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Egypt uprising art brightens Cairo, tempts buyers

A flowering of Egyptian art since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak is adding color to the capital Cairo and an upswing in business at the city's galleries, as the pride, anger and optimism of a long-frustrated generation plays out on canvas.
People walk by graffiti showing a protester with an Egyptian flag in front of the sun in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, on July 23. Since activists pushing for faster changes blocked traffic in the square, artists have covered the asphalt with paint, leaving behind works of graffiti that stretch across lanes of traffic. Khalil Hamra / AP
/ Source: Reuters

A flowering of Egyptian art since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak is adding color to the capital Cairo and an upswing in business at the city's galleries, as the pride, anger and optimism of a long-frustrated generation plays out on canvas.

Politically-inspired photography, graphic design and graffiti sprayed or stencilled on walls, fences, bridges and fly-overs have flourished since the 18-day uprising toppled the autocratic leader.

Across Cairo, faces of protesters killed during the uprising are immortalized on concrete, fists are shown breaking free from ropes and ancient mummies scream "I am free!."

Much of the street art reflects pride in the movement that united Egyptians across class and religion to put an end to decades of calcified politics and a gaping rich-poor divide.

In Nasr City, a beautiful woman is spray-painted on a fence surrounding a plot of disused land, her dress in the flowing colors of Egypt's red, white and black national flag. Further west in Mohandiseen, an imam and a priest are shown standing hand in hand on the side of one building.

Elsewhere it is darker, angrier. One image painted on a disused building shows a man writhing in chains wrapped tight around his body.

Other graffiti shows anger toward Mubarak and his family -- the former leader is depicted scowling arrogantly or with his head in a noose -- or anxiety at whether Egypt's military rulers really want to deliver the country to democratic civilian rule.

An army officer sketched on a wall in a busy street asks passers-by "man antum?" (who are you?), an allusion to Muammar Gaddafi's disdainful question aimed at Libyan rebels, implying that the military council holds Egyptians in similar contempt.

'Enormous interest'
Some art dealers say the movement is grabbing the attention of collectors at home and abroad.

"There's an enormous interest and push for the graffiti artists, for the illustrators, for the new comic books that are coming out," said William Wells, Director of Cairo's Townhouse Gallery. "At the moment, foreigners are coming through the city constantly looking for them."

Mona Said, owner of Safar Khan gallery, said she received strong interest in her first "To Egypt with Love" exhibition at the gallery in March. The exhibition displayed photography and graphic artwork inspired by the uprising.

"I sold four times what I expected to sell," said Said. "I shipped all over the world."

Hossam Hassan, who combines photography, digital design and painting, depicted protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square at Safar Khan's gallery.

He said the beige background of his canvases reflects a decaying feeling on the eve of the uprising.

"Everything was cloudy, beige, colourless, tasteless before the revolution. These people came with their energy and injected this red, orange, yellow energy into Egypt," he said, pointing to the splashes of color on the paintings.

Hassan says his work on the uprising will be exhibited in European capitals including Vienna and London this year and will appear next year in a Paris exhibition commemorating the first day of the uprising, January 25.

Fears of censorship
Other artists hope their depictions of the revolution will promote social causes they say were neglected under Mubarak, who is on trial accused of authorizing the use of live ammunition to shoot protesters, of corruption and abuse of power.

Hanan el-Nahrawy, a deaf-mute artist who has produced surrealistic oil and ink images of Mubarak, said -- through her son who interprets for her -- that she wants to spread awareness for deaf-mutes who received little care under the former leader.

"Mubarak did not like the disabled, whatever their disability," said Nahrawy. "In the days of (previous president) Anwar al-Sadat, there was more attention to the disabled."

One of Nahrawy's canvases depicts the Nile flowing through Mubarak's face, its delta branching off in vein-like lines on his forehead. A small fist carrying tear-shaped nooses is painted on one of his cheeks, while small images of people carrying Egypt's flag chip away at the other.

"These are the protesters trying to find out what's hidden, how much he owns," said Nahrawy. "The veins are like the reverberations of an earthquake. The revolution shook Mubarak."

Another of Nahrawy's works shows the Nile passing through an image that combines Mubarak's face with that of Hussein Salem, a close confidant of the former president charged with squandering public funds. Dollar signs fill the background.

Inspiration from the country's political upheaval is mixed with fears of political censorship by Egypt's army, which has ruled since Mubarak's overthrow on February 11. Rights groups worry over the army's use of military trials in cases where civilians criticized its actions.

Many artists are concerned that religious conservatives now vying for power may try to exert pressure that will curb freedom of expression.

"We've moved into a situation that's a little bit disturbing with the army now adopting similar tactics in terms of censorship that we had prior to February 11," said Wells.

Hassan said the diversity of religion and culture that has inspired artists in Egypt is under threat from strict Islamist groups such as the Salafists.

"This is not right for Egypt. We'll go back to where we were before the revolution and worse," said Hassan.

"The beauty of Egypt is its diversity. I get very upset when Islamists or Salafists say 'Egypt is Islamist, it has to be this' ... the depth and strength of Egypt is that it's Coptic (Christian), Pharoanic, Muslim, modern and old."