53Transcultural Studies 2016.2
Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and
the Egyptian Arab Spring
Saphinaz-Amal Naguib, University of Oslo
“…with a box of colours costing three pounds, you draw an
idea, you paint a revolution…”1
The wave of uprisings that swept over the Middle East and North Africa from
December 2010 to early 2013, known as the “Arab Spring,” was what Aleida
Assmann denes as an “impact event” (Assmann 2015, 44–46). I consider it a
kairos, a eeting opportune moment where time and action meet and fates may
be changed. It was a promising moment, in which governments were toppled
and hopes for changes were high. Not only did the Arab Spring leave its imprint
on political and social life in the countries concerned, but it also marked
a change in various forms of artistic expression (Hamamsy and Soliman 2013b,
12–13; 2013c, 252–254; Jondot 2013). Street art, grafti, and calligrafti are
perhaps the most striking forms of art from this short period. Artists used to
record and comment on events and developments in the political situation.
They drew upon their people’s cultural memory to impart their messages and
express dissent, civil disobedience, and resistance by combining images and
scripts. Poetry and political songs that previously had mostly been known to
underground groups and intellectual elites were widely circulated. Verses from
the Tunisian poet Abul Qasim al Shabbi (1909–1934) and the Egyptian poets
Fouad Negm (1929–2013) and Abdel Rahman al-Abnudi (1938–2015) were
used as slogans and chanted all over the region (Nicoarea 2015; Sanders IV
and Visonà 2012; Wahdan 2014). Famous quotes from national political and
cultural gures were also used, among them Mustafa Kamel’s (1874–1908)
“If I weren’t already an Egyptian, I would want to be one” (lau lam akun
miryan la aradtu an akna miryan); Saad Zaghloul’s (1859–1927) “It’s
useless” (mafsh fayda); President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s statement that “the
people are the leader and the teacher” (al shaʽb huwa al qaʾid wal muʽallim);
and the song “Patience Has Its Limits” (lil sabr hudd), by the famous singer
1 Facebook page Grafti in Egypt, posted 8. April 2015. …‘albat alwān bi talata guinih tirsim
kra wa tirsim thawra…. The transliteration from Arabic follows the guidelines given by The Library
of Congress AIA-LC Romanization Tables, http://loc.gov/catdir/cpso/romanization/arabic.pdf
[Accessed on 5. August 2016].
54 Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Arab Spring
Umm Kulthum (1904–1975). These slogans were visualised and written on
buildings in many cities and circulated worldwide thanks to a plethora of
Internet platforms and social media.
The term “street art,” also referred to as “urban art” and “the art of the
subaltern and of political protest,” is used in this essay more generically to
encompass various forms of visual arts created in public spaces, grafti and
calligrafti among them (Abdulaziz 2015; Arnoldi 2015; Zoghbi and Karl
2012). Before the events of January 2011 in Egypt, they were most often found
in contained settings and used mainly for advertising purposes (gure 1), or, as
the murals on the walls of houses in Luxor and Nubia show, to narrate the hajj,
or pilgrimage to Mecca (Dawson 2003; Naguib 2011; Parker and Neal 2009).
In Egypt, street art has its well-known and established artists and writers. Most
have a formal education from state-funded academies of ne arts, universities,
or university colleges. Many are members of artists’ associations. There are
also autodidact artists who try to make a name for themselves in the streets,
and others who choose to remain anonymous. The novelty of the period that
concerns us here is the obvious invasion of the public space, the political and
social engagement, the deant satire and critique of the regime that emanates
Fig. 1: Advertising a chicken farm in Fayoum, 1976. Fayoum.
55Transcultural Studies 2016.2
from the creations on the walls of urban spaces. Much has been written about
the street art and grafti of the “Egyptian Revolution” during the last ve
years; books like Revolution Grafti: Street Art of the New Egypt and Walls
of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution (Gröndahl 2012; Hamdy
and Karl 2014), and scholarly and journalistic articles have documented and
analysed the unexpected blossoming of this kind of art, its forms, and contents.
I will not review all these publications in the limited space of this essay.
Sufce it to say that they mostly point to the novelty of the movement and
its immediate political and social repercussions. My own approach is situated
within cultural history; I address questions of material culture, memory, and
heritage studies in the contemporary Middle East, and more specically,
Egypt (Buchli and Lucas 2001; Gonzales 2008, 2014; Naguib and Rogan
2011; Naguib 2015; Olsen 2003; 2010; Tilley 2006).
I consider the ways an intangible oral heritage of popular sayings and poetry
is very briey transformed into concrete, powerful, politically laden images
on the walls of urban public spaces and and how this heritage reects on the
afterlives of these images. I ask whether, in time, the same images that have
been erased from the walls and now circulate on various Internet platforms
will be included as part of the intangible heritage of Egypt. To do this, I
concentrate on the materiality of visual art and the translation of political
contestation into street art, grafti, and calligrafti in Egypt. I delve into the
ways slogans were visualised, drawn, and inscribed on the walls of the urban
space in Cairo and then disseminated on various Internet platforms and social
media between January 2011 and June 2015. In my use of the term, materiality
refers to the “thingness” of things (Olsen 2003), the physical properties of
street art, grafti, and calligrafti. Materiality is a medium through which the
meanings and affective relationships with people unfold (Ingold 2007, 9–14;
Olsen 2003; 2010; Naguib and Rogan 2011; Tilley 2006, 61; 2007). As for
translation, it is, according to Peter Burke, a social practice with a focus on
context, and as such relates primarily to cultural contacts and exchanges (Burke
2009, 56–58). Moreover, translation indicates an intersemiotic perspective
that entails adaptations and connections between various kinds and forms of
cultural expressions, and conveys the interplay between texts, images, and
contexts from the vantage point of intermediality (Colla 2012). In studying
the rebellious street art of the Arab Spring in Egypt, using translation as an
analytic approach offers a means of “shaping the space of protest,” according
to Mona Baker, from a variety of theoretical perspectives and elds of research
(Baker 2016b, 2).
