The Art of Liberation Without Curation
Words, Non-fiction
Los Angeles, CA

I saw firsthand in Egypt how street-art played a direct role in some of the political changes between the years of 2011-2013. There was street-art that criticized Egypt’s military apparatus so poignantly that people went out and actively chanted against the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. This was simply unheard of. I also saw a wall of murals commemorating fallen protesters turn into a shrine, where people would come place flowers and look at portraits of their friends and loved ones. I even saw murals that were the cause of huge clashes. Egyptian artists really knew how to utilize the power of street-art, which is precisely why the Egyptian government introduced and heavily enforced anti-vandalism laws akin to the ones established in America.

Street-art festivals, the method through which cities offer a legal venue for artistic expression are great, but I find that they seldom result in genuine social expression rather than works that are, generally speaking, very decorative. There are a few exceptions to the rule, such as the works of Blu, and recently Herakut, and sometimes Os Gemeos, but for the most part, artists tend to treat these festivals as an opportunity to showcase their signature styles or to try out new techniques rather than an opportunity to say something relevant.

While I wouldn’t necessarily blame this on the festivals themselves, and it has a lot more to do with the individual artists involved, the truth is that organizers of these sort of festivals are primarily interested in a particular street-art culture that celebrates style more than anything else. Uncurated and unsupervised spaces of visual expression are vital for the emergence of socially conscious artwork outside of the rather closed off subculture of street-art.

Graffiti as a symptom or cause of urban decay is a very Western phenomenon due to the art form’s early associations with gang culture. For the rest of the world—which is actually the vast majority—both graffiti and street-art tend to be utilized as modes of social expression and community reflection. Seldom will you find practitioners obsessed with their tags or with drawing cool looking images that don’t necessarily mean anything. As opposed to what is common in the U.S., a person’s drive to go and write or draw something on a wall has very little to do with ego or self gain, and far more to do with the need to go out and express a social concern or a political criticism. Of course, this does not take away from the controversy associated with graffiti and street-art, but adds to it.

Having said that, I still think that if unsupervised spaces were widely available—even in Western countries—some very beautiful and socially conscious artwork would emerge out of them. It would, without a doubt, start off with haphazardly done tags and whatnot, but I imagine it would slowly evolve over time. Someone would come and write something, then someone else would come and draw something in response to that, and then perhaps someone would come and build on top of that drawing, and so on. Rather than a sacred piece of artwork, framed and hung inside a museum upon completion, this would be an ever-evolving kind of street-art. Very alive and always changing as per the whims and conditions of its surrounding inhabitants. Artwork that is as much alive as the cities that host them, never stagnant. That’s the kind of street-art I’m really looking forward to seeing. 

Read more at The Nature of Cities

Featured image: An ever-evolving wall in Berlin featuring the work of El Teneen, Hanaa El Degham, and Ganzeer.