Egypt’s January 25, 2011 revolution brought millions of Egyptians onto the streets for the first time in their lives. These citizens not only contributed their bodies as a show of popular will in the demonstrations, but many contributed their unique talents as public goods: doctors acted as street medics, journalists reported on the events, lawyers provided counsel. An artist mainly showing in galleries before the revolution, Ganzeer remembers January 25 as a defining moment; passing through Tahrir Square with a can of spray paint, he was compelled to create a work intended for the people in the Square:
“I was just passing through and thought, ’I have to do something right now.’”
As a crowd of millions cried out “Down with Mubarak!” Ganzeer hoisted himself onto a billboard in the middle of it all, writing the words in irrefutable white paint. Seeing the physical echo of their united voice, the crowd erupted in cheers.
Since this day, Ganzeer has not given up his studio work, but has expanded his media to include some of the murals he is best known for, bringing his art into the street in a way that he says allows him to more quickly react to events and connect with a larger population. He says he is “not an author, comic book artist, installation artist, painter, speaker, street artist, or videographer, though he has assumed these roles in a number of places around the world.”
While Ganzeer’s art is not uniquely Egyptian and he often tackles global themes, he is best known for a body of work that, in many ways, has illustrated the Egyptian struggle for freedom and social justice. His murals, prints, installations, and other work tackle issues of state violence, corruption, sexuality, political repression, and resistance.
However, life as a critical artist in Egypt has not been easy. In this interview with TIMEP, Ganzeer—who moved to New York City earlier this year—explores the constraints he has faced in a country that has seen a clear stifling of expression, a reassertion of state control over public space, and an enduring culture of civil censorship since the hopeful days of early 2011.
The Right to the Commons
The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP): Can we begin by exploring the notion of the right to the commons? Who has the right to public space? Is it the people who are present in it? Urban architect Nezzar al-Sayyad recently explained that, in Egypt, for so long public space was the property of the state, that even something as simple as a sidewalk—the most basic and fundamental people’s space where people can just walk or stand and simply be present—is not a feature of public space. Unless it is for a completely utilitarian purpose, space is under state control.
Ganzeer: Or, of large companies. For example, it’s totally normal for a coconut water company to put up all these ads in a subway to tell you to buy their coconut water, but then if an artist comes to do a piece of artwork there it’s completely illegal.
Even in my neighborhood, there are all these billboards. No one asked me if I wanted to see that billboard every day as I go to work or every time I look out my window in the morning. They did not get my permission even though it is within my living environment.
But then they would be agitated if I, living in my neighborhood, decide to make a piece of art in that neighborhood, even with the consent of others living there. That’s still illegal.
TIMEP: You would have to go or get permission or be commissioned…
Ganzeer: Yeah, and it’s ridiculous, because to commission an artist, you pay the commission, you pay the production costs, and then finally, if someone else comes and vandalizes it, you pay to paint over it.
So it actually costs a lot of money to commission an art piece. And yet if I, as a volunteer, want to paint in my own neighborhood without costing the state a penny, the state also does not want that. For only one reason: the state wants to regulate public opinion itself. It is not cool for anyone to go ahead and say what they want in public space, whenever they want. This is the case in any state.
Art and Threat
TIMEP: For you as an artist, were you feeling more and more threatened to perform your own acts of resistance before you left Egypt?
Ganzeer: Yeah but I guess as street artists we’re less obvious targets. We’re not affiliated with any NGOs, we’re not registered journalists, we’re not employed by anyone in particular, we’re not part of any political or opposition party, we’re just a bunch of people who do our own thing without any associations with any groups whatsoever.
As street artists, I think we’re less targeted than others who might be affiliated, but at the same time, it’s not like it’s an entirely safe thing either; you know you take risky actions, and it’s been risky since the first day. Maybe now it’s only far riskier because it’s very obvious that the police have been given carte blanche to take any means necessary to ensure security—or, at least Sisi’s security—and so that means there’s more of an inclination from their side to keep an eye out for street artists more strictly than before, or slap accusations or crimes on them that may not be true. So, there’s a higher risk level in that sense.