Taking my lead from Mikhail Bakhtin’s concepts of chronotope, where time
and space merge, and of dialogism, where different forms of communication
56 Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Arab Spring
echo each other in what could be described as “grafti of anger,” I rst
discuss the relevance of translation as an analytical approach when dealing
with pictorial source material like street art, grafti, and calligrafti (Bakhtin
1981). I then go on to offer a general outline of street art and grafti and probe
its sudden outburst in the urban landscape of Egypt. I limit my analysis to the
visualization of four slogans that, in my view, sum up different moments and
moods of the uprisings during the period from January 2011 to December
2013.2 These moments move from hope and calls for change in governance,
social and political structures, to a loud, accusatory cry of protest, to distrust,
and nally to disenchantment. In the last section of this essay, I reect on the
afterlife of the street art, grafti, and calligrafti of the Arab Spring, or rather,
Egyptian Spring, and their potential transformation into mnemotopoi: sites
of collective memory that gradually become part of the intangible cultural
heritage of Egypt’s recent past.
Translation, transculturality, and the medium
Translation is not conned to linguistic and literary studies. It has become one
of those blurred nomadic concepts or travelling concepts that move between
disciplines and scholars, and change value and connotations during their
peregrinations. The dynamics of movement provide fruitful grounds for inter-
and cross-disciplinary study and foster innovation and academic renewal (Bal
2002; Darbelley 2012; Stenghers 1987). At its core, translation combines the
ideas of transfer and mediation. It relates to a contextual process of decoding
and recoding. It is an act of creation that denotes a search for equivalence rather
than sameness. In his seminal essay, On Linguistic Aspects of Translation,
Roman Jakobson distinguished three main types of linguistic translation.
The rst is an intralingual translation based on rewording. The second is an
interlingual translation, or translation proper, between different languages.
The third type of translation is the intersemiotic type, or transmutation.
It rests on the interpretation of the message that is being conveyed and
various approaches for studying multimedial and multimodal transfers.
Thus, translation between different forms of communication may be seen in
terms of intermedial relationships between words, images, music, and dance
(Jakobson  2000, 2). Eugene Nida rened Jakobson’s classication and
proposed four complementary perspectives to the study of translation (Nida
1991). These are the philological perspective, the linguistic perspective,
2 During this period, President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign on February 11, 2011, and
was replaced by an interim government led by a military ofcer, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein
Tantawi. The elections of June 30, 2012, placed Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, at the
head of the government. After a year in power, he was ousted on July 3, 2013, and another military
ofcer, General Abdel Fattah el Sissi, took over as president.
57Transcultural Studies 2016.2
and—more relevant for the study of street art, grafti, and calligrafti—
the communicative and sociosemiotic perspectives. As the collections of
articles gathered in Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir
(Mehrez 2012) and Translating Dissent: Voices from and with the Egyptian
Revolution (Baker 2016a) demonstrate, the sociosemiotic perspectives allow
for interdisciplinary approaches and a greater attention to the interaction
between texts, various cultural and artistic expressions, and their contexts.
For street art, grafti, and calligrafti artists during Egypt’s Arab Spring,
translation signied a transposition of ideas, hopes, and political activism into
images and writings. The process sheds light on what Mona Baker describes
as “the dynamics and complexities of a whole range of translational practices
in protest movements” (Baker 2016b, 3), and relies on the intentionality of
the artists and their agency. Seen from this vantage point, translation entails
interpretation, creative transposition from one mode of expression to another
and communication with a broad and diverse audience. It rests on nding the
appropriate locations, choosing the surfaces on which artists will produce their
works, and deciding on the genre, style, shape, and colours of their creations.
But translation does not stop here. It forms a dialogic space, a contact zone
that opens onto the different paths that the reception of the pieces produced
and their dissemination generates; that is, onto their resonance among people
and how their echoes linger in the mind.
A major attribute of translation is going beyond national and cultural
boundaries and providing fruitful grounds for transcultural inspiration and
borrowings. Fernando Ortiz coined the term “transculturation” to explicate
“different phases of the process of transition from one culture to another” (Ortiz
 1995, 102–103). Thus, “transculturation,” and afliated terms such as
“transcultural” and “transculturality” entail the convergence and mixing of
various cultural inuences. The term implies a measure of cross-fertilization
and choice in what to adopt and what to reject. Applied to street art and grafti,
the notion of transculturality denotes alternative ways of perceiving and seeing
hybridity and the mixing of cultural elements that were separate (Mirzoeff
1999, 131). It draws attention to the wide-ranging sources of inspiration that
are incorporated into local practices and usages. During the Egyptian Spring,
street art and grafti were important media in the artists’ aim of visualising
transculturality, which became apparent for example in the combination of
different languages and scripts, such as Arabic and Arabizi, or Arabic for the
Internet, English and its Latin alphabet, and, in some cases, ancient Egyptian
hieroglyphs (Abo Bakr 2012). The texts written in Arabizi and English, or
combining the two, were clearly intended for an international audience. Many
of the recurrent symbols and motifs that covered the walls of cities during the
Egyptian Spring are familiar to global audiences. Among them we nd, for
58 Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Arab Spring
instance, Marwan Shahin’s adaptation of Guy Fawkes’s mask as Anonymous
wearing the nemes headdress of the pharaohs in Ancient Egypt (gure 2),
the encircled A, meaning anarchy, and the acronym ACAB (“all cops are
bastards”) (Powell 2013). Other, more elaborate pieces are, for example, a
group production picturing the gure of Joker from Batman as a puppeteer
wearing a military cap and holding the strings of puppets representing central
political gures (gure 3), a card displaying president Mohamed Morsi as the
queen of clubs,3 and artist Amr Nazeer’s Joke posters portraying President
Abdel Fattah el Sissi in the style of Shepard Fairey’s Obama (gure 4)
Street art, grafti, and calligrafti
Street art and grafti are rapidly developing arts on the international scene. In
Western countries, they are tied to hip hop culture, often with underlying social
and political messages. As mentioned above, these forms were also practiced
in the Middle East before the Arab Spring, but within accepted political
frameworks. In Egypt, they were used for advertising purposes or to decorate
the outer walls of dwellings with scenes inspired by the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The terms “street art” and “grafti” are frequently used interchangeably.
s1600/2.jpg; http://venitism.blogspot.no/2014/08/grafti-artists.html [Accessed on 7. May 2015].
