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The use of faces in Egyptian Graffiti

Psycho-social aspects and change of identity as post-revolutionary phenomenon[1]

Abstract

After the 2011 Revolution in Egypt it has been easy to observe the intensive use of graffiti spreading with a particular characteristics:  the use of faces in Graffiti. The faces are protesting images. The art styles are many, and the techniques are variable from drawing, painting, decoupage, and stencil. The stencil sprayed around the cities of Egypt form a mass production of graffiti that is done by anyone. This phenomenon has raised through a social and psychological background related to the revolution event, which is referring to a new identity for the Egyptians.

1. The Egyptian Revolution and the “face”-graffiti

After the 2011 Revolution in Egypt it has been easy to observe the use of graffiti spreading out in the core areas of protest to support the people’s dissatisfaction as probably happens in any place of political “unhappiness”. But differently, a massive use of facial designs can be observed (Hyldig, 2013; Assaf S. et al., 2011), which continue the virtual demonstration against the political instability, either by showing martyrs (common persons who died under unlike situations) or common persons supported by keywords or simple representations of a scene (Wikipedia, 2014). [Fig.1, 2]

In the modern age with the spread of electronic media and social networks, the possibilities for common citizens to express their ideas and widespread them by reaching hundreds and thousands of others has changed completely. At the same time these people promote ideas and ideologies, they also promote themselves as persons. An anticipating media for this “self-promotion” is probably the wall graffiti as one of the arts belonging to Mural Paintings.[2]

Many of the interested researches refer this art to the first human civilization thousands of years ago, with similar meanings like expression of ideas and self-promoting by scratching or painting on the walls of caves and rocks. Since then, in all the eras people used graffiti to express themselves and their emotions (Unesco 2014; Gansser, 1995).

Different to other mural paintings, the graffiti moves into what is known by “street art” showing its core aim at the end of the sixties, and glowing with the Youth Revolution in France in 1968 as a tool to criticize the authority, and to self express (Rafferty, 2014; Shanks, 2008; BPS, 2014; Gallagher, 2010).

In a more direct way, it appears in the USA where it expressed the refuse of violence in the communities of dark skin people in the USA through art.[3]

Before the so called “Arab Spring”, there were few graffiti in Egypt, made by stencil and referring to social behaviors. Lately, a main shift happened with the 25th January Revolution in 2011 that attracted political groups and citizens to express their opinions on urban walls. [Fig.4]

The ongoing research of the Helwan University in Cairo, Faculty of Applied Arts, led by Prof. Dr. Reham Mohsen, and conducted by the postgraduate student Hend Yousef, works out the massive use of faces in comparison to graffiti of other places in the world, while defining general features characterizing the Egyptian graffiti. Inside these characterizing elements, an intensive use of faces can be observed which surely left a psychological effect on the population.

There are different ways of writing on walls: some are traditional, others use stencils that are cut out of drawings or elaborated photographs. Using these stencils for the political protest and message, the message rises to a different kind of diffusion and massification, executed not any more only by artists but by anybody. [Fig. 3]

The phenomenon of using portraits of common people of Egypt in the graffiti around the country is showing a sign of change in the structure of identity of Egyptian people, that might be going through a deep change. All started with the accuse of killing an ordinary Egyptian person for no reason during a peaceful demonstration turned outrage the community of youth in the country. They have already been suffering from many other issues by the government including poverty, lack of job opportunities, no health care, and others. The situation has raised worse when the government made order to the hospitals and death departments not to give a certificate for the victim declaring the true reason of death as “killed” but to indicate “suicide” or “car accident” (El-Aref, 2011).

From then the use of portraits of ordinary people who were killed represents a call for the human rights that are totally missed. Furthermore, it relates the whole population to the events, “facing” literally the protested politics and forces which led the country in these last 36 months. The population got an identity, a “face” which communicates and protests silently.

The idea of the ongoing research is also to focus on different ways of communication like facebook and their relation to political protest, as shown through graffiti: it might be a coincidence of the term “face” that there has been the phenomenon of Facebook which led most events of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, and the large use of faces in the streets as manifest for human rights and as a perspective of a new Egypt.

