Everybody knows who Egypt’s next President will be. Elections are scheduled for May 26th and 27th, almost a year after Mohamed Morsi was ousted in a coup led by the retired general Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, in what has been painted as a second revolution. With campaigning in overdrive, Sisi met with a delegation of artists on May 12th. According to local news reports, the candidate said that artists are “the heart and soul of the nation,” and its conscience. A nation of some ninety million, however, has many consciences, and no shortage of dissenting creators.
In the three years since the Tahrir Square uprising, art has sprung up everywhere in Cairo. Graffiti is ubiquitous; independent art galleries and collectives are putting up new exhibitions every week. Meanwhile, the state remains a major funder of art. A prime example is the erection of new monuments in public spaces, like the diminutive obelisk in Tahrir Square unveiled in November to honor activists killed during the 2011 uprising, which has since been defaced many times. Even as novelists, poets, and political cartoonists shore up support for Sisi in the media, others are creating art that challenges his authority. With the former defense minister poised to win the country’s top office, will that equation change?
A recent exhibition of caricatures at the Cairo Opera House, hosted by the minister of culture, revealed how official circles approach politics today. Among walls saturated with political cartoons were five hundred illustrations by Egyptian and international artists, and not a single piece criticized the current government. Indeed, caricature is where the red lines are most visible. The art form figures strongly in the Egyptian press, where each paper has its own caricature department. But, since Morsi’s ouster, three major privately owned newspapers have declined political cartoons that were overtly anti-regime. The mainstream media has largely refrained from publishing caricatures of Sisi—a surprise, given the pervasiveness of cartoon attacks on Morsi and on Hosni Mubarak, at least during the final years of his three-decade rule.
Yet creative dissent endures. Recalcitrant cartoonists have found online platforms for their work, and Cairo’s independent art galleries have hosted many radical shows over the past year. “Inventiveness becomes even more crucial because of censorship, and because of the repression of opposing views systematically,” Huda Lutfi, a Cairo-based visual artist, said. Lutfi showed a collection of anti-regime installations at Townhouse Gallery, in downtown Cairo, in December. “The authorities, when I had my exhibition, were more occupied with more immediate things: demonstrations, the Muslim Brothers, and so on. There was no censorship” of the exhibit, she said.
Lutfi was not surprised that Sisi made time to meet with artists during the campaign. “Historically, we’ve seen how situations of crisis bring about a fascist culture,” she said, referring to the authoritarian governments, under Hitler and Stalin, that made strategic alliances with cultural élites to bolster national pride and to crack down on “undesirable” and opposition art.
In Cairo, art has come to be regarded as such a dangerous weapon that, last week, a prominent artist was falsely accused of being a terrorist. The artist, Ganzeer, is one of the few agitators to have rendered Sisi, publishing an inflammatory portrait online. After Ganzeer’s collaboration in a global graffiti campaign against Sisi attracted the attention of the television host Osama Kamal, Kamal wrongly called Ganzeer a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—which was outlawed by the Egyptian state in December. Ganzeer’s tag is known from Cairo to Vienna, but he had previously remained anonymous. Nevertheless, the broadcaster aired a photo of him on the evening news, using his real name as a scare tactic. It was startling because the thirty-two-year-old graphic artist has produced a vitriolic body of work against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. “Being anti-Sisi in itself is not a crime,” Ganzeer wrote on his blog. “So I guess Mr. Osama thought it necessary to attach a fictitious crime to my name.”
Social-media outlets have become the primary space for criticism and questioning the government. Some dissent creeps into the cartoons of independent newspapers. “Actually, during these periods, artists become even more inventive, despite censorship,” Lutfi said. But the dangers of crossing the line are real. One illustrator, who regularly posts anti-military caricatures on his Facebook page, declined to give The New Yorker permission to republish his work, saying, “It’s too risky for me.”
Source: The New Yorker