What happens when graffiti, an illegal art, becomes the strongest form of resistance in a country plagued by dictatorship, sloppy media, and an unfinished revolution? But, more importantly, what if this resistance art becomes the key tool for a message about women? How do we take an art form that was the voice for a revolution and use it to lead development and to become the alternative media for other issues?
The idea for WOW came began with Mia Gröndahl and was supposed to be a small project. What we ended up with was bigger than any of had imagined.
The story began with a Garage. In early March 2013, Gröndahl had decided she wanted to organize a launch for her book, Revolution Graffiti, in the street—the most appropriate environment for a book on graffiti. With some help from friends, we stumbled upon an old 80-yr old garage. In the first few moments of stepping into the old, dirty walls of this high ceilinged garage, both Mia and I knew that this would the PERFECT place for what we were scheming. A few days before the book signing/WOW launch, an army of young graffiti artists, from Luxor to Cairo, came in to help us repaint the garage and turn it into the only place in Egypt where artists came to do graffiti for fun and for a mission. There were no rules, they could paint whatever they wanted, and we helped them with the supplies. The event, The Garage Walls, Vol.1, became one of the most talked about events because of the beauty of the walls inside and the tremendous unity within the community to make the event successful. The uniqueness of the experience was the fluid model we created to allow for the very different approaches and techniques and characters of each of the artists to develop and grow. This is one of the first and, only, projects to have gathered this many artists on a national level, all dedicated to one issue, outside of music.
This was not an easy project, not only because of the amount of artists involved, but as well, both the internal complexities and working in the street. One of the biggest problems we had began when two of our key, and most prominent, artists left at the early start of the project and with little or no notice. They had not only been artists we had leaned on in consultations, but had also, taken on the responsibilities of two key cities: Alexandria and Luxor. But with a little bit of coordination, a lot of good will from others, and sheer will, others stepped in. The outcome? Beautiful murals were left in each city and, more importantly, meeting new artists that we had known before.
On the street, we were met with different responses: some loved the work in the street, some disliked it and reacted by ruining some of the murals, some supported the artists by praising them and donating money to them for materials, and some stood in the way and prevented artists from completing their murals. As one of the Alexandrian artists, Omar Badran, explained: “The collective consciousness of people in the street towards graffiti is a rather negative one. People are just displeased with graffiti, since to them it is directly associated to political graffiti/stenciling. People aren’t used to graffiti discussing socio-economic affairs… such as women rights and empowerment. They aren’t used to witnessing artistic pieces of art in the street, therefore our graffiti was rather new to them and that’s why they liked it. The feedback from people was extremely positive; we even had people offering us tea and coffee over the next few days while we worked.”
By the end of our project, we had discussed various women’s issues on the walls, including sexual harassment, the role of women in society, the strength of women in culture and violence against women. Female graffiti artists, who had previously been a minority (i.e. there was less than three that had gained prominence in the graffiti scene before this project), were now taking on lead roles in various cities, including in managing the projects on the ground. Each of the artists came in with different expectations and visions on how to deal with women’s empowerment, leading to the diversity in the art produced. As Fajr Soliman, one of the artists in the Mansoura team, explains: “About our expectations, for me as an artist I wanted to discuss and explore the topic of sexual harassment in my sketches, but after immersing ourselves with women in the community there, we found out that the primary preoccupation of women in Mansoura was directed towards money, financial security, their looks, etc. Women there have a rather shallow perception of themselves and their role in society. They seem to fail at acknowledging their worth. Therefore, we wanted to highlight that and we stenciled a quote saying “Women are not commodities.” I drew a cat because I noticed that usually on the street men harass women by calling them “cats”, and to me cats are a symbol of strength not the other way around, so I wanted to highlight that. Ghadir Wagdy [also from the Mansoura team] for instance, drew women with their tongues sticking out as a gesture of sheer objection and rebellion.”
And so here we are today: what began as small graffiti project has grown to become an experimental artistic platform for all kinds of artists to come together and produce an artistic collage in the street, using graffiti, film and music, to discuss women’s empowerment. Our closing event, The Garage Walls, Vol.2, found an overwhelmingly encouraging response, from the general public, not just towards the beauty of the garage, but, more importantly, the gallery of pictures highlighting the work in the various cities. In each city, artists created an imaginary world of possibilities to make us see that different ideas about how we saw the world were possible.