Arab Women and Street Art
By Aya Tarek (co-written by Sama Waly)
The book ‘Walls of Freedom’ documents the Egyptian Street Art explosion. Basma Hamdy and Don Karl AKA Stone have worked with many artists as Aya Tarek, capturing their art, their vision and their stories.
A few weeks ago, I receive a call asking me for an interview for a documentary film about street art in Egypt. Naturally, I ask the director what aspects she is planning to tackle in her film. She replies, “Graffiti and the Egyptian Revolution in Cairo.” I try to explain to her that my work is not at all political and that I do not work in Cairo but in Alexandria, my hometown. “It’s no problem,” she says. “We’re looking for any female street artist in Egypt, and you’re one of the only ones we found.”
This woman, like many other journalists and filmmakers who have recently been contacting me, has barely seen any of my work, and she does not seem inclined to. Just as long as I am an Arab Woman and a Street Artist, that is all that matters.
When I began my career back in 2008, street art was a distant dream, a ridiculed art form in Egypt. I had inherited my grandfather’s studio in downtown Alexandria, where I worked with my crew.
My grandfather was a graphic designer from the 1960s to the 1990s, and he specialized in cinema poster making. He left behind a run-down modern 1960’s studio space, located at the foot of a neo-classical building near the wood and paper markets in downtown Alexandria. The mid-century aesthetics, along with the modernist design and printing appliances that he left us to experiment with, are what initially influenced my artistic style. The studio, which officially became known as Art Establishment, was where our ideas and techniques were born, and the streets of Alexandria became our very own open gallery.
Working in public space had its own charm (although at times it could be quite challenging). Especially in areas where public art was not recognized, it took us time and effort to get the community to acknowledge the value of what we were doing to their precious walls.
The question of being a woman working on the street was at the time quite irrelevant; for us, gender was not an issue. We did not feel compelled to address the question of the oppression of women in Egypt, for to us and to the passersby, it was about aesthetics. It was about the value of the work: it was about art.
Nowadays, female artists constantly go through the trouble of trying to detach themselves from labels stuck upon them due to their gender. Similarly, 20th-century Egyptian (male and female) artists have also been the victims of critics’ pigeonholing due to their nationality. The label itself is not important, but it is rather the inevitable alienation of the artist once he or she becomes an ”object of study” that destroys the work. This becomes most apparent when the work itself is critiqued differently—when it is evaluated as “women’s” art, or “Egyptian” art rather than simply as Art—and when the conceptualization of the work stems from the initial boxing of the artist.
In 2009, director Ahmed Abdalla invited me to take part in his film Microphone. By that time I had worked on several murals around the streets of Alexandria. The film aimed to shed light on the Alexandrian cultural scene by featuring skateboarders (another growing scene in Egypt that was also born in Alexandria), musicians, and street artists, within a dramatic plotline. For the film I created a number of murals. I felt the responsibility to accurately exhibit the street art scene in Alexandria. I developed techniques especially for the film and challenged myself to create original representative pieces. The film was produced at the end of 2010 and was to premiere on January 25, 2011.
January 25, 2011: an unforgettable date. The beginning of the 18 days of protests that ended with the toppling of Hosni Mubarak and the rise of the graffiti trend in Egypt. It was a prosperous time for local and foreign media in the region.
Today, two years later, the trending news topics oscillate between the oppression of women and the rise of street art in Egypt, notably Cairo. To fuse the two together would be a double win for the media. Local and foreign journalists have been thriving on questions of gender, ranging from the rights of Arab women in the region, to sexual assault, to women’s mediocre achievements in the arts. Being a Woman Street Artist in this particular time and place means being put in the spotlight, being constantly bombarded with questions.
The media focus on Arab Women and Street Art is both tricky and problematic. It plays on the widely known fact that many Arab countries have a patriarchal society.
‘Arab Women and Street Art’ also suggests a very simplistic perspective on a much more complex subject, for it assumes that all Arab women have something in common: not just that they are women but that they are Arab women, and not just that they are Arab women but that they are Arab Women Street Artists. The phrase implies that all Arab Women Street Artists are similar. More important, it implies that their art is all the same, and that the rarity of their existence makes them a subject worth tackling.
In my situation, when I began working as a street artist it was not a male-dominated scene. In fact, there was practically no scene at all in Egypt. It was only after the 2011 uprisings that the graffiti scene began to boom and quickly became viewed as a male-dominated art form. The assumption that public space in Egypt is a man’s place is widespread and understandable, especially with the growing focus on—and politicization of—sexual harassment. The domination of men in the street, with their constant need to reassert their masculinity, alienates women from the public sphere and places them on a vulnerable pedestal. This is the problematic and troubling result of a male weakness, yet it is women who suffer the consequences.
This reality does not imply that all Arab Women Street Artists derive their inspiration from their gender, nor does it assume that Arab Women Artists cannot be critiqued just as their male counterparts are. In my case, it has always been about the work, about aesthetics, about creating beauty within chaos.
Aya Tarek is a painter, street artist, and co-founder of Kanschaft, who lives and works in Alexandra, Egypt. Her art explores the notion of urban communication. Aside of her conceptual approach, her vibrant, comical work transmits a sense of simplicity and controversy.
Through her site-specific murals, she investigates ideas about the surrounding public spaces. Tarek has participated in various exhibitions and events in Alexandria, Cairo, Sharjah, Manama, Beirut, Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt and Florence.
This comprehensive survey of iconic street art of the Egyptian revolution includes a chronicle of the day-to-day volatile political situation as it rapidly unfolded. ‘Walls of Freedom’ traces the revolutionary journey, from the early pinnacle of extraordinary hope and inspiration, to its decline into today’s violent Orwellian nightmare. Haunting images of key events captured by acclaimed photographers and activists set the stage for this political drama. Enriched with essays by artists and experts across many fields, Walls of Freedom contextualizes the graffiti in the historical, socio-political, and cultural backgrounds that have shaped this art of the revolution.
Curated and edited by Basma Hamdy, Don Karl and foreword by Ahdaf Soueif, Booker prize finalist, novelist, political and cultural commentator.