Art rising from the streets

Cairo initiatives

Tok Tok Cairo

“As an artist, I feel lucky that I was never persecuted during the time of Mubarak.” Egyptian cartoonist Makhlouf looks back at the years of the previous regime. “Not like Naji al-Ali or Essam Hanafi. But I also think that if that happens, it means that you’re stronger than them. I know that I’ll die anyways. If I die and am influential in society, that’s okay.”

Ride the rickshaw

Makhlouf, who uses only his first name, is the co-founder of Tok Tok, Egypt’s first collaborative comics magazine. The publication is one of many local initiatives that have thrived in the euphoric energy settling in downtown Cairo since the revolution. It took its name from the Indian-made three-wheeled vehicles found in the narrow streets of Cairo’s poorest areas.

“Tok Tok was born from the simple ideas of people, and deals with what happens in the street, especially among the youth,” says Makhlouf.

In addition to founding new publications like Tok Tok, young Egyptians have started different organisations to support their art and activism. There is the well-known film-making cooperative Mosireen (a play on two Arabic words: that for “Egyptians” and that for “determined”), the art organisation Mahatat (which means “stations”) and the big, spontaneous and city-wide graffiti movement which is covering Cairo’s public spaces with political art. This youth-led graffiti movement could be the first public art movement to take over Cairo’s streets and inspire a more concerted kind of public, artistic, activism. The walls of downtown Cairo, covered with paintings, slogans and murals, now serve as an ever- evolving backdrop for the events that take place in the streets.

Makhlouf, who is now 30, is among the thousands of young Egyptians who have taken to the streets during the past two years. In December 2011, there were fierce clashes between protesters and riot police at the Egyptian Cabinet Building in downtown Cairo. A friend heard that Makhlouf was dead.

“I had been there that day in the morning,” says Makhlouf “Then, at night, there was a story online that another artist with the same name as me had died. I discovered that he too was an illustrator, also young. We had the exact same name, and he even looked like me,” he recalls. “At that time, I felt it was very likely that he had died instead of me. For everyone who is alive today, there is someone who died during the revolution.”

Makhlouf started Tok Tok along with fellow artists Shennawy, Andeel, Hisham Rahma and Tawfeeq. The first issue was published on the brink of the revolution, on January 1 2011. The eighth issue was released on December 19, at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery.

Tok tok Cairo 2

The humour in Tok Tok is irreverent, even earthy. The first comic strip Makhlouf drew was more about daily life than revolutionary politics. “I created this male character called George Sabry. He’s an illustrator. One day, his wife comes home with a breast enlargement. She wants to show it to him, but he’s angry because he’s working. They fight. He cares more about drawing then about his wife’s… breasts.”

While Tok Tok doesn’t espouse an explicitly activist agenda, the backdrop for the cartoons — the streets — makes it political. Makhlouf explains: “The second issue that we published was about the revolution. I decided to do a comic about what it would be like had I been the president of the republic. What if?”

He continues: “The Egyptian people imagined that when Mubarak left, everything would change. The poor would get to eat, the sick would be healed and workers would be treated better. Things would be solved and we would become a better people. Then, it appeared that after he left, there was no plan. Nobody knew anything about politics.”

After three decades of repression, Egypt is ready for a change, says Makhlouf. And education must be a priority. “In France after the French Revolution, a new type of art and a new society emerged,” he says. To this end, Makhlouf and his colleagues are holding workshops for budding cartoonists, and they are about to start another publication, aimed at promoting up-and-coming illustrators, under their organisation Al-Fan Al-Tasi’a (The Ninth Art).

Counter-narratives

The media collective Mosireen focuses on filmmaking. The collective became famous after having posted videos of violent street battles during the revolution online, effectively countering the state media reports at the time, which downplayed the extent of the protests.

Khalid Abdalla is a co-founder of Mosireen, as well as two other projects, Tahrir Cinema and Cimatheque. Cambridge-educated Abdalla explains: “During the revolution, people were making videos, either to try to get their friends out of prison, or to share what was happening in the streets.” It soon came clear that much was needed: editing skills, access to equipment and a safe place for people to work. That’s when Mosireen stepped in.

On October 9, hundreds of Egyptian Copts gathered for a peaceful protest to commemorate the deaths of at least 27 Christian Copts who were killed one year earlier, when armoured military vehicles mowed into the crowds, crushing people in their path. The post-Mubarak regime denied that its forces were responsible for the deaths. Immediately, Mosireen went into action and uploaded videos to challenge the official claims.

“Suddenly we had a large number of people working on filming, editing and uploading videos to YouTube channels,” Abdalla recalls. “During the months after, Mosireen became the most-watched non-profit YouTube channel in Egypt. By January, the collective was the most-watched non-profit channel in the world.”

