INTERVIEW WITH GANZEER BY KAREM SAID
â€śMask of Freedomâ€ť by Ganzeer, 2011. Original on the left, English translation on the right.
I approached Mohamed Fahmy, known as Ganzeer, for an interview in the spring of 2011. I had read about his murals project, which depicts martyrs of the Egyptian Revolution, though I soon realized that street art is merely one of a variety of forms that he uses. Ganzeer is an illustrator, designer, blogger, and occasional performance artist who takes up a host of mediums and forms as much to challenge himself as to best express his ideas. His work seeks to push social and political boundaries while calling upon the imagination of the viewer. Here I ask him about a few of his pieces that speak to the contemporary political moment in Egypt.
Karem: You received widespread national and international attention for the â€śMask of Freedomâ€ť image following your arrest for posting it around downtown in the form of stickers. As you explained in a blog post, it was a passerbyâ€™s uproar about the content of your sticker that led to your arrest, not military surveillance. Iâ€™m wondering about how you conceived of this graphic, which critiques attempts by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to subvert and dismantle the Egyptian Revolution. Many of their attacks have been on collective action such as protests and strikes â€“ which have ironically been criminalized â€“ yet your image is one of a single human being. Was this important for impact?
Ganzeer: Hm. Iâ€™m not sure I thought of it that way. I guess I took a standard advertising approach. The sticker is designed to look like (and emulate) an ad for any sort of commercial product that would be available in the market place. Instead of A4 batteries, a fridge, or a pair of sneakers, the sticker advertises the Mask of Freedom. Although there might be millions of batteries in production (same goes for fridges or sneakers), an ad doesnâ€™t necessarily have to showcase a quantity, but through the simple focus on a specimen, the productâ€™s availability is clearly communicated.
Karem: It is the text in the â€śMask of Freedomâ€ť image that establishes the graphic as an ad. There is a double meaning in the word â€śNewâ€ť at the top, in that the muzzling device is recently crafted for the market and is previously unheard of within ideas of democracy. How does your street art and illustrative work aim to counter what SCAF has been selling?
Ganzeer: I guess I rely on obvious symbolism a lot of the time, using it to shed light on the wrongs of the current situation or perhaps the upside of an alternative situation? Probably a lot less of the latter though.
Karem: Not all of the symbolism is obvious. Why the wings, for example? And why the titanium white coloring?
Ganzeer: Well the wings are a decorative representation of freedom. This is to say that the SCAFâ€™s idea of freedom is purely decorative and in no way grants the freedom that people want and need. The titanium white coloring was simply a design choice. Because the sticker is pretty small, I figured a yellow background would be powerful enough for it to stand out against Cairoâ€™s urban blend of grays and browns. Black text seemed like a powerful enough contrast. Now too many colors in this sticker wouldâ€™ve made it visually difficult to decipher, so a colorless figure just made sense to me. If the mask were in black, its details wouldnâ€™t have been obvious and could very well confuse people. Also, the mask is the real focus here, not the figure, so I opted for red for the mask. A gray rough stone for the mouth gag seemed uncomfortable and clear without being too distracting.
Now coincidentally enough, theyâ€™re all the colors on the Egyptian flag (except for gray), but with a very different balance, which makes it entirely different of course, but still kinda funny.
Karem: Youâ€™ve told me some about the value of surprise in encountering street art around the city. Does your interest in surprising pedestrians and drivers affect your choice of where to paint? How do you make this choice, in terms of neighborhood and surface?
Ganzeer: I suppose itâ€™s got to be a hood where I know people pass through. The surface just needs to be receptive to the tools I use, the staples, the paint, etc.
Karem: I ask in part because street art in Cairo is so far clustered in central neighborhoods (along with the upscale neighborhood of Heliopolis). This is evident in the Google map you set up, which allows people to follow and track a burgeoning movement in Cairo: www.cairostreetart.com
Ganzeer: I think its just easier to decide to do a piece on a street youâ€™ve passed through several times and know well enough to set your tools and paint. You may not know anybody in the hood, but you know the street, and you know that wall, and thereâ€™s relative comfort in working on it.
Karem: What are the stakes of charting new urban territory for street art?
Ganzeer: Seeking out â€śunchartedâ€ť territory is totally doable, but it would take more than one visit, which means getting there would have to be convenient for an artist.
Karem: While the Masks of Freedom image targets SCAF, you designed another prominent image that calls attention more broadly to military rule in Egypt. This piece of street art features an army tank aiming at a familiar figure on Cairo streets: a young man cycling whilst balancing a massive heap of freshly baked bread on his head. In a more humorous piece, your outdoor installation â€śA Soldierâ€™s Dance,â€ť filmed and edited by Aida El Kashef, takes various shots of a large paper doll of sorts made to resemble a man in military dress. The manâ€™s flimsiness is highlighted by air that wafts through the grate below. Would you describe these pieces as motivated by a political position or do you see them as responses to current events?
Ganzeer: It may not be the right time to address the Egyptian masses with my sentiments towards the mere existence of military in the world, but this is something I wrote about recently on Rolling Bulb,Â and it revolves around my strict opposition to military existence today and around the idea of dismantling armies, everywhere. The way I see it is that military is an obsolete extension of colonialism and the ages before, when nations were bent on increasing the scope of their borders and acquiring more land, more resources, and more people to enslave. Since the world has figured out other methods of accomplishing these means, armies have become more or less obsolete. There should be no place for them in todayâ€™s world. If world leaders and policy makers are sincere in wanting global peace to prevail, the dismantling of armies and weapons of war is not a very absurd thing to demand.
â€śA Soldierâ€™s Dance,â€ť 2011, by Ganzeer. Video by Aida El Kashef.
Weapons are truly