Fig. 2: Marwan Shahin, Guy Fawkes mask
Anonymous wearing the nemes headdress of
pharaohs in Ancient Egypt, 2013. Cairo.
Fig. 4: Amr Nazeer, Joke, 2013.
59Transcultural Studies 2016.2
However, the majority of Egyptian artists I interviewed considered themselves
street artists, resorting to grafti and calligrafti as one of their many modes
of expression and techniques. Accordingly, they consider street art, which is
also referred to as “urban art,” the art of the subaltern, political protest, and
one of their many modes of expression and techniques. Grafti includes a
great variety of genres and styles and mixes several graphic genres such as
calligraphy, poster art, and graphic novels (Genin 2013, 22–32). The word
“grafti” combines the notion of writing derived from the Greek, graphein, to
write, and that of incising, from the Italian sgrafare, to scratch. The term is
used in art history and archaeology to designate inscriptions and drawings that
have been added to a cave, monument, statue, or painting. Grafti has existed
since the most ancient times and several sites and monuments dating from
prehistory, pharaonic Egypt, Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire show the
passage of time through the names, words, phrases, and drawings people have
inscribed on them while visiting. Today, grafti range from simple words,
the artist’s signature or tag, or short phrases to elaborate wall paintings or
pieces. The term “calligrafti” was coined by the Dutch grafti artist Niels
Shoe Meulman and denotes the combination of traditional calligraphy, with its
strict rules and methods, with the nonconformity and openness of grafti and
Fig. 3: Mad Grafti Week (Facebook group), Joker as a puppeteer, 2012. Cairo.
60 Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Arab Spring
its use of varied methods, mediums, and tools (Wikipedia, s.v. “Niels Shoe
Meulman”; Wikipedia, s.v. “Calligrafti”; Yoo 2010).
In his study of street art and grafti in Western Europe and the USA, Christophe
Genin gives it two sources. One is a European practice of contestation that
began in the 1950s among artists with formal academic backgrounds and
training in visual arts. Some other practitioners were non-professionals with
anarchist or communist views (Genin 2013, 118–122). The other source,
according to Genin, sprung from the civil rights movement at the end of the
1960s among North-American autodidact artists. The early 1980s witnessed
a boom of new forms of street art and grafti in different parts of the world,
including the Middle East (Zoghbi and Karl 2012).
Generally speaking, street art, and thus grafti, is a multi-sited, interactive,
and ephemeral kind of art. Walls in the urban space are its favoured surfaces.
Common methods and techniques of street art today are stencil and spray-can
art, writings, stencils, wheat pasted posters or sticker art, murals, mosaic,
street installations, paint lighting, and knitting. In Egypt, street artists favour
stencils, murals, and posters. Intentionality and performance are central
characteristics of street art. Artists appropriate the public space to convey
their messages and the streets become their exhibition space. In this way, they
communicate directly with a large and diverse public free from the restrictions
imposed by the formal world of art and governmental censorship, especially in
totalitarian regimes where freedom of expression is strictly limited. Artists in
these countries frequently resort to parody and satire as a means to circumvent
censorship and, at the same time, share their ideas and political standpoints.
Performance, spectacle, and the carnavalesque as a form of political activism
were salient elements of the “Egyptian Spring” (Mehrez 2012; Hamamsy and
Soliman 2013c, 250–257). Mona Abaza posits that the satire and irony voiced
in the grafti and murals that ourished on the streets of Cairo after January
2011 were indeed persuasive vehicles of resistance (Abaza 2013; 2016, 324).
The written texts often show great attention to the graphic properties of the
letters and a quest for aesthetics rather than legibility. Calligraphy has a unique
place in all Islamic visual arts. As the language of the Qur’an, the Arabic
writing acquired a special status and developed a variety of styles.4 However,
4 Arabic script comprises of two major stylistic groups. The rst group is the angular kuc that
is used on monuments and that branched into plain kuc and ornamental kuc. The second group
consists of cursive scripts. The classical tradition counts six major styles of cursive scripts. The most
used are the common naskhi or “copy-hand,” the nastaliq, which is originally Persian and prevails in
Iran and South Asia, and the hieratical thuluth. The latter is used mainly for ornamental purposes on
monuments and for Qur’anic inscriptions.
61Transcultural Studies 2016.2
the many political and socio-cultural changes that took place in the Middle East
and North Africa during the twentieth century did have enduring repercussions
on the visual arts. Art education followed Western patterns and criteria, and
several artists from the region were inuenced by trends in modern Western art.
One of the consequences of this shift in focus is that the Arabic script somehow
lost its aura of sacredness and calligraphy was demoted from the status of art to
that of traditional craft (Shabout 2007, 70–71). The situation began to change
with the independence movements of the 1950s. During the decolonization
processes in the region and later in the 1970s and 1980s, artists searching for
their roots and identity rediscovered the Arabic script and calligraphy. They
used them in new ways, not only as a symbol of authenticity, identity, and
nationalism, but as a novel genre of Arab/Islamic modern art.5 Calligraphic
modernism, to use Iftikhar Dadi’s expression, leans towards abstraction and
emphasizes the forms of the script as well as the textual content. Furthermore,
modern typography and graphic arts have prompted contemporary artists,
including grafti artists, from the Middle East and North Africa to explore a
kind of freeform calligraphy, by mixing different types of scripts and mediums
and to experiment with the array of options offered by calligrafti (Zoghbi and
Karl 2012, 15–31).
