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posted this July 10, 2014

When the people of Cairo took to Tahrir Square in January 2011 to oust Egypt’s longtime ruler, Hosni Mubarak, the streets exploded with murals and graffiti that both mirrored the revolutionary spirit of the movement and propelled it forward.

A young graphic designer joined the fray, working under the pseudonym Ganzeer, or “bicycle chain.”

Ganzeer distributed questionnaires, stickers, posters and, most notably, one mural of a massive tank gunning down a lone bicyclist. He called it his “alternative media campaign” to counteract propaganda from official news outlets.

Over the past three years, Ganzeer, 32, emerged as a star of the anarchic movement, finding fresh targets as leadership in Egypt repeatedly changed hands. His participation now in the revolution will have to proceed at a distance.

On May 9, he was denounced by a television broadcaster, Osama Kamal, on the program “Al-Raees Wel Nas” (“The President and the People”). He singled out Ganzeer by his real name — Mohamed Fahmy — accompanied by his photograph, making him easily identifiable;

Osama Kamal labeled Ganzeer a “recruit of the Muslim Brotherhood”; and demanded that the government take action against him. This accusation, which Ganzeer and several curators denied, has been widely used against journalists and activists in Egypt in recent weeks, leading to sweeping arrests resulting in prison terms.

Two days later, Ganzeer left Egypt for a long-planned trip to the United States.

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Ganzeer, one of Egypt’s most famous street artists, is in the United States temporarily.Credit James Estrin/The New York Times

“No one stopped me at the airport, because I am not on any official list,” Ganzeer said in a recent interview in his temporary sublet in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “But it is quite typical of the Egyptian government to start a campaign in the media, so when the time comes to crack down, their action is supported by the masses, because they had read about it in the papers.”

From Cairo to Beirut to Dubai, Arab artists have mounted a vigorous creative response to the political upheavals of the past few years, exploring a range of art-making strategies, including the street-art agitprop of Ganzeer and others, who draw from ancient hieroglyphics and teach themselves stenciling to put their cause on the walls.

A glimpse into the diverse and vital art scene arrives on July 16 at the New Museum with “Here and Elsewhere,” a survey of 45 artists from 12 countries in the Arab world who take a more nuanced approach to bearing witness, often questioning the veracity of storytelling and news accounts.

Carlo McCormick, a critic and author of “Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art” (Taschen, 2010), puts Ganzeer in a tradition that includes notable street artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy. “They have a defining style, but Ganzeer is working more as an activist than a muralist,” he said. “He’s more of a chameleon and adapts his visuals to the content.”

Ganzeer has had high visibility, arriving with the United States premiere of a documentary in which he is featured, “Art War,” by the German filmmaker Marco Wilms, that traces the development of street art in Egypt since 2011. His projects are also prominent in a new book, “Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution,” by Basma Hamdy and Don Karl a.k.a. Stone (published by From Here to Fame).

Dressed in T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops with black curls and a short beard framing his youthful face, he said he misses his home in Cairo, a spacious 5-bedroom apartment overlooking the Nile that he shares with two artist-friends.

Here, he is making do with a spare room in a stranger’s apartment and survives by producing new prints that he sells for a modest $500 to $1,000 through Booklyn Artists Alliance, an alternative space in Greenpoint.

Ganzeer was introduced to Booklyn by members of the collective Interference Archive, a political study center near the Gowanus Canal, where he will be speaking on July 23 about the new breed of protest art that alarms Egypt’s leaders.

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Ganzeer working on a new piece in Brooklyn. Credit James Estrin/The New York Times

Ganzeer said he calls himself “bicycle chain” because he likes to think of artists as the mechanism that pushes change forward. “We are not the driving force,” he said. “We are not the people pedaling, but we can connect ideas and by doing this we allow the thing to move.”

This young artist-designer may have been singled out for his most recent street art project in Cairo: a mammoth mural depicting a zombie soldier standing atop a pile of skulls. Or, as he suspects, it was a reaction to an interview in The Guardian on May 8 in which he called for international condemnation of the soon-to-be president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. 

Ganzeer has always been quite outspoken with the foreign press and has thousands of supporters on the web.

In response to the news announcer’s accusations, he posted a refutation on his blog, titled “Who’s Afraid of Art?,” demanding a public apology.

“Ganzeer is a really great, smart intelligent brain and he has a very modern exciting view of the world,” said Mr. Wilms, who first met him in Tahrir Square in 2011, when Ganzeer was engaged in his first public project, distributing a questionnaire asking citizens what they wanted from a revolution. The scene, captured in the film, shows a much younger looking Ganzeer enthusiastically recruiting participants.

“All the artists in my film have been targeted,” Mr. Wilms said. “These young people are willing to sacrifice their lives. They are really dying in the streets. It’s very difficult to understand from a Western point of view, but they are really not afraid.”

On July 4, Ganzeer emailed that a young street artist and activist named Hisham Rizk, who had gone missing a week earlier, had been found. He had drowned in the Nile. Mr. Rizk was 19.