2. The making of the “face”-graffiti (from an artistic point of view)

The characteristic of the portraits spread in the Egyptian graffiti is mainly about a silhouette, or a simplified form of the portrait in one or two colors, that is derived and edited from photography.  [Fig.1, 3]

This last is easily available because of the wide spread photography on the Facebook representing common people demonstrating: any running activity today is supported by a digital documentation either done by demonstrators themselves or professional photographers by using any kind of professional, semi-professional, and ordinary mobile cameras. All these photographs give a wide range for the graphic artists to choose the photo that fits onto the simple form that can be used to produce “face” graffiti of the person.

The portrait is then cut into a paper or any surface material, resulting into a quick made stencil set. And then, this stencil is used to spray the image on the walls, fences, even cars. The result today is that the walls of Cairo and other big cities in Egypt are full of graffiti that turned after all simple ordinary people into public celebrities. [Fig. 5]

They have become a symbol, each figure of the graffiti portrait is a symbol of felt injustice, a symbol of killing ordinary people, a symbol of all the suffering. They represent the anger, and recall not to forget the dead.

The colors used are primary colors mainly, like black, red, sometimes yellow, blue and grey. The color found less is green, which can easily be related to the meaning of green standing as the color for peace. [Fig. 11, 12]

The elaboration of the shapes of portrait varies more, starting from the simple high contrast of a photograph (used for the stencils) [Fig. 4, 5, 15], going through an illustrated lines and colors of the portrait (used by brush and paints of artists) [Fig. 11, 12], and ending with a painted portrait with more details [fig. 6], or lately, printed paper cut precisely and glued on the wall. [Fig. 13, 14]

3. Who are they?

About the expressions of the faces, we can classify few types:

The first type is the very shocking photograph shot of the face or head of a dead person, that became famous in the media and went then into a graffiti: the most famous is Khaled Saeed, yet killed before the revolution. [Fig. 11]

The second type we find in Egyptian graffiti is the good looking photograph of a killed person that was taken long time before his death. Usually smiling, and perhaps taken from the personal Facebook profile picture, it stands for the memory of the dead person and for initiating an inner blame to every observer, like in the case of Emad Effat [fig. 9, 10]. This kind of graffiti was mainly used by the football groups “Ultras” sprayed on larger scales in one color without any text around. [Fig. 3]

A third type can be seen in the caricatured faces which represent mainly political figures like the former president Mubarak and the former defence minister Tantawy, together in a famous graffiti painting putting both figures in one face, each one of them is one half. It simply represents the semantic way of “two sides of the same coin”. [Fig. 7, 8]

The spread of the face graffiti turned into a phenomenon, artistic and social. In addition, the use of the stencil to produce portrait graffiti turns the graffiti into a mass production process. The artist role can end up with the graphic effect edited from the photograph to form a simplified portrait. Then any one can pick up the thread of the process by printing the portrait, cutting the stencil, and spraying around. In the end hundreds and thousands of copies of a portrait turn an ordinary person into a public figure. Definitely, this is raising the story of this person and how he or she was killed into the mind of the people, up to bringing the portrait graffiti into a symbol. Now Egypt has famous names of ordinary people Emad Effat, Mina Daniel, and Jika, or Khaled Saeed (Bradley, 2010), and Saied Belal. Also these persons are famous by having paid with their life the wish of a different Egypt, getting killed while standing for their rights in a clearly witnessed peaceful way.

Right after February 2011, the photographs of the killed young people in the first revolution were used as stickers in the streets, on cars, or anywhere else. By evolving of the political situation, the production of these stickers were not anymore allowed, so that the face graffiti by stencil was the fastest and easiest way to produce these temporal memorials.

4. The situation today

Through the last three years the use of faces in graffiti experienced changes in many directions. While originally used for memorizing, in the year 2012 some portraits of famous political characters were spread, mainly at the time of voting to elections. In the last year 2013 portraits with no features started to appear: a face with no eyes, no lips, no nose [Fig. 13]. And some other figures represented in shrouds “white winding-sheet” used to prepare dead people for coffins, but in these shrouds we can find accompanying angel wings on the sides, and furthermore, the faces had nor details either they have been removed.