TIMEP: The language of the penal code, and the way that it’s been applied, is that any act critical of the state is construed as terrorism. The Ministry of Interior social media pages show kids—15 to 18 years old—apprehended with spray paint and labeled them publicly as terrorists.
I’m interested to hear in your own words: what is so threatening about the work that you do as artists?
Ganzeer: I mean, honestly, I would want politicians, rather than see it as a threat, see it as a genuine source of information, and try to understand that this makes very obvious and very clear what public grievances are. I would like to see [state officials] use this information to adjust their policies to make things better for the public. But…they don’t want to make things better for the public, they just want the public to shut up and obey.
But, I don’t think it should be seen as a threat, in my opinion.
TIMEP: At your discussion at the Interference Archive you mentioned the changing nature of censorship: you mentioned that at first the efforts were to just to spray paint haphazardly at the most recognizable parts of your pieces, but that this has evolved into more of a whitewashing. Can you discuss this a bit? When did you notice this started to change? Do you think it was a conscious change?
Ganzeer: I think so, I think the new government is doing a bad job in trying to adopt the Western approach to dealing with public grievances, like drafting a law where people would be required to get a permit to organize a protest or criminalizing graffiti for reasons of vandalism. Now, obviously, both of these laws are in place in Western countries and in Egypt, with little to do with the safety of the public. They actually have to do with stifling public opinion. But one could argue that Western countries are better at building the pretense, whereas in Egypt the reasons are very obvious.
TIMEP: It’s hard to justify the government wanting to keep public spaces clean, for instance, when there is so little investment into developing the public spaces to begin…
Ganzeer: And then there is also the issue of who has the right to determine what is clean and what is not—what about the population that actually lives in certain areas? One can even accuse Western countries of being authoritarian about this.
TIMEP: One issue that you’ve discussed that of civil censorship. So then, if what is threatening to the state is that grievances are being brought forward very visibly, what is threatening to the public?
Ganzeer: Someone had this quote that said something like the most successful regime is that which let its people do the work for it. A big part of the strategy of the Egyptian government is disseminating propaganda and controlling the media to get people to act on its behalf. I don’t think it is that the public genuinely thinks of it as threatening…
Honestly, if people put the same effort that they put into ganging up on you and beating you up, or cussing at you when they see you painting something that is touchy, if they put the same energy into things that will actually really affect them, like telling their neighbors not to throw trash out the window, then our lives would actually really be better. But the state makes them focus on issues that are not actually a threat to them, and it makes them believe that they are.
TIMEP: You’ve also said that ultimately that even a negative reaction is an accomplishment.
Ganzeer: I mean the worst thing for any artist, whether you’re doing work on the street or not, is making something that gets no reaction whatsoever. The fact that you are getting any response, whether negative or positive, means you are doing something.
TIMEP: Is any of your work still up around Cairo?
Ganzeer: I think some of it. A couple pieces.
TIMEP: Do you feel hopeful at all that things will be getting better?
Ganzeer: Yeah of course. I’m only fearful of things getting violent. People have been doing this peaceful thing for a while, pretty much asking the government nicely to change. And they have been met only by bullets and their kids and neighbors and friends dying. So, I only fear the backlash of this violence from the population side. It’s already been violent from one side since day one, so now it might become something else, and that would be very bad.
I have a lot of faith in ridicule. If you go out with Molotov cocktails and guns, they know how to deal with it. They will make a task force, or whatever. If you go out with ridicule, they don’t really know how to deal with that. Ridicule, humor, is so powerful. All of these guys, they’re like, 60 years old. I’m 32; I’m not the youngest person in the country. People are young; they’re not going to give up any time soon. Even if [a president’s] reign lasts 20, 30 years, you know what? People won’t remember him by his election campaign; they’re going to remember him by what everyone has to say about him.
At the end of the day, the people will have the upper hand.
Ganzeer is the pseudonym of an Egyptian artist operating mainly between graphic design and contemporary art since 2007. He is not an author, comic book artist, installation artist, painter, speaker, street artist, or videographer, though he has assumed these roles in a number of places around the world. His art has been shown in Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Germany, Jordan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, and the United States, as well as in myriad Cairo galleries.