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Ganzeer’s “Of Course #2.” The text is an ironic reference to the military as the protector of the revolution. CreditGanzeer

Born in Giza, Egypt, in 1982, Ganzeer attended business school when he failed to pass an art school entrance exam. “I grew up reading comic books, and I saw myself as someone who would make comic books someday,” he said, only later discovering graphic design while attending college. He ran his own graphic design firm for eight years, developing skills that prepared him to participate in the creative efforts at Tahrir Square.

At first, he made items easy to distribute on the streets and in the subway. But in March 2011, he undertook an ambitious mural project, a larger-than-life portrait of a 16-year-old boy killed by police gunfire, printed about 13 feet high on a wall near the Supreme Court in Cairo.

Using Twitter, he gathered a troupe of volunteers to help him paint the tribute to a martyr with stencils, a 20th-century tradition that originated with Italian propagandists under Fascism but was later used by contemporary artists, Mr. McCormick said.

“Ganzeer was quite courageous carrying out his activities,” said William Wells, director of Townhouse Gallery, a contemporary art space in Cairo. “He knew people were going to stop him when he worked on the street and threaten him, and he always encouraged them to take part in what he was doing.”

Mr. Wells allowed Ganzeer to use his gallery as a base, but became particularly frightened for him in the past year. “The whole dynamics of the city has changed, and everybody was nervous about what Ganzeer was doing,” he said. “I think if he were arrested, nobody would have been surprised.”

Surfing the web for source material, and posting his graphics for anyone to use, he advanced the method of printing images, encouraging other activists to make street art.

In the chaotic early days of the uprising, Ganzeer mostly escaped police scrutiny until May 2011, when he distributed stickers of his Mask of Freedom, now globally known. Posted on the Internet, the image depicts a superhero-style visage, blindfolded and gagged, as a symbol of military repression.

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“Face the Vitrine,” Ganzeer’s collaboration with Yasmin Elayat, in Cairo. CreditGanzeer

This time, civilians were not so friendly, and when one of his volunteers got into an argument with a man attacking them as “spies,” the civilian police arrested Ganzeer, who tweeted to his followers. Caught off guard by the outpouring of support by protesters, the police released him without charges. When he showed up in Tahrir Square the next morning, his Mask of Freedom could be seen everywhere: on T-shirts, posters and stickers.

Ganzeer refuses to label himself a street artist. He has had art residencies in Finland, Poland and Switzerland and has shown in Cairo’s vibrant gallery scene. In 2012, his solo show at the Safar Khan Gallery focused on the military’s involvement in rape and sexual harassment.

He is adamant that he is not going into exile or seeking political asylum in the United States. “That’s what the government would like me to do,” he said, revealing a sudden flash of anger at the suggestion. “I would never be able to vote again. I would never be able to go back. After getting rid of Mubarak, I am not going to give up now on getting rid of this guy,” he said of President Sisi.

Alexandra Stock, a Swiss-American curator who lived in Cairo from 2007 to 2012 and who recently worked with Ganzeer on a mural in Bahrain, noted the mass exodus of intellectuals in recent weeks. “It’s very sad to see this whole wave of people who have left Cairo,” she said. “But I think for Ganzeer, seeing things unfold from a distance might help.”

When asked if he can have a role in the revolution from the shores of Brooklyn, Ganzeer gave an emphatic “Yes.” “In the United States,” he said, “I can make people aware of the situation, so at least the American people can pressure their government to not support our war criminal turned president Sisi or sell weapons that are used against the Egyptian people.”

While Secretary of State John Kerry has urged Egypt to support a transition to democracy, easing restrictions on freedom of expression, the administration recently announced that it would like to resume military and counterterrorism aid.

Neither this announcement nor his current status has dimmed Ganzeer’s optimism or determination to go back.

“Egypt has had a schizophrenic relationship with its street artists,” said Soraya Morayef, a Cairo writer who has made Ganzeer a topic of her blog, Suzee in the City. “It’s been a case where we love you, we hate you, we’ll jail you, we’ll free you, we’ll celebrate you, and, now, we’ll force you to leave the country.”

Correction: July 11, 2014
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misspelled the name of an alternative space in Greenpoint through which Ganzeer sells his work. It is the Booklyn Artists Alliance, not the Brooklyn Artists Alliance.
Correction: July 11, 2014
An earlier version of a picture credit with this article, based on information from a publicist, misidentified who took the photograph of Ganzeer painting the mural “Foundations.” It was Eva Frapeccini, not Ganzeer himself.
Correction: July 11, 2014
An earlier version of this article misidentified the nationality of a curator who recently worked with Ganzeer on a mural in Bahrain. Alexandra Stock is Swiss-American, not Egyptian, though she worked in Cairo from 2007-2012 and is currently based in Bahrain.

Master of Type, Graffiti, public expression, Beirut

On a wall close to the American University of Beirut, a stencil has been crudely blacked out with a layer of thick paint.