Genin lists a number of features common to street art in general, and hence, to
grafti and calligrafti (Genin 2013, 123–125). A major characteristic, according
to him, is repetition. The same motif is reproduced, often with small variations
and by different people, on different backgrounds. In Egypt, texts and images
were written, painted, re-written, re-painted, and combined with other texts and
pictographs so as to craft new texts and new tableaux that echoed each other.
Visualizing political protest entails the use of visual topoi and codifying images
in such a way that they acquire symbolic properties. In time, the recurrent
image becomes, in Lina Khatib’s words, a “oating image.” A oating image
is according to her “a strong image”; one of those images that have “the ability
to originate, to multiply, and to distribute themselves” (Khatib 2013, 11–12).
Thus, oating images are copied over and over, each time with alterations here
and there to adapt them to changing contexts. Meaning is thereby continuously
renewed and actualized. The very repetitiveness of the motifs and themes
depicted contributes to the transmission and retention of the message. It helps
inscribe it more and more deeply in the political discourse of dissent and in the
minds of those at the receiving end. It is not a matter of plagiarism, but rather of
relaying and broadcasting protest. The thousand Nos of Bahia Shehab, and the
series The One Who Delegates Does Not Die, by Omar Fathy, aka Picasso, were
such oating images during the Egyptian Spring.
5 Master calligrapher and artist Samir Sayegh underlined this point in his paper, Arabic Calligraphy
and Revival, Granshan conference, The American University in Cairo, 28 October 2016. See also:
Dadi 2010, 560–571; Naguib 2015, 69–74.
62 Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Arab Spring
The second common feature of street art and grafti is, in Genin’s view, that
they are simultaneously in situ and ex situ. They may be produced on a solid
wall or a movable surface, like the trucks and tuk tuks in South Asia and
the Middle East. They are exible, many-layered, and not contained within
the limits of a frame. Rather, they are art forms that ow over borderlines
and often glide from one context to another. A third aspect of street art and
grafti in general is their ruggedness. Usually, the surface on which the pieces
are created is not prepared or smoothed, and this gives the image an uneven
texture. Additionally, there is a sense of saturation tied to street art and grafti,
which is due to the fact that after some time, the surface is completely covered
with other images, scribblings, and tags, giving a feeling of disruption and
unruliness to the whole. A fth shared characteristic of street art and grafti,
growing from the former, is loudness; Genin calls it parasitage, in the sense of
“interference,” as is found in radio transmissions. Here, the noise is produced
by colours, motifs, additions, and scripts that criss-cross each other and disturb
the “clarity” of the picture, many emphasizing the impression of chaos that
emanates from them. In Egypt, the wall of The American University in Cairo,
along Mohamed Mahmoud Street, offered a salient example of saturation and
loudness in street art.
Ephemerality is another common attribute of street art and grafti. The
reasons for this impermanence are many. It may be due to damage caused by
people passing, or by weather and erosion. The pieces often hold subversive,
provocative, even abusive messages, prompting the building’s owners or
the local authorities to whitewash the walls at regular intervals. Thus walls
bearing murals, drawings, and texts of all kinds act as palimpsests. They
present superposed layers of writings and images that shine through the next
covering layer and, hence, are never completely wiped out. Ephemerality in art
has its appeal. Rafael Schacter observes that several artists he interviewed in
London considered the destruction of their works as a condition of the process
of creating “for the moment, for the experience, for the freedom.”6 Instead of
erasing the artists’ works, the removal may actually emancipate them (Schacter
2008, 46). Likewise, a number of Egyptian street art and grafti artists, such
as Ammar Abo Bakr and Bahia Shehab, believe that things, even works of
art, have their lifespan and are not meant to last forever.7 Nevertheless, the
pictures and messages continue to linger in people’s minds long after they
have disappeared from public space, and thus they accentuate, in my view, the
long-term resonance of the message imparted. The murals are interconnected
“ephemeral interventions,” initiated by activist artists and then reproduced
6 Italics in the original.
7 Personal communication.
63Transcultural Studies 2016.2
and disseminated through different media. The ephemerality of street art and
grafti is thus neutralised by new channels that, according to Jeff Ferrell,
“elongate” in time and space the experience of creating street art and grafti,
and offer new kinds of aesthetic durability (Ferrell 2016, xxxiv–xxxv). As
Kevin D. Murphy and Sally O’Driscoll argue, ephemeral interventions occur
in specic moments, in contexts of politically engaged art practices, and they
do have a lasting impact (Murphy and O’Driscoll 2015, 330).
Digital photography is increasingly used to document the various artists’
creations and the public’s responses. The pictures are published on the Internet
and circulated on social media. The World Wide Web has become a global,
interactive, virtual art gallery. Exhibited online the material properties of the
pieces have taken on a more immaterial quality (Carle and Huguet 2015). In
an interview with Louisiana Channel, Bahia Shehab says:
Our work gets erased very quickly on the street. That’s why TV
and the Internet are very useful tools—you can communicate
your messages in the digital sphere. That’s the game-changer
now. The government can resist you, it can try to hide what you
try to communicate, but it’s a completely different ballgame now
(Louisiana Channel 2014).
The aesthetic and economic values of street art, grafti, and calligrafti are
highly disputed. In most countries, scribbling or painting on private or public
property without the consent of the owner(s) is considered defacement, an
act of vandalism, and thus a crime. Nevertheless, some pieces have become
subject to protection and some measures for their preservation are being
tried out. In Egypt, for instance, there have been calls to save the murals
that the artist Alaa Awad created on the walls of The American University in
Cairo, but to no avail. The pieces were largely inspired by the tombs of New
Kingdom nobles on the west bank of Luxor (Hamdy and Karl 2014, 136–137;
Abaza 2016; Untitled 2013). A way of keeping street art from obliteration
is to make smaller copies and exhibit them in conventional art galleries.
Internationally renowned artists like Banksy sell posters reproducing their
murals, printed on canvas, through the internet.8 The transfer from the
walls in open urban spaces to the interior walls of homes and ofces not
only changes the texture and size of the pieces, but also their signicance.
