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October 20, 2016

“Necessity is the mother of creativity”- Street art in Cairo since the Arab uprising

by Zahir

January 25th 2011 marked the beginning of the Egyptian Uprising. For eighteen days, collective social force hit the streets in an unprecedented manner.  The Egyptian population – their resolve manifest in the numerous demonstrations in Tahrir Square – voiced political concerns and called for change within both the government and society. For eighteen days, Egypt was gripped by chaos and uncertainty; tensions which remain unresolved in Egypt to this day.

However, destruction breeds creation. One of the outcomes of the revolution in Egypt has been the formation of space for expression, where such expression had previously been stifled. Moreover, not only did the uprising allow for new modes of expression, it generated them. The ‘Revolution’, catalysed by the use of social media, represented the accommodating framework for artistic experimentation, such as the surge of street art, standing monuments in the streets of Cairo.

Graffiti riddled with political significance has become for many individuals a tool of resistance wielded against the status quo. And what makes it so effective is its creation and development borne out of a common dissatisfaction, revolt, and the timing of a historical trigger – such as the quasi-tidal course of the “Arab Spring”. As these feelings spill out in the public realm, the street becomes a site of contestation, a key element in the interaction between community, activism, and art. Due to its dichotomous status of anonymity and publicity, the street functions as the arena in which social issues are expressed, highlighted, and developed.  These range from gender concerns, to honouring the martyrs of this conflict, to record history as it is happening.

The streets of Cairo present themselves as an urban papyrus onto which artistic expression is allowed to flourish, continuously shifting with the ebb and flow of people and city. Through this freedom in expression a sobering reality is physicalised and highlighted, not as a means of ‘prettifying’ one’s surroundings, but as a creation of social awareness against the injustices of poverty, censorship, repression, violence, and corruption.  The public space is re-claimed, as a means of resistance, and as expression of free-thinking – a freedom that has proven extremely difficult to annihilate. The evolving and layered nature of street art allows for a continuation and a development of expressive discourses that remain current and relevant to the issues which feed it. When the government paints over graffiti (in itself an act that affirms and augments its role as a vessel of freedom of expression), more eventually appears – as an evolution, as a response. This is freedom of expression at its most flowing, despite extreme pressure and constraint which actually create the necessity to express. This is freedom of expression at its most ever-shifting existence.

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