Citizen Maw by Ganzeer

Art as Political Expression

10/31/2014 . By Dr. Nancy Okail

Pablo Picasso once said, “If everyone would paint, political re-education would be unnecessary.”

Freedom of expression is one of the pillars of democracy – it takes on many forms and spreads on myriad platforms. Regrettably, artistic expression rarely receives the attention it deserves. The lack of in-depth political analysis of artistic expression is unfortunate, as art is one of the most powerful and accessible ways of shaping social consciousness. Unsurprisingly, its power to shape ideas is also why those who make outspoken, critical political statements through art often become the target of repressive campaigns by regimes that want to control the public.

Censoring is usually done in the name of so-called national security interests or as part of larger morality campaigns. Regimes try to monopolize artistic production by either coopting artists to the extent that they become the state’s mouthpieces and entertainers, or by limiting independent artists’ access to spaces for presentation or performance. Yet, art activists – or artivists, as they are called – do not wait for approval by the authorities or for access to mainstream platforms. Instead, they take to the street to protest in their own way – through art. They paint on walls, perform in metro stations, and sing or act in the streets.

In keeping with the mission of The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) to lift the voices of those who speak to our principles of freedom and democracy, we are proud to launch our Artivsim series. TIMEP’s Artivism series includes articles, interviews, multimedia, and events that bring attention to the intersection of art and politics. The series includes analyses of the history and future of political art and excerpts from interviews with Egyptian artivists Ganzeer, Sondos Shabayek, and Aly Talibab.

In his article “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Fate of Revolutionary Art in Egypt” Ahmed Naje addresses the issue of diminishing space for art – particularly revolutionary art, showing how the 2011 revolution opened the door for exponential growth in public arts and how soon after this door was closed.

Sultan Al-Qassemi provides an outlook on the trajectory of activist artists in Egypt and the region through a rich historical account in his article “Egypt’s Long History of Activist Artists.”

Prominent Egyptian artivists Ganzeer, Sondos Shabayek and Aly Talibab explore the dialectical relationship between democracy-building in the street and state control of public space. They have different views on the sources of oppression and the public’s views, but they share the vision of an independent art community and are united in a call for access to public spaces. The interviews are published in conjunction with Egyptian artist Ganzeer’s first-ever exhibition in Washington D.C., sponsored by TIMEP.