As I flip through the over-glossed pages of my magazines, shuffle the varied tunes on my iPod and scroll through the list of my DVR‘d shows (admittedly, most of them are guilty pleasures), it hits me like an excessively violent stroke of Picasso‘s brush: Art is a curious and glorious thing. It can be used to make a statement, raise awareness, spark conversation or controversy. It’s universally regarded in every culture and community as a means for expression – and whether it’s suppressed or encouraged, it always exists in some form or another. Hell, there’s even those who will argue that Mike Tyson‘s inked face constitutes a fine and classy example of it.
In the US, art doesn’t necessarily have to be associated with the surrounding political, social or religious atmosphere; and while there are plenty of expressions that align with and demonstrate a particular stance on the related culture, it still generally finds itself independent of such constraints. Which definitely explains how “Drunk Girls In Da Club” became a number one hit.
Egypt’s art, however – from films to music, books to television- has always managed to precisely reflect the pulse of its people. Up until the January 25th revolution, that pulse was more like a series of heart attacks; lending itself to songs, films and books that were plugged directly into the Egyptian psyche like Dr. Frankenstein’s lobotomy prep. The momentum of the uprising was immeasurable, but Egypt’s art world was doing it’s damnedest to capture it, and more importantly, to promptly deliver it to the people with the excited rush that comes with such revolutionary change.
Before Spring, Must Come … Answers?
Before the Arab Spring, movies, music and magazines became intimately intertwined into the Egyptian sub-culture, even going so far as being referenced in daily speech. The popular 1997 song “Kamanana” by Mohamed Fouad became so successful that the word – which literally means nothing – somehow became synonymous with the word “everything” (Egyptians now use the word often in daily slang). There’s even a cosmetic store in a Cairo mall actually called Kamanana – I’m guessing since Cleo’s MakeUp Shack was probably already taken. So, even amidst the turmoil and strife of the corrupt Mubarak regime, artists still found themselves able to connect with the people, and create relatable, palpable material for Egyptian society to enjoy.
In this way, the pre-revolutionary expression of Egyptian art was one of answers, where a beginning, middle and end was established in films, books and songs that lucidly revealed the people’s mindset of the moment. Now, there is such an uncertainty to where the country is going, artists are finding the inspiration isn’t flowing so freely. A writer’s block of sorts is surfacing amongst artists, where once easily emerging creativity isn’t being produced with the same fervor as it once was.
Finding An Open Chair Once the Music Stops
As opposed to the US and the West in general, where confusion and uncertainty themselves can be potent catalysts found within the heart of the art*, Egypt is now struggling to find its artistic identity post-Mubarak era. It seems that the “magic” of the revolution has dispelled – and what’s left behind is a list of unsavory words that Egypt’s artists are straining to incorporate into their creations. Turmoil, bloodshed, unrest, the compromising of women’s safety and general miscommunication are all found on that list, replacing words like change, hope and progress as inspirations to create fresh forms of expression. Even established artists and performers who participated in creating art pre-revolution (and during for that matter) are finding themselves challenged to grasp the elusive “pulse” that once pounded so steadily and clearly within Egyptian culture.
It appears that for Egyptian artists right now, the concepts of change, of hope and of progress are easier to use as muses than are those of unpredictability, disquiet and turbulence. Before and during the uprising, there was a clamor from all artistic realms to support the protests and excite the popular mindset into a frenzied mutiny for change. Street graffiti showcased statements of rebellion, while gallery exhibits in museums displayed past revolutionary art. It seemed everyone was riding the fantastical wave of dissent, and the tides were heartily flowing with plenty of inspiration to help plug art into Egyptian life and Egyptian life into its art.
The critically acclaimed short film Interior/Exterior by Tamer Habib, starring the celebrated Egyptian actress Yousra explores a middle-aged couple’s participation with the Tahir Square crowds – but that was before the revolution ended and the dust settled. Both Habib and Yousra claim to now be taking a break from any projects having to do with the revolution, and have reportedly distanced themselves from any works involving the subject matter.
The protest movement’s most popular song was written by the little known guitarist Ramy Essam, who also composed a series of chants and lines for the crowds to wail in the middle of the square. Now, with the unified assembly of men and women dissipating, the square is becoming a place of violence and hostility, and those chants are no longer the people’s calls to arms.
Published on January 17th, 2011, immediately before the start of the Tahir Square rebellion, Revolution 2.0, by Wael Ghonim chronicles the memoirs of the then-unknown Google geek who’s Facebook page helped energize the Jan. 25th protests and who was released from 11 days of interrogation by the secret police thanks to a public outcry for his freedom. That public’s adoration was due to Ghonim’s invigorating revolutionary charisma. With no clear leader to coalesce the masses in transition from upheaval to peaceful order, it seems – at the moment – like Revolution 3.0 doesn’t stand much of a chance to be pitched as a sequel.
Even dissident veteran singer Mohamed Mounir, considered by many to be the “Voice of Egypt”, is having trouble with the composition of his upcoming album. The songs don’t seem to come easily, he claims, as each day brings with it another point of view of what should be done, and another question about what lays ahead for Egypt. “How can we in the middle of the revolution sing and dance?” Mounir poses, revealing further how engrained and in tune many Egyptian artists seem to be with their people. “The true artist is the one who sees further than the people see,” he also claims – but it is precisely this philosophy that most artists are grappling with, and what could essentially be the only way to emerge from the uncertain storm that has strangled Egypt’s artistic life-force.
What Will Egypt Paint On Its Newly Blank Canvas?
Despite the [hopefully] temporary choke-hold on Egypt’s artistic realm, there are still those who are determined to trudge through the uncertain times ahead – even through experimental measures – and emerge creatively triumphant for it. Yousry Nasrallah, easily regarded as one of the country’s most revered directors, is countering the confusion by happily tapping directly into it. He’s shooting his next fictional film project and centralizing it around the revolution. But what makes this a unique venture in Egyptian filmmaking is that he’s doing it without a script; basically recording footage as he writes, and writing as he’s recording. The method sounds similar to shooting a documentary – which is a genre that’s creating international appeal – but what Nasrallah is proposing seems to be a fused creation that would be a new art form for a new Egypt. And what better way to rise from the ashes, then to allow the phoenix to fly, uninhibited.
If the West can offer anything to the uncertain course of re-birth that has enveloped Egypt, it should be that of the emergence of a reinvigorated artistic movement; one that values and capitalizes on the strength (and potency) of rebellion. It is precisely this energy that initially gathered the masses under the flag of change, and – if thoughtfully re-imagined and re-invented – can be exactly what unifies the people to transform hope for change into attainment of change.
*Recent US examples of both fiction and non-fiction works on film where political or social uncertainty are the underlying elements of the art:
Films: V for Vendetta; Fahrenheit 9/11; An Inconvenient Truth; Avatar; Inside Job; Waiting For Superman; Wall Street
Music: ‘Meglomanic’, by Incubus; ‘Do The Revolution’, by Pearl Jam; ‘Union’ by Black Eyed Peas; ‘Information’ by Dredg
Books: ‘Revolution and Revolutionary Moments’ by James Defranzo; ‘Waking Up Strange: Let’s Start A Revolution!’ by Christopher Rothlem
STREET ART: Graffiti on Cairo's walls (Getty Images)