Art and Freedom of Expression
The ability to express ourselves and communicate with others about important issues is vital to protecting and advancing human rights. For this reason, freedom of expression is often considered an important basis for the enjoyment of all other freedoms. In Canada, freedom of expression is protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Freedom of expression is also found in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
However, freedom of expression is not always supported or upheld by governments.
Beginning in late 2010, protests and democratic uprisings spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. These mass demonstrations have been called the “Arab Spring.” Protests occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Yemen and other countries, some of which resulted in overthrown governments and constitutional reforms.
On January 25, 2011, tens of thousands of protesters began to arrive in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt to call for President Hosni Mubarak and his regime to step down, marking the start of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Mubarak had been in power for 30 years and many Egyptians were frustrated by high levels of poverty and unemployment, high food prices, government corruption, and limitations to freedom of expression. In short, the protesters called for “bread, freedom and social justice.” Protesters also gathered in other city centres in Egypt, including Alexandria, Suez and Ismailia. On February 11, 2011, after 18 days of protest, President Mubarak stepped down.
Prior to the 2011 revolution, communication was heavily controlled in Egypt and graffiti was rarely seen. The revolution brought many new freedoms, including the freedom for artists and other activists to engage in public expression. With the start of the revolution came a surge of street art carrying political messages. Graffiti was used as a tool to raise awareness about issues in Egyptian society, to share information about what was going on, and to memorialize those who fought against and suffered under Mubarak’s regime. Street art became a way to promote alternative messages to those of the state-owned media. It was an accessible way to reach people and could be continually updated with new information, especially when authorities would wash away the previous messages.
With graffiti of all types, from large murals to thought-provoking words or phrases, artists shared ideas, posed important questions and engaged in debates. Using the walls of public spaces, Egyptian citizens were empowered to speak their minds, criticize their government and participate in a dialogue about what kind of country they wanted to see. In these ways, the graffiti movement played an important role in the Egyptian revolution and beyond.
Two reproductions of Egyptian street art from the time of the 2011 revolution are on display at the Museum in the Inspiring Change gallery. One mural was created by Aya Tarek of Alexandria, who was one of the first artists in Egypt to use graffiti as a medium for self-expression, even before the revolution. The artwork reproduced in the Museum is a cinema poster for a documentary about the 2011 revolution. It’s not surprising that film art inspires Tarek’s own work, as her grandfather Hassan Ibrahim created movie posters in the 1960s and 1970s.
The other mural featured in the Inspiring Change gallery is by Ammar Abu Bakr and Alaa Awad, both painters and art teachers from Luxor. Their artwork commemorates the Port Said massacre, an incident where 74 young men were killed and a thousand more people injured at a football (soccer) field in the city of Port Said on February 2, 2012. Many of those killed had been supporters of the 2011 revolution. Over the weeks following the massacre, the two artists worked tirelessly to create a mural nearly 30 metres long on a wall of the American University in Cairo. Museum visitors can see a reproduction of a small part of this famous mural. It is a painting of a mourning mother, holding a photograph of the son she lost in the massacre. This mother was added to the mural in a second round of painting done shortly before the presidential elections of May 2012, to remind citizens of what happened at Port Said. The changing artwork speaks to the fact that graffiti art in Egypt is rarely ever “finished” – instead, it is part of an ongoing conversation. Artists often add and remove parts of their creations in order to change or amplify the messages they want to communicate.
Street art continues to function as an integral part of the conversation about rights, democracy and the future of Egypt. One current initiative is Women on Walls (WOW), which uses graffiti to talk about women’s rights. WOW is now building a regional network, not just in Egypt, but in other countries such as Jordan.