise not be heard. While being a powerful local tool, it can also have far-reaching influence, both politically and artistically, offering new possibilities for contemporary graffiti culture.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Pascal Zoghbi and Don Karl aka Stone, Arabic Graffiti, From Here to Fame, Berlin, 2011, p65-9.
  2. ^ William Parry, Against the Wall: The Art of Resistance in Palestine, Laurence Hill Books, Chicago, 2011, p10.
  3. ^ Joe Stirling, Daraa: The spark that lit the Syrian flame, in CNN, 1.03.2013 edition.cnn.com/2012/03/01/world/meast/syria-crisis-beginnings/index.html
  4. ^ France 24, Syrian activists fight Assad regime with spray paint and stencils, 17.04.2012, http://observers.france24.com/content/20120417-syria-activists-fight-assad-regime-spray-paint-stencils-graffiti-art-peaceful-protest-arab-world
  5. ^ Tala F. Saleh, ‘Marking Beirut’, in Zoghbi and Karl, op cit, p81-5.
  6. ^ See Pascal Zoghbi, 29LT, http://29letters.wordpress.com/2012/05/16/censored-revolutionary-graffiti/
  7. ^ See eL Seed blog, http://elseedart.wordpress.com/about/
  8. ^ Ibid., p133.

Tarun Nagesh, Assistant Curator of Asian Art at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

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