Street art for social change in Middle East, North Africa – Al Jazeera video

Street art is proving an effective form of “offline social media” in post-revolution countries.

In a July 2012 episode of “Listening Post”, Al Jazeera’s weekly global media review, show producer Meenakshi Ravi provides insights into the appeal of street art and its success in inciting social and political changes across the Arab world.

Mural dedicated to martyrs. Image by Gigi Ibrahim.

Mural dedicated to martyrs. Image by Gigi Ibrahim.

Street art is an ancient communication platform that is similar to today’s social media websites like Facebook and Twitter, Ravi says in the video. She introduces street art as an “offline social media” service that thrives “in places where people have a political point to make.”

Click here to watch the full video, titled “The power of street art”, on the Al Jazeera website.

Since the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, artists in Libya have enjoyed a newfound creative autonomy. In the Al Jazeera video, Libyan street artist Essam Abdul Jalil talks about the suffocating situation prior to the revolution: “We were oppressed. We couldn’t express our views. Nobody was allowed to paint on walls. Graffiti was something risky under Gaddafi. Creativity was stifled under him.”

Graffiti depicting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in Benghazi, March 2011. Image by BRQ Network.

Graffiti depicting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Benghazi, March 2011. Image by BRQ Network.

Since the end of the regime, city walls – the barrier that surrounds Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli, in particular – have been filled with critical slogans about and images of the former leader, such as paintings of Gaddafi as a fly, devil or rich, fat man.

French street artist JR, also featured in the video, explains that the artists’ intentions are what makes street art so personal and compelling. He believes that street art is “really a place for art to be completely free out of any system, institution. Putting art work when no one asks them to do it, where it’s really from their own belief.”

Al Jazeera reporter Meenakshi Ravi also looks at street art in Egypt. When the Egyptian government cut the country’s internet access on 28 January 2011, anti-government protestors lost one of their of most valuable communication tools. Pictorial and written political art quickly spread across the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which was one of the revolution’s most violent battlegrounds.

Mohamed Mahmoud St. Mural. Image by Gigi Ibrahim.

Mohamed Mahmoud St. Mural. Image by Gigi Ibrahim.

Cairo-based journalist Soraya Morayef, who is interviewed in the Al Jazeera video, explains the phenomena,

There wasn’t enough international media presence on the streets […] to cover the protests accurately. People took to the walls, and they started writing messages on the walls. Street art spoke directly to the people or was a medium that was directly for a person on the street.

Ammar Abo Bakr, who is famous for his murals of martyrs of the revolution, similarly attests to street art’s role as a credible information source. In a video interview produced in 2013 by German media company, he claims that street art is “an alternative medium to traditional mass media because journalists in mass media are not doing their duty.” He continues, “I often remind people that this is not art. Leave it. Let us work. Don’t waste time analysing the painting style; this is not art, it’s news.”

While some may find the images on the public walls morally inspiring, there are others who view it as vandalism. Street artist and author RHS believes that a person’s background and lack of exposure may explain the aversion towards street art and graffiti. In the Al Jazeera video, RHS says,

If you are coming from someplace where you relate culturally much more to graffiti as a subculture then it is going to be much easier for you to relate to the message […] If you are completely outside of that subculture you’re going to perceive it as a foreign language, and you are immediately going to want it to be removed from your environment because you are going to see it merely as vandalism.

A tribute to those who lost their eyes, Mohamed Mahmoud street. Image by Dina.

A tribute to those who lost their eyes, Mohamed Mahmoud street. Image by Dina.

Despite the varied attitudes towards street art, Ravi notes that the blooming of street art and graffiti across the region is proof of a communications revolution.

This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar, too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

Patricia Rubianti Chaniago


Related Topics: street art, political art, art videos

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