From being accessible to all, they become private commodities and lose
their ephemerality. The copy might not be imbued with the same aura as
the original, but it keeps it from being forgotten. The afterlife of street art,
grafti, and calligrafti from the Egyptian uprisings is still uncertain. A few
8 One can buy them on Amazon.com.
64 Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Arab Spring
photographic exhibitions, such as the recent Fighting Walls: Street Art in
Egypt and Iran, are being arranged (Seymour 2016). There is, however, no
way of knowing at this point whether pictures of some of the pieces from
the Egyptian Spring have been downloaded, printed and framed to adorn the
walls of private homes and ofces, and what kind of connotations and value
they have acquired in the process.
As remarked above, the meaning of these artworks is tied to their
emplacement. The public space where street art, grafti, and calligrafti
are created may acquire an emblematic status in future cultural memory.
During the Arab Spring, the streets became the space of civic and cultural
manifestations. In Cairo, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, off the famous Tahrir
Square, witnessed some of the most violent clashes with police and army
forces during the uprisings of 2011. Thus, the place has acquired political
meaning, and through their creations on the walls of The American University
along this street and the adjacent ones, the artists have imbued them with an
atmosphere of mutiny.
Unzipping the lips and freeing the words
The rst moment of the Arab Spring entailed what I would describe as
“unzipping the lips and liberating the words” (gure 5). A general sense
of unexpectedness and familiarity permeated the street art, grafti, and
calligrafti of the Arab Spring. Reecting on the spread of grafti in Tunisia,
Sarra Grira underlines their unforeseen dynamics (Grira 2013). In her view,
three central elements contribute to the impression of unexpectedness. The
rst is the sudden re-appropriation of the public space. This is followed
by the unforeseen engagement of artists, who, seeing themselves as the
guardians of history, record and analyse events on the walls of their cities.
The third element is political and ideological. Artists address socio-political
issues and their murals and grafti question the legitimacy of regimes,
governments, and political parties. They get responses from the onlookers,
many of whom draw or write in their own comments. According to Charles
Tripp, reclaiming public space with grafti is an act of deance against
authorities that want to assert their own unchallenged control of
such spaces, forcing those who challenge that control to risk paying
with their lives or with their freedom. The messages conveyed
by the writings on the walls, by the images and symbols, signal
alternative sources of authority, disrespect for established power
and, implicitly, its loss of control (Tripp 2013, 307).
65Transcultural Studies 2016.2
As mentioned earlier, the Arab Spring witnessed a surge of poems, songs, and
slogans that, with small variations in wording, were chanted in the streets and
inscribed on the walls of various cities across the whole region. Egypt was
no exception, and slogans were not only heard but also translated visually
on the walls of towns and cities. Elliott Colla points out that slogans are not
literary texts, but rather, part of a performance, and as such belong to what
he calls a repertoire of “contentious performance” that are all expressions of
ephemeral interventions (Colla 2012). The slogans heard in the streets and
represented on the walls during the demonstrations in Cairo between 2011
and 2013 drew on a wealth of texts that were anchored in people’s cultural
memory. They had a strong emotional resonance, that is, a power to evoke
images, memories, emotions, and meanings. According to Aleida Assmann,
the notion of resonance implies “the interaction between two separate
entities, one located in the foreground, one in the background” (Assmann
2015, 45). The elements in the foreground, or the present, are connected
to those in the background that make up cultural memory, and that, at an
opportune moment, are reactivated. In Egypt, the use of the vernacular form
of Arabic sprinkled with coarse language and references to central cultural
and political gures from the past such as Mustafa Kamel, Saad Zaghloul and
Gamal Abdel Nasser, emphasized the dimension of shared experiences that
fashions cultural memory.
Fig. 5: Freedom Painters, 2011. Nasr City, Cairo.
66 Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Arab Spring
I will now present the various moments of the uprisings in Egypt through some
of the most widely used slogans and popular sayings and explicate how they
have, in my view, been visualized in compelling images. Apart from the works
of Bahia Shehab and Omar Fathy, who are explicit about the message they
convey, the equivalence, or rather, the translation made between the slogans
and the images is based on my own interpretation of the murals and grafti I
have selected. The artists who produced them might have chosen other texts
to explicate their pieces.
The rst slogan, al shaʽb yurd isqāt al niẓām (the people want the fall of
the regime), was heard in the early days of the uprisings. The slogan derives
from the opening lines of the poem The Will to Life (idha al shaʽb yauman
arād al hayāt), by the Tunisian poet Abul Qasim al Shabbi (1909–1934). The
slogan afrms the people’s desire for change. It was rst heard in rallies in the
streets of Tunisia and from there it travelled to Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain,
and Yemen. One of the most powerful visual translations of this slogan,
is the chessboard by an Egyptian street artist who uses the pseudonym el-
Teneen, which means “the dragon” in Arabic. The chessboard shows all the
pawns, representing the people, on one side of the board facing the line of
dignitaries. The king is toppled. The pawns are all black and the squares on
which they stand are red and white; the red probably symbolizes the blood that
has been spilled during the demonstrations (gure 6).The immediacy of this
piece derives not from narrating the development of events, but distilling the
demands of the people in a very direct way.
The second moment of the revolution is one of sharp protest and a roar: NO.
Bahia Shehab’s project, A Thousand Times No: The Visual History of Lam-alif
(laʽ waʾalf laʽ), denotes a preguration of that moment. The project resulted in
a 3m x 7m installation exhibited at the Haus der Kunst in Munich in September
2010, that is, in a time of gestation before the Arab Spring really took off.
