A Critical Perspective on the Art of the Revolution
Ursula Lindsay offers a critical, and thoughtful look at “Art in Egypt’s Revolutionary Square” in the latest issue of Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).
Interest in the art of the revolution has been considerable ever since the graffiti and performance art of the uprising during the 18 days. There’s a lot of interest currently in the forthcoming film The Noise of Cairo. But much of this description of art is uniformly enthusiastic.
Not so Lindsay. She begins:
Although the legal framework in Egypt has not changed (Emergency Law and laws against defaming religion, the army and the state remain in place), what Egyptians call the January 25 revolution has undoubtedly ushered in a new sense of freedom, as well as a determination to use public space to congregate and to connect, and to demonstrate support for the uprising through cultural activism.
She describes a number of varied art and artist, including:
- The monthly culture festival al-Fann Midan (Art Is a Square) put together by the Independent Artist’s Coalition
- The drama troupe Masrah al-Maqhurin (Theater of the Oppressed)
- Rapper Mezo teMraz of Revolution Records
- Poet ‘Abd al-Rahman Yusu, author of Yawmiyyat Thawrat al-Sabbar (Diary of the Revolution of the Patient).
- Poet Hasan Talab’s collection of verse, The Revolution’s Testament and Its Qur’an
- Poet Tamim Barghouti in his epic colloquial poem “O People of Egypt” (Ya Sha‘b Masr)
- The three-part documentary Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad and the Politician
- Tamantashar Yawm (18 Days), an amalgam of shorts by well-known young Egyptian directors
- Italian filmmaker Stefano Savona’s Tahrir: Liberation Square
- Four Days of Death in December by the Mosireen Collective
- Artist Mu‘tazz Nasr who created the one-eyed lion in April 2011 for the magazine Rawi
- The Tahrir Monologues, a fluid, unadorned enactment of personal stories from the bounteous 18 days by Sundus Shabayik.
While much of this work is arresting, even compelling, according to Lindsay, it is difficult for the artistic work to betruly reflective, to assess the revolution, because
the rapid pace of events — or, many would say, of reversals — has rendered it nearly impossible to fix a vantage point from which to consider developments. The Egyptian revolution is not yet a subject of art; it is an ongoing experience.
And while it is not politic to say so, the art is of uneven quality. Much of it is mediocre, following formulas already evolved withing weeks of the uprisings.
She quotes Negar Azimi, who writes about Egypt’s revolutionary art in ArtForum magazine: “A survey of titles of works from recent exhibitions in Cairo reveals the following: ‘Freedom,’ ‘Drink Freedom,’ ‘Shadow of Freedom,’ ‘People Demand,’ ‘Man Crying’ and so on. … This, it turns out, is the sort of revolution-kitsch the market seeks. To be blandly political is in vogue and to be apolitical risks flirting with philistinism.”
To which she adds:
For many Egyptian artists and writers, the revolution looms too large to ignore; yet it also seems to confound the imagination. The compulsion to comment on an event that overwhelmed the country’s political barriers and expectations, and whose final outcome is still uncertain, leads to trite, bombastic statement art that inevitably appears static and shortsighted amid the rush of history.