By Heba Elkayal
The joke’s on us: graffiti art fans run around Cairo trying to document the surge of street art and the foreign media churn out article after repetitive article about the post-revolution art scene and its heavy connotations of political expressionism.
As we pin meaning to spray-painted slogans and caricatures, graffiti artists themselves have mixed feelings about their work. Some claim to have no political intention to their work at all.
Whereas some of Cairo’s graffiti artists have chosen to give media interviews and solicit help from friends and fans to execute their graffiti designs on walls, such as the artist who goes by the tag Ganzeer, others have chosen to go about and paint in absolute secrecy, hiding from fans and journalists alike.
Most adamant about staying away from the public eye is the artist who calls himself The Sad Panda. After January 25, large figures of pensive looking panda bears started to emerge in Heliopolis, and images of the character’s head started to appear downtown. A twitter user with the handle @The_Sad_Panda started tweeting to excited fans: “I’m just a sad panda.”
Trying to get the anonymous tweep to meet Daily News Egypt took persistence. Reluctantly, he agreed only if his name or image wouldn’t appear in print.
We had finally agreed to meet in a Heliopolis coffee shop one evening and walking in, I immediately started trying to spot a panda. A tall slouching young man with backpack and tattered pieces of cardboard was in one corner and I ventured to guess the sheets of cardboard were stencils. Glasses, a ponytail and a black shirt, it was indeed the Panda.
“Care to help me spray?”
“Sure, just don’t get me into trouble I have a 9 pm dinner to catch,” I replied.
We drove around Heliopolis on a mission, to find walls free to spray, located somewhere where we could get to work with ease away from the eyes of police but also where people will come across the artwork later. It’s easier said than done. Not all walls can be painted easily, and eyes both curious and threatening are seemingly everywhere.
When I make the comparison between Sad Panda and the Handhala — the ten-year-old Palestinian cartoon character who, with back turned and hands clasped behind, watched artist Naji Al-Ali critique and comment on Palestinian and Arab political affairs in the 70s and 80s — Sad Panda scoffs. “My work is not political, at least not the Panda. I’m Sad Panda, it’s more reflective of my personal sadness and bouts of depression.”
Yet one can choose to see it otherwise as the Sad Panda figure appears to be watching other graffiti works, by extension, other commentary and political statements.
Such is the case with the work of Tank Versus Bike that was painted by Ganzeer in Zamalek. Ganzeer’s piece is intended to criticize the division between the army and the Egyptian people in a faceoff, with Sad Panda watching the two figures from stage right. The reactionary creative process here of adding layers by different artists was perhaps not intended. Yet, the overall effect takes on a more complicated and profound meaning, particularly when a heart is painted by Sad Panda’s head as he stares at the biker. The piece seems to now state: “We’re all equally confused, but hopeful.”
When a Kalashnikov, painted by the graffiti artist Keizer, is directed at a Sad Panda head staring at a mural of a revolution martyr by Ganzeer in Bab El-Louk Square, Downtown, it is that convergence of styles and themes by the artists that serves as a perfect example of the acerbic wit and intelligence that comes with good graffiti work. It is also a clear example of why many choose to pin meaning to the images: because it expresses ideas and emotions not articulated elsewhere.
Recently, the Panda began to speak. In early July, a small panda figure was painted clutching a sign that read “The Musheer is making me sadder,” in reference to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawy, head of the ruling military council. Next to a small graffiti portrait of imprisoned activist Amr El-Beheiry, Sad Panda commented: “I’m in military prison because I participated in the revolution.”
When asking Sad Panda whether he’s excited by peoples’ reactions to his work, he bluntly replies, “It’s getting too commercial and trendy, and the whole thing is boring and sad for me now. I used to do this, just go out and draw something and leave, but for people to take photos next to it, and talk about it … God it’s very bad. I just want to do my work without being recognized for it, which is why I’ve decided to kill the Panda when the time comes.”
Aghast and demanding an explanation, he says, “Pandas are very isolated creatures, and they don’t enjoy interacting very much with others. It’s part of the reason why they are a dying breed; pandas often choose not to mate, and they die alone. So I’ve decided in three months that I’m going to paint one last time a dead bleeding panda.”
It would be a very dramatic death indeed for a panda that mostly appears docile and pensive.
In addition to spraying with stencils, Sad Panda does work that he acknowledges has heavy political messages and it with these works the worries about revealing his identity increase.
By designing drawings or altering photographs, these images are translated into big print designs done at a local printers which he then cuts and pastes onto walls. The technicians at his local printer are not amused to see him, yet they grudgingly print a helmet with a crown resting atop of it, the Egyptian eagle topping the crown.
Whilst painting in Merghany Street, I nervously stood guard and handed him spray cans or tape when needed, people slowed down their cars to watch, and a parking valet ran over and asked him to come paint something elsewhere. Sad Panda painted a wall black with the words “I’m sad” in white stencils. Passersby nodded their heads in agreement.
With a wry smile we parted ways and he went off to glue and paint the royal helmet on a wall that I spotted on Merghany amongst other works. Sad Pandas are everywhere, and as bizarre and out of context as they might be to some, they seem to be making a lot more sense than others.
Sad Panda added to Ganzeer’s Tank Versus Bike. (Photos courtesy of www.suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com)
A kalashnikov, painted by the graffiti artist Keizer, is added to a Sad Panda graffiti. (Photos courtesy of www.suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com)