Shehab’s project traces the history and different scripts of the Arabic letterform
Lam-Alif (pronounced laʽ, and meaning “no” in Arabic), and repeats it in a
thousand different forms to illustrate the common Arabic expression for total
refusal: “No, and a thousand no!” Shehab is an artist and art historian who
developed the graphic design program at The American University in Cairo in
2011. She explains the idea behind her installation as follows:
When you want to deny all of the stereotypes that are imposed on
you and that try to dene your role in the world. When you want to
reject almost every aspect of your reality. When you want to decline
every political reality you live under. When you want to dismiss
all of the options available to you. When you want to negate all
the accusations that go hand in hand with your identity. When you
67Transcultural Studies 2016.2
want to refuse to be an imitator or follower of the West, yet you also
refuse the regressive interpretation of your heritage. ‘A thousand
Nos’ are not enough. (Goethe Institute, n.d.).
According to Shehab, the installation thus represents a rejection of both the
conformity and the repression that often stie the Arabic speaking region and
Islamic cultures. The events that followed the uprisings in Egypt prompted
Shehab to record the memory of these days by taking her Nos to the streets
of Cairo, in the form of a series of calligrafti placed in different locations
of the city (Shehab 2014a). She added two new pieces. One visualizes Pablo
Neruda’s famous quote, “you may crush the owers, but you cannot delay the
spring,” translated into Arabic.9 The other recalls the incident of the veiled
“blue bra girl” who was stripped and beaten by the police on December 18,
2011 (Soueif 2011). In their new context of open urban space, the calligrafti
Nos reiterate, in the words of the artist, “no to military rule,” “no to a new
pharaoh,” “no to emergency law,” “no to stripping the people,” “no to
blinding heroes,” “no to burning books,” “no to violence,” “no to stealing the
revolution,” “no to barriers and walls” (Shehab 2012; Khalil 2014) (gures
7, 8, 9).The third moment of the Arab Spring in Egypt is one of distrust, of
9 Yumkinak tadhass el ward, lakina la tastali’ an tu’akhir al rabʽ; the original quote: “Podrán
cortar todas las ores, pero no podrán detener la primavera.”
Fig. 6: el-Teneen, The king is down, 2011. Cairo.
68 Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Arab Spring
Fig. 7: Bahia Shehab, No, and a Thousand Times No, 2011. Cairo. Calligrafti.
Fig. 8: Bahia Shehab, You May Crush the Flowers, But You Cannot Delay the Spring (verse
by poet Pablo Neruda), 2011. Cairo. Calligrafti.
69Transcultural Studies 2016.2
a creeping feeling that “the more things change the more they stay the same.”
The sense of wariness is conveyed by the recurrence of the popular saying ill
kallif mā mātsh, meaning “the one who delegates does not die,” and visualized
in a series of murals by the artist Omar Fathy, also known as Picasso. The rst
murals created after President Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11, 2011,
showed the slightly superposed half faces of the president and Field Marshal
Mohamed Tantawi, who was then leading the interim government. At the top
of the scene, a white hand holds a red pencil, and beside it, a text asserts that
“the revolution goes on” (al thawra mustamira). Beneath that is the logo of
the “Association of the artists of the revolution” (rābita fanān al thawra). The
popular saying in question is written at the bottom. The letters are painted in red,
yellow for the negative form mā, and green for kallif (to delegate). The lam (l)
in the word is shaped like the joined necks of Mubarak and Tantawi (gure 10).
Other pieces in the same spirit but with additional text show the same half faces
of Mubarak and Tantawi joined by the neck. Behind them, we see Amr Moussa,
the secretary of the Arab League at the time, and Ahmed Shak, who was prime
minister from January 29 to March 3, 2011. The inscription, in red and black on
the left side of the mural, reads, “I will not trust you and you will not rule over
me one more day” (mā hadika amān, walla tuhkumn ym kamān) (Grafti at
Fig. 9: Bahia Shehab, The Blue Bra. On top: “No to stripping the
people.” The sole of the military boot reads: “Long live a peaceful
revolution,” 2011. Cairo. Calligrafti.
70 Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Arab Spring
Muhammad Mahmoud Street, n.d.). The next pieces in the series depict the half
faces of Mubarak and Tantawi, still joined at the neck in the foreground. Slightly to
the back is the elected President, Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood,
almost in full face. The word lissa, meaning “still,” coloured in brown, is added a
bit higher up on the right side of the mural. Thus, the meaning is “still, the one who
delegates doesn’t die” (Grafti outside the presidential palace 2012). Another mural
portrays the artist, seen from the back, nishing a mural representing Mubarak and
Tantawi, joined at the neck, and Mohamed Badie, who was then the supreme guide
of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the background. The word bard, or “nevertheless,”
painted in yellow, precedes the slogan written beneath the portraits. On the right,
we see a police ofcer with fangs instead of teeth, brandishing a club at the artist
and holding a shield in his left hand. Six men, with Mubarak’s features, wearing
the uniforms of the security police, are standing under the portraits. The ones at
either end of the row are holding shields; the one on the left has a skull decorating
his shield, while the one on the right holds a baton. Each of the remaining four
men bears a letter on his chest. Together the letters form the acronym ACAB (All
Cops Are Bastards). The ground on which they stand is covered with red paint,
indicating that blood has been shed during the demonstrations. Beneath the scene,
a poem in vernacular Egyptian Arabic, written in grey letters, tells the beholder:
Oh! Regime you are afraid of the brush and the pen, you oppress and
step on those who have been abused.
Fig. 10: Omar Fathy aka Picasso, Illi Kalif Ma Matsh (The one who delegates doesn’t die),
(rst version), 2012. Cairo.
71Transcultural Studies 2016.2
If you were doing right, you would not be afraid of what has been
You are only able to wage war against the walls, play the strong man
against lines and colours.
But inside you are a coward, you’ll never build up what has been
destroyed.10 (gure 11).
The last piece in the series shows the half faces of Mubarak and Tantawi
joined at the neck: Morsi appears slightly in the background and behind him,
the silhouette of a face, painted black with a big white question mark in its
middle, wears a military beret (gure 12). Above, the inscription on the right
says “Down with all those who betray” (yisqut kul man khān), and above the
10 Yā niẓām khayif min fursha wa qalam/wa ẓalamt wa bitdus ‘ll itẓalam/law kunt māsh l salm/
mā kunt khuft mill itrassam/akhrak tuhārib al hitān/titshatar ‘ll khutt wil alwān/ lakin inta min
guwāk gabān/ʽumrak mā tibn ill ithadam. Hamdy and Karl 2014, 186.