But their main goal was rather to develop networks across Egypt, to film events that were happening in the streets, and share them with Egyptian citizens. Out of this came Tahrir Cinema, where Mosireen set up large screens in cities throughout Egypt to show citizen-filmed footage in the streets.

Since the overthrow of Mubarak, Mosireen is looking ahead. Abdalla continues: “Now is the period when it is essential to consolidate what you’ve built and to widen your networks. Bearing in mind that great periods of social unrest and change come in waves, you learn very quickly that some waves you must let pass while focusing on other things that are important to you. The debate surrounding the presidential elections was a different process than the more street-oriented one that Mosireen concentrates on. What we are doing is trying to employ a street-level perspective and give a voice to those who are otherwise marginalised.”

Spectacle/spectator

Mahatat is bringing their performances to the locus of Egyptian life — the streets. In their performances, the street is both an actor and the audience. But where Mosireen is a political project, Mahatat deals with the politics of culture, and access. In Egypt, drama and dance have typically been restricted to theatre, and performance art has not seen the kind of street-renaissance that it has in other parts of the world. Therefore, only a particular audience has enjoyed these art forms.

“When creating Mahatat, we wanted to start something new,” says co-founder Astrid Thews. “The reason was to criticise an art scene which at the time was fairly closed, centralised and elitist. We wanted to break away from that.” Thews and the other founders narrowed the problem down to one thing: the homogeneity of the audience attending cultural events in Cairo. “We debated whether to get a venue for Mahatat or not, but we decided against it because we thought that it would be likely that it would attract only the usual subjects.”

Mahatat launched their first project, Shawara’ana (Our Streets), earlier this year. Dance, mime and “social clowning” took place in various locations around Cairo, including metro stations and public squares. Thews explains: “We felt that if we wanted to perform and exhibit in accessible places with a mix of people, it made more sense to be in public spaces. Our main goals are accessibility and decentralisation.”

Like Abdalla, Thews puts an emphasis on the work Mahatat does across the country. Their next project will take place in the Delta, north of Cairo, with a series of workshops culminating in a public performance broadcast to Alexandria and Cairo.

“Although the country’s main scenes are be found in Cairo, and to some extent in Alexandria, there are art initiatives all over the country. But they lack opportunities, training, financial resources, rehearsal venues — you name it,” says Thews. “So when we talk about initiatives, we don’t want to start something completely new, but rather engage in partnerships with local initiatives that already exist.”

The street as a canvas

Breaching the gap between the art establishment and local initiatives has been the biggest obstacle in aiding young artists. But the past year and a half has seen an unprecedented level of collaboration. An example of this was on display a month ago, at the Safar Khan gallery in Zamalek.

Police tape criss-crossed the windows of the gallery, and a sign read “Beware inside”, “Visual material may affect your thoughts and mood.” While the tape was a clever way to promote the new exhibition, the warning was genuine. The exhibit was showcasing graffiti, the defining motif of Egypt’s youth-led revolution. In the year of unrest that brought an end to Mubarak’s rule, more than 1,000 protesters were killed, and as many as 80 lost their eyes to police bullets.

“Graffiti in itself isn’t necessarily political,” says Mona Said, curator of the Safar Khan Gallery. “But it is social, and sometimes territorial, and it is the art form that has flourished the most since the revolution.”

For Egypt’s graffiti artists, spray paint is cheap and accessible, and tagging becomes a way of claiming ownership over the public space while conveying a message that will be seen by many. An art form previously distinguished by its public, valueless nature, has, like everything else deemed cool, transitioned easily into the commodified.

The exhibition showcased graffiti artists like Ganzeer, Taneen, Shank, Okasha and Nadeem. To host the show in a renowned, commercial gallery well known for its support of Egyptian art’s more conventional stalwarts was a true risk for Safar Khan, says Said.

Among the graffiti drawings is an injured and bandaged street cat. A text that runs across the walls next to the cat reads: “The people have ****ed me. One day they kick me and the next day they make me into hawawshy (a cheap meat sandwich). It’s as if they’ve forgotten how important I am.”

Is the cat a metaphor for what awaits the youth who led this revolution? For initiatives like Mahatat, Mosireen, and Tok Tok, the aim is to make sure that a wider population remembers the role that young people played — a role that has been reprised since the anniversary of Mohammed Mahmoud on November 19. At least for now, these different street-focused efforts are flourishing.

“This is our first revolution,” says illustrator Makhlouf. “Sure, we made a lot of mistakes. But hopefully, our children — when they start a revolution some 30 years from now — won’t make the same mistakes.”

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