By Heba Elkayal
He is by nature endearing, a skinny lanky frame with a mop of black curls and a smile curled in constant, yet secretive, amusement. Ganzeer, an artist in his mid-twenties whose birth name is Mohamed Fahmy has become a de facto cultural operator.
Just don’t call him a street artist.
Ganzeer is his chosen moniker. Meaning chain in Arabic, the artist took the post-Jan. 25 Cairo art scene by storm, establishing himself as one of the most interesting players, chiding the conventional spaces of fine art galleries to present his art on the street through graffiti works, stickers, and his online ‘zine Rolling Bulb.’
“Being called a graffiti artist is something that I’m entirely against. It’s not really fair because I’m not necessarily a street artist, and I don’t think in street art terms,” Ganzeer told Daily News Egypt.
“I react to certain things and events in different ways. For instance, some thoughts prompt me to think of organizing a flash mob, other times a questionnaire. Other things go on the internet, not through art on the street. Street artists are really passionate; they think of everything in street art terms and [react] to everything with street art. They’re always scouting for locations and it’s their thing.”
To call him a cultural operator is not far off the mark though. Starting with his Martyr Mural series that kicked off few days after Feb. 11, large mural portraits appeared downtown of the revolution’s martyrs in red, yellow, white and black paint. Ganzeer intends to paint one for every fallen martyr.
The first this writer spotted was of 16-year-old martyr Seifallah Mostafa; a deeply moving tribute free of cheap sentiment. Contrasting with the neo-classical pillars of the Supreme Court building in the background, it could be deemed as the first active attempt by a civilian in post-revolution Egypt to take over the reins of public art from the Ministry of Culture and dictate how public art is practiced.
Granted, graffiti art was being exercised and produced all over downtown Cairo during the revolution, but the murals were the only works that were able to realize the public’s desire to see the martyrs commemorated instantly. Other graffiti work was related more so to the denouncing of former regime figures, done with calligraphy and with no real intention of being emplaced permanently and publicly.
Since then, Ganzeer has done other work and gotten into a fair amount of trouble in the process. A commission to do a graffiti piece on the walls of an art gallery elicited the fury of the gallery owner. “She had asked for two martyr murals, but I convinced her to just let me surprise her and so I painted Habayeb El Nizaam.” Translating to “Admirers of the Regime,” members of Mubarak’s government, including minister of defense and current head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, were painted strolling arm in arm with Mubarak. Then, that smile cracks, “Yeah she was kind of outraged.”
Though Ganzeer convinced his patron to keep the graffiti piece for a week, it didn’t last for too long, and now it can be seen on Aboul Feda Street in Zamalek vandalized with spray paint. The irony surely is not lost. Yet, it speaks of the public’s censorship of subjects it deems too risqué.
On May 26, Ganzeer was arrested for a day when a passerby spotted him pasting stickers of the now infamous “Mask of Freedom.” Showing a mannequin’s torso with head sheathed in a gas mask, the text underneath read: “Greetings from the Supreme Council to the free youth of the nation.” The deadpan cheekiness of the piece was both audacious and witty. The message required a second reading to comprehend, the drawing with the suggestion of masochism and sadism only needed a glance.
The image went viral in an hour, long before Ganzeer was released later that day. “It was great, but the funny thing is the sticker spread far more than I could spread it if I was left alone trying to spread it. This man’s life, did it really affect him the spreading of the sticker? No, but he still feels the urge to censor somebody,” he said.
“It’s funny to me because I feel that the majority of society doesn’t know when to intervene and when not to intervene. Instead of accusing protestors of being spies, or censoring people or holding them back, if people utilize their energies towards stopping honking or collecting garbage, their lives would change immensely instead of working on something that won’t affect their lives. “
His last graffiti work which can be seen in Zamalek depicting a tank facing a young boy on a bicycle balancing bread on his head. Entitled “Tank Versus Bike,” it rests underneath a bridge in Zamalek, and the large piece has prompted many to stop and take a picture, much to the amusement and irritation of the parking attendants who stand nearby by the Ahly club, discussing politics and street art with those taking pictures.
In five minutes, one attendant articulated his opinion on the technique, style and subject of the graffiti piece, peppering the conversation with insightful commentary on the phenomenon of street art. “Yes it’s nice, there’s finally something to look at in the street. It makes you pause for a minute and think, regardless of whether you like what’s being said by the painting or not,” he said with gusto.
“That’s what it’s all about, the best part about it is that people actually have a discussion and debate it,” Ganzeer commented. “That was the most exciting thing about doing the first martyr mural when people gathered around me. It really is just a portrait of a dude, but the fact that people were gathered around having this political discussion, [segueing] into topics such as employment when the initiator of all these topics was a portrait … I like that.”
Not everyone is a fan of his work though. “I’ve been told by an artist who works in this very intellectual art field that the stuff I do is very benign. He meant to say that you can’t find that special ‘artistic’ twist in my work, that it was very juvenile. I wouldn’t say it’s a very unfair description coming from somebody who tends to over-intellectualize art, but I guess the fact is my art is the kind of art … well somebody will see layers [of meaning] to it.
With his recent questionnaire, a pseudo-mock referendum he wrote and distributed on July 8, Ganzeer becomes Fahmy, both an artist and cultural operator, going out onto the streets to ask people questions about their political beliefs and prompt further questions and debate.
Though juggling commissions for comic book covers with the recently released ‘Autostrade’ and private corporate commissions, Fahmy has his plate full, for the time being at least, before feeling inclined to step outside and do more graffiti work on Cairo’s streets.
Photo of martyr Islam Raefat in Midan El Falaky. Photo credit: Lillian Wagdy/Courtesy of the artist.
Tank Versus Bike. Photo Credit: Hossam El Hamalawy/Courtesy of the artist.