Fig. 11: Omar Fathy aka Picasso, Illi Kalif Ma Matsh (The one who delegates doesn’t
die), with the poem “Oh! regime you are afraid of the brush and the pen,” 2012. Cairo.
72 Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Arab Spring
Fig. 12: Omar Fathy aka Picasso, Illi Kalif Ma Matsh (The one who delegates doesn’t die),
(last version), 2013. Ittihadiya Palace wall, Cairo.
Fig. 13: Saad Zaghloul, “It’s useless, sons of bitches,” 2012. Cairo.
73Transcultural Studies 2016.2
portraits we read “Mubarak, the military, the brotherhood” (Mubarak, ‘askar,
ikhwān). Here, the artist implies that the military had actually always been in
power in Egypt and announces their visible takeover.
Disenchantment with the results of the uprisings continued to grow. In June
2012, a group of artists expressed their feelings with a mural showing a highly
respected gure from the past, the nationalist politician and rst prime minister
of independent Egypt, Saad Zaghloul (1859–1927), who is considered to be the
“father of the nation.” He sits cross-legged in a comfortable chair and wears a
black suit, a white shirt, a red bow tie, and the red tarbush or fez. The colours are
those of today’s Egyptian ag. Zaghloul lifts his right arm and raises his middle-
nger. The text reads “it’s useless, sons of bitches” (mafsh fayda ya wilād al
mar’a). The phrase refers to the dying Saad Zaghloul’s famous last words to
his wife, Safeya: “it’s useless, cover me up, Safeya.”11 These words have been
interpreted as Zaghloul’s disillusionment with the political situation in Egypt at
the time of his death12 (“The Presidential Election” 2012) (gure 13).
Concluding thoughts: From solid walls to intangible heritage?
President Mohamed Morsi was removed from power on July 3, 2013, and
the military regime, headed by General Abdel Fattah al Sissi, took over.
Censorship increased; many activists, intellectuals, and artists were arrested,
some disappeared, and some left the country. However, street art, grafti, and
calligrafti continued to appear, albeit sporadically, on the walls of the main
cities, and to circulate on social media. On May 18, 2014, the artist known as
Keizer posted a grafti with the question: “Do you remember tomorrow that
never came?” (fakir bukra ill magāsh) on his Facebook page (gure 14).
On September 1, 2014, el-Teneen posted a new version of his chessboard on
his Facebook page. The squares are yellow and red and the pawns are aligned
over the whole surface. The king stands alone amongst them and dominates
them all. There are no dignitaries around; the king is back (gure 15).13
The sense of disillusionment was echoed in early May 2015 with calligrafti
by the artist Ahmed Naguib on the walls of the Greek campus of The American
11 Mafsh fayda, ghatin ya Ṣafeya.
12 However, he may also have meant it as acceptance of his fate.
13 The image was reposted on the Facebook page of Revolution Grafti—Street Art of the
New Egypt on 23 November 2014. The image can also be found here: http://english.ahram.org.eg/
despite-st.aspx [Accessed on 4. May 2015].
74 Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Arab Spring
Fig. 14: Keizer, “Do you remember tomorrow that never came?” 2014. Unknown location.
Fig. 15: el-Teneen, The king is back, 2014. Cairo. Photo: el-Teneen.
75Transcultural Studies 2016.2
University in Cairo (gure 16).14 The text, composed of interlaced superposed
letters and words, reads “Taff al nr yā Bahya…” (Switch off the light Bahya…).
Bahya is a girl’s name meaning “beautiful, radiant, splendid”; it is also used as
an epithet for Egypt. The line is from a song from the 1998 musical, Al malik
hwa al malik” (The king is the king), by the composer and singer Mohamed
Mounir (Mounir 2011). The musical, in turn, is an adaptation of the play bearing
the same title by Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous (1941–1997). Penned
in 1977, the play was performed in the late seventies but was subsequently
banned from the stage in Syria.15 The rest of the text in the musical, that is not
included in the calligrafti, says: “…switch off the light Bahia, all the military
are thieves. But in our country not only the military are thieves.”
14 Posted on Ahmed Naguib’s Facebook page and Facebook page Grafti in Egypt on May 8, 2015.
15 The play draws on the story of “The Sleeper and the Vigilant” in Thousand and One Nights. It
is about a powerful king who is bored. To amuse himself, he sets up a disguise scheme and installs
a drunken henpecked commoner, Abu ‘Izza, as king for one day. The plan backres when Abu
‘Izza easily lls the role and no one from the real king’s entourage, not even the queen, notices the
subterfuge. For an analysis of the play see al-Anezi 2006, 161–193.
Fig. 16: Ahmed Naguib, “Switch off the light Bahya,” 2015. Cairo. Calligrafti.
76 Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Arab Spring
Ephemerality does not mean that the eeting moment, the kairos, has no
lasting effect. Street art, grafti, and calligrafti of the Arab Spring blossomed
at an opportune time when many options to improve social and political
conditions seemed available. Kairos has the power of triggering change, of
having a long-term resonance and giving way to a sense of shared experiences
and memories. In Egypt, it has brought about a general awareness of and
engagement in politics that had been lacking among the majority of the
population. During the Egyptian Spring, artists resorted to street art, grafti,
and calligrafti to impart their views to a varied audience both at home and
abroad. They translated their dissent and political activism into potent visual
images that covered the walls in signicant locations of the urban space. In
the process, they created a dialogical space where ideas are transposed into
images that reach a transnational and transcultural public. In their works, the
artists combine originality in giving form to their ideas with familiarity in
using the vernacular language and referring to elements of shared cultural
memory. The interpretations of the pieces by passers-by in the streets, users
on the Internet, and members of different social media networks may differ
completely from the intentions of the artists. However, this does not mean
that the pieces they created lose their affective power and cease to impact the
feelings and perceptions of various audiences. Although the art is ephemeral,
it is still stored and shared on a plethora of Internet platforms. These have
become the kind of museum without walls accessible to all—at least to those
who have access to these technologies—that the French writer and politician
André Malraux (1901–1976) envisioned. These developments suggest that the
World Wide Web is developing into an effective tool to store the memory of
events and to help shape part of the intangible heritage of the twenty-rst
century in different countries, Egypt included.