Beirut’s walls were once considered acceptable forums for public expression, but the city is changing.

The critics disagree not simply with the presence of the graffiti, but its message too.

Pascal Zoghbi, an Arabic typographer, was one of the first commentators to pick up on this trend.

Paul McLoughlin in BrownBook posted on Feb. 14, 2013:

Pascal Zoghbi’s interest in street art began in Europe, when he studied his Master’s in typography at the Royal Academy of Arts in the Netherlands.

Pascal said: ‘During my stay I travelled all over Europe and graffiti was very prominent there. ‘When I went back to Beirut, I noticed the scene was beginning to look stronger. So I spent time taking pictures of all the graffiti I found and wrote some pieces about it on my blog. I saw that the graffiti scene in the Arab world is much more in touch with the social and political status of the people. This is highlighted by the witty slogans on the walls of the region’s capitals rather just than the names of the artists like in other parts of the world.’

After 3 years of documenting the regional graffiti trends, Zoghbi was contacted by a European street artist Don Karl, to assist him on a series of workshops on Arabic style graffiti in Lebanon.  Zoghbi (32 of age) has considerable experience in teaching, from the typography classes he leads at the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University.

The graffiti workshops, however, put him in touch with the Lebanese street artists involved in the graffiti scene. After researching more, Zoghbi began to take a particular interest in the socio-political connections of graffiti in his home country from as far back as the 1970s and he also concentrated on different trends in Palestine, Bahrain and Syria.

These observations resulted in a book published last year entitled Arabic Graffiti. It presents Zoghbi’s studies of graffiti across the region and connects the dots between the slogans and coinciding social events that inspired the artists.

In the book, Pascal focuses on Arab and non-Arab graffiti artists and  he illustrates the typographic and calligraphic elements behind their work. After printing the book in English and French, Zoghbi says he is looking forward to working on a second edition of the book in the coming years, as well as an Arabic translation.

Zoghbi presents graffiti as an intellectual trend rather than a reckless act of vandalism by frustrated youth. He argues, that it speaks of social and political life in the Arab world. ‘We selected artists who experiment in Arabic graffiti with thoughts that connect with events in the region.’

There is also an aesthetic element to this regional style that has attracted non-Arabic speakers such as the UK’s Mohammed Ali. These are artists catalogued by Zoghbi in his work but it is the actual art that draws him back to this part of the world.

‘Now we are seeing some artists who are developing their own Arabic styles. It is still a young trend but it is growing to be very strong. For me, I think it is even more interesting than what is happening in the West. A lot of street art in Palestine is in Arabic but in Lebanon we are more used to using English and French, as that is what is taught in schools. However, in recent years we are beginning to see Arabic being used more and more.’

Following recent events in the region, he also argues that it has never been a more dangerous time to be a graffiti artist owing to the powerful messages of their often gallows-humour slogans. This includes a study in the book of the colourful and ironic murals daubed on the West Bank’s separation wall as well as the idioms that led to change in Egypt.

‘It’s all part of the message so we tried to make a link. For me it’s very important to make this link because I don’t see the need for graffiti unless it has a different message to say,’ Pascal adds.

Zoghbi has highlighted the dangers graffiti artists are under in some parts of the Arab world through articles, but he also points out that some work included is simply for its artistic merit. He says the artists themselves are from a variety of backgrounds, but are most common amongst the graphic design community.

Many designers are using this type of calligraphy in their design work and vice versa. What we are seeing is that styles of Arabic calligraphy are becoming more urban-inspired due to street art.’

It might not be a surprise then, that Zoghbi sees Arabic typography as going through a similar renaissance, which can be seen in his contributions to the Khatt Foundation project, Typographic Matchmaking in the City.

29 Arabic Letters is Zoghbi’s Arabic typeface response to these new dynamics. Its main mission is in creating new Arabic fonts and corporate identities in the Arab world. His work includes producing the Droid Arabic fonts for Google and the Corporate Mathaf type face for Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha.

‘On my list for the future is to work on other books and continue my work with the Khatt Foundation. ‘Personally, based on my academic experience, I feel there is a lack of books that deal with Arabic typographic guidelines from an educational perspective. I therefore think something like this will be of huge use to both students and professionals.’

Zoghbi’s broad experience in typography through his academic and commercial work, has put him in a good position to pick up on trends in lettering and he hopes that contemporary street art could be a way of strengthening Arabic typography.

‘It is not just about the people who are writing on the walls but my own hope and willingness that the Arab graffiti artists will be inspired by Arabic calligraphy in their work and not just to imitate Western styles.’

As Zoghbi highlights in his work, this is something which is already playing out in countries such as Syria, Palestine and Lebanon and looks set to move away from the peripheral and contribute more directly to the dialogue and changes in mainstream culture in the Middle East.

Pascal Zoghbi, Interviewed for BrownBook Magazine by Paul McLoughlin. http://www.brownbook.me/master-of-type-2/

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