Later in 2013 a new symbol showed up after the 30 June revolution. This sign is a symbol for a massive human slaughter in the area of “Rabaa” in Cairo. The sign, black on yellow ground, is a simply hand with four erected fingers and the fifth finger turned in, symbolizing the number four, as the same name of the location “Rabaa” means: “forth”.

Showing single faces in order to represent the events has now no effect anymore by the number of killed persons. Therefore a collective sign has risen to conclude the whole tragedy of the events. While faces still stand for their anonymous protest, the sign of Rabaa is now forbidden!

Perhaps limited to the time after the Revolution of 2011, the face graffiti has signed a new way of protesting and communicating the anger of a whole population. Indeed, every day the graffiti in Egypt is showing a new creative style or idea, finding new ways of expressions, as the protests are still going on.

References

Assaf S. et al. (2011). The Road to Tahrir: Front Line Images by Six Young Egyptian Photographers. Cairo: AUC Press. pp. 8-9, 115.

Bradley, M. (June 14, 2010). Anger of the streets of Cairo. The National. Available on: http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/anger-on-the-streets-of-cairo [March 2014].

Bureau of Public Secret (BPS). (2014). Graffiti de Mai 1968. Available on: http://www.bopsecrets.org [January 2014].

El-Aref, N. (2011). The death of innocence. Available on: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg [January 2014].

Gallagher, R. (2010). A Situation for Revolt: A Study of the Situationist International’s Influence on French Students During the Revolt of 1968. Thesis for History, University of Albany. Available on: http://www.albany.edu/gallagher.thesis.doc

Gansser, A. (1995). Hands: Prehistoric Visiting cards? Vlg. Dr. C. Müller-Straten. pp. 8.

Gröndahl, M. (2013). Revolution Graffiti: Street Art of the New Egypt. American University Cairo Press.

Hyldig Dal, M. (edited by). (2013). Cairo: Images of transition: Perspectives on Visuality in Egypt, 2011-2013. Bielefeld (Germany): Transcript-Verlag. pp. 265-274.

Mohsen, R. (2007). Process of Visual Perception and Cognition in the Human Mind and its Reflection on 2D Design. Paper Presentation during Conference Design Hot Topics of the Third Millennium, Human Factors in Design. Cairo (Egypt): Helwan University.

Rafferty, P. (2014). The Street Art/Graffiti of Youth: Questioning “the Normalizing Influence of Tradition. Department of Elementary Education – University of Alberta. pp. 3. Available on: https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/pandp/article/download/15151/11972 [January 2014].

Shanks, M. (2008). Drive the cop out of your head. Available in: http://www.mercatornet.com/ [January 2014].

Sicklinger, A. (2013). Notes on Optical Illusions around Tahrir: The no Walls Project. In Mikala Hyldig Dal (edited by), Cairo – Perspectives on Visuality in Egypt 2011 – 2013 (pp. 240-243). Columbia University Press.

Unesco. (2014). Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain. Available on: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/310 [January 15, 2014]

Wikipedia (2014). Egyptian Arts post 2011 Revolution. Available on: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contemporary_Art_in_Egypt#Egyptian_Arts_post_2011_Revolution [January 15, 2014].

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Extracted, re-edited and completed from the plan of the thesis by Hend Yousif, led by the team of supervisors; Dr.Reham Mohsen,  Dr.Akmal Abdelrahman. Faculty Applied Arts, Helwan University, Prof.Andreas Sicklinger, German University in Cairo.
  2. Video document: http://english.ahram.org.eg/~/NewsContentMulti/7673/Multimedia.aspx [March 28, 2014].
  3. See for example the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Michel_Basquiat
About the author(s):

Prof. Andreas Sicklinger
Faculty of Applied Sciences and Arts
German University in Cairo, Egypt

sicklinger.andreas@guc.edu.eg

Egyptian Designer and Artist, Associate Professor at the Helwan
University in Cairo, specialized in semantics.

dr.reham.mohsen@gmail.com

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