Richard Jacquemond posits that the period between 2011 and 2013 in Egypt
did not merely expose a deep societal and political divide, it also brought to
light a signicant generation gap in a number of cultural elds (Jacquemond
2015). It provided the space for new cultural productions and novel cultural
practices. The road to freedom of expression, however, is long and arduous.
As mentioned above, in the aftermath of this euphoric period, a number of
intellectuals and artists were silenced, put behind bars, subjected to what is
euphemistically referred to as “forced” disappearance (i.e. whereabouts are
unknown) or chose to leave. Some, like Ganzeer, who now lives in the USA,
produce smaller-sized pieces in studios, exhibit in art galleries, and explore
the possibilities offered by different genres such as graphic novels. Other
internationally known artists, such as Ammar Abo Bakr, Bahia Shehab, and
Ahmed Naguib, are regularly invited to participate in street art and grafti
festivals and other cultural venues in various countries. Street art and grafti
77Transcultural Studies 2016.2
from the Egyptian Spring attracted attention worldwide, and a vast number of
publications appeared. The documentation and literature produced provided
fertile grounds for an international market (Abaza 2016). It prompted
sponsors to provide funds to promote the image of the “post-orientalist,
post-2011, rebellious Arab artist.” This interest may persuade all involved to
nd a modus vivendi, according to Jacquemond. As often happens in similar
political situations, the authorities may become more accommodating towards
“rebellious” artists and try to placate them by allowing them to practice
their art within certain limits and under the somewhat lenient control from
relevant ministries, especially the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Culture,
and the Ministry of Education. A way to do this is by sponsoring street art
festivals such as the one that has been held in Burullus, a shing town in
Egypt’s eastern delta, since 2013. Conversely, the artists may agree to conform
to some form of censorship and to the images of post-orientalist, rebellious
Arab artists that circulate in Western countries, or at least to negotiate with
these representations (Jacquemond 2015, 142–143). Several produce their
new pieces in foreign environments and tend to combine activism with
poetry. Bahia Shehab’s recent series on the poems of the late Palestinian poet
Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008) illustrate this trend well. (gure 17).
Fig. 17: Bahia Shehab, Those Who Have No Land Have No Sea (verse by poet Mahmoud
Darwish), August 2016. Kefalonia, Greece. Calligrafti.
78 Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Arab Spring
Another example of this kind of compromise is the anamorphic piece entitled
Perception by the Tunisian-French calligrafti artist el Seed. He created it
in Cairo’s district of garbage collectors, Mansheyat Nasser (gure 18). The
inhabitants are predominantly Copts who are known to have developed an
efcient recycling system. El Seed spread his calligrafti on the surfaces of
about 50 apartment buildings in the area. The piece, which can only be seen in
full from a specic point on the Moqattam Hill, is a quote dating from the third
century patriarch of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, “Anyone who wants to see the
sunlight clearly must wipe his eyes rst.”16
The afterlife, or, to use the term coined by Aby Warburg, the Nachleben of
the Egyptian Spring remains unclear.17 The events are still too recent for
mnemohistory or to understand their long-lasting effects. Today, most walls
bearing murals or stencils have been whitewashed or pulled down and rebuilt;
very few pieces of street art survive. Nevertheless, some places, such as
the area around Tahrir Square and Mohamed Mahmoud Street, are slowly
16 In arāda ahad an yabur nr al shams fā in ʽaliyhu an yamsaḥ ʽaynayhu.
17 For a discussion on the afterlife of events see Tamm 2015.
Fig. 18: el Seed, Perception, 2016. Cairo.
79Transcultural Studies 2016.2
becoming iconic sites and may gradually acquire the aura of a mnemotopos,
that is, a place where collective memories converge. As such, sometime in the
future they may represent the material foundation for elaborating the cultural
memory of the Arab Spring in Egypt (Gonzáles-Ruibol, 2008, 256–259;
2014). The digitized pictures of the street art produced in this short time may
then constitute a signicant documentation on which to elaborate a new kind
of intangible heritage.
This article was completed during my stay as a member of the research group
“After Discourse: Things, Archaeology, and Heritage in the 21st Century,” at
the Centre for Advanced Study (CAS) at the Norwegian Academy of Science
and Letters in Oslo during the academic year 2016–2017. Earlier drafts were
presented in 2014 and 2015 at the interdisciplinary seminars “Translating
Concepts at Disciplinary Crossroads: Time, Space, Culture, Religion and
Heritage,” Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University
of Oslo. I am grateful to the participants for their valuable comments. I am
greatly indebted to artists and colleagues in Egypt for taking time to discuss
their work with me and answer my queries. Very special thanks go to Bahia
Shehab and Mona Abaza, of The American University in Cairo, for being so
forthcoming. I would also like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their
List of Illustrations
Fig. 1: Advertising a chicken farm in Fayoum, 1976. Fayoum. Photo: Raymond
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Fig. 2: Marwan Shahin, Guy Fawkes mask Anonymous wearing the nemes
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80 Engaged Ephemeral Art: Street Art and the Egyptian Arab Spring
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Fig. 7: Bahia Shehab, No, and a Thousand Times No, 2011. Cairo. Calligrafti.
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Fig. 8: Bahia Shehab, You May Crush the Flowers, But You Cannot Delay the
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Fig. 9: Bahia Shehab, The Blue Bra. On top: “No to stripping the people.” The
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81Transcultural Studies 2016.2
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