Tuesday 18 September 2012

The Power of Art

I went to my second set of excellent 5x15 http://www.5x15stories.com/ talks at the Tabernacle last night and was blown away for want of a more appropriate way of putting things, by Ahdaf Soueif's talk on the art of the recent revolution in Egypt. She showed us a series of powerful slides, many of which can be seen here in this piece by Mona Abaza: http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/4625/an-emerging-memorial-space-in-praise-of-mohammed-mThe graffitti art shows how martyrs (Ahdaf was careful to state that she used the term 'martyr' in the Arabic sense, so I hope I will be forgiven for using the English word if any Eyptians happen upon this piece) of the revolution were depicted on the walls of Cairo, initially in stencilled images that became more and more decorative until they began to be shown with angel wings or with garlands of flowers around their necks; the martyrs then began appearing in groups, as more and more simple yet profound statements about the revolution appeared alongside them.

The artists reacted very quickly to the death of a martyr. Groups of artists would swoop in with ladders and immediately begin painting the graphic images on the walls. The work drew on Egyptian Pharaonic art history as it developed and progressed. One of the most beautiful images shows women, their eyes kohled in the ancient Egyptian way, marching towards their oppressors like wingless avenging angels, scrolls in their hands. A woman with her head shaved has her questioning arm raised, palm heavenwards. Above the women is a buraq drawing of a winged horse. Particularly mocking of the barbaric and primitive acts that were perpetrated by the military is one that shows two animals fighting in the style of primitive art, the genitals of the attacking beast (horns to soft belly) are on display. Others show winged martyrs, against a hellish backdrop of dark tear gas, in clashes with their oppressors. Murdered footballers appear in their teams shirts, their stylised angelic wings rising above them. Later, as the regime tried in vain to divide the revolutionaries, by claiming that some were noble, but others were good for nothing layabouts (who presumably deserved to die?) occupations such as 'architect' began to appear above the icons.

The humanity in the work, and the bravery of those who made the work, is astonishing, and is of course fitting, given the subject matter. As their blood cries out from the walls of Mohammed Mahmud Street, these martyrs continue to speak of the revolution despite the terminal silence imposed upon them. The power of these images put me in mind of the iconic photographs of the children of the Soweto riots of 1976. https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=soweto+riots&hl=en&prmd=imvns&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=UVdYUNXxIpPL0AX4roC4Cg&ved=0CDYQsAQ&biw=1440&bih=700 When I woke up this morning, the images were with me, provoking me, reminding me that none of us ought to stay silent when the plight of others demands that we speak up. It seems a long time ago that I came up against the police in South Africa in a relatively and comparatively mild way, or experienced the choking fear of tear gas, not that I am, for a minute trying to align myself with what the Egyptian people have suffered, only that I have looked and I acted when I saw (when many others, for whatever reason did not). Here too, my eyes have been seared with these images, but I am grateful for it, this work is testament to the power of art to point up truth and beauty in the spiritual sense, and to condemn, by merely holding up a mirror to the activities of those that would crush the spirits of those that cry freedom.

I would have loved to have chatted to Ahdaf Soueif about the impact of the work on individuals. Certainly I would like to read her book: Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. As someone who has taught art to vulnerable groups and has seen the healing and hope and the sense of the eternal power of truth that it brings, I hope, and imagine (having not seen any interviews on the  response to the work) that these images have brought hope and healing as well as no doubt, a powerful sense of sister and brotherhood to those that stood together to bring about change in Egypt for the good of all.

More from Ahdaf Soueif can be seen in her work for the Guardian here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/ahdafsoueif