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Cultural Connection

A Canvas to Egypt’s Imagination

Graffiti art on the walls in Cairo reflects the thoughts of Egyptians about the unrest in their country. (Mohamed Hossam/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Graffiti art on the walls in Cairo reflects the thoughts of Egyptians about the unrest in their country. (Mohamed Hossam/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

When, in the beginning of 2011, Egypt was swept up in the momentum of the Arab Spring, the atmosphere was one of hope and optimism. During those heady days in Tahrir Square, few people doubted that the uprisings, and the subsequent removal of former President Hosni Mubarak, would bring about freedom and justice.

Not only did the revolutionaries hope for political liberties and social justice, but the post-revolutionary freedom was to be all-encompassing: political freedom, religious freedom, and social freedom. For Egypt’s many artists, writers, actors and cinematographers, the demand for social autonomy was especially important. During Mubarak’s thirty-year dictatorship, many freedoms had been strictly curtailed. Not only was organized political dissent punishable by law, open criticism of the regime could lead to arrest or imprisonment. Subsequently, the arts—as a form of human expression—suffered greatly under Mubarak’s rule. During his reign, the Ministry of Culture strictly monitored artists and their work, and if the work did not follow the government’s idea of “appropriate art,” the offending pieces were destroyed.

“The control they had over the production of art was enormous,” says Mohamed, a 45-year-old Egyptian visual artist. “When the agents of Mubarak came by your studio and told you they didn’t ‘like’ the work, you [knew not to] put it up in an exhibition.”

“We were hopeful that this would be a new beginning, a new chance.”

Mohamed’s friend Ibrahim, a fellow painter and sculptor, agrees: “If you put up an exhibition in a gallery, on opening night often one or two government agents would come to check out the work. If they found it too political or “un-Egyptian,” they would make sure the exhibition was closed down,” he said.

When the Arab Spring came to Egypt, artists like Mohamed and Ibrahim were hopeful that, with the departure of Mubarak, the newfound freedom would also make their lives easier as artists. “I thought that now I could make anything I wanted, make my own exhibitions, put up whatever I wanted, including politically or socially critical pieces,” says Ibrahim.

Mohamed adds: “We were hopeful that this would be a new beginning, a new chance.” As it turned out, things changed less than they had hoped. When Mubarak was ousted, there was a wave of artistic expression that swept over Egypt. This included the kind of political and critical pieces that Ibrahim had dreamed of creating. For a brief moment the artistic landscape in Egypt and especially in Cairo seemed like a place where anything and everything was possible.

Unfortunately this feeling would not last long. When President Mohamed Mursi was elected, and a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood was sworn in, things started to change. Although there was now more political freedom, artistic liberties were slowly eroded.

One of the artists who can testify to this is Adil. The 27-year-old painter was a great supporter of the revolution, but soon became disillusioned. “The censorship did not go away, it just changed,” Adil says. “Some of the Muslim Brothers in Parliament are extremely dogmatic and they soon started to try to control artists like myself, just as Mubarak did.” Control of individual public expression—be it verbal, on paper or on canvas—have always been a major part of the Islamists’ agenda.

Even during Mubarak’s reign, the Islamists in Parliament (then “independents”) devoted most of their energies to cultural or media issues. They lobbied extensively to introduce legislation that would ban not only books and works of art on the basis of their so-called “indecent nature” or “obvious sexual references,” but also called to ban concerts that featured female singers. Under Mubarak their desire to censor works like this did not amount to much in practice, and in a sense the Mubarak regime protected the secular, liberal elements in the Egyptian arts. However, after the revolution, when the Brotherhood came to power, this protection was gone. The Islamists became emboldened and were able to exercise greater control over Egyptian society and over the arts.

Adil had first-hand experience of the Islamists’ newfound confidence. He says: “I made a large painting of a belly dancer holding a Quran, and I hung it in the window of my workshop. It was there for only half an hour before two members of the Brotherhood told me to remove it. I refused, but that night all the windows of my workshop were smashed and the painting was ruined”.

Adil is not the only one who has had this experience. Layla is a young playwright whose work deals with the political and social scene in Egypt. When she dared to put up a show that was slightly critical of Mursi’s regime, she says she received death threats and her Brotherhood landlord threw her out of her apartment. “I continued to stage the show for three more nights, but after that the threats became too scary for me,” she says.

Of course, now that Mursi has been ousted and the Muslim Brotherhood has been declared illegal, the nature of censorship is likely to change again. Religious or social criticism will probably no longer be the major problem, but now that the military has once again regained its power, political works may come under new scrutiny. While Layla is glad that the Muslim Brothers have been deposed, she is not without fear: “I’m afraid that my new show will be censored too. It is critical of the military coup. [Abdel-Fattah] El-Sisi’s people won’t like it.”

Ibrahim and Mohamed are also pessimistic. Mohamed says, “In my latest exhibition, I put up a photo of General Sisi and had photo-shopped him so that it seemed he was wearing an American military uniform with an American flag. The day after the opening I received a phone call from somebody from the ministry. Either I had to take down the photograph, or I would get in trouble”.

In spite of the hopes of the revolution, Egypt’s artists now fear a return to political censorship. However, Mohamed does not believe all is lost: “This too shall pass. People are still protesting, and as long as they protest there is hope and imagination. With imagination, everything is possible.”

He then adds, quoting the 19th century American author Henry David Thoreau, “You know, this world is but a canvas to our imagination.”

All names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals involved.

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Goos Hofstee
Goos Hofstee is a Middle East analyst and journalist working from Cairo and London. She focuses on political, social and religious issues in the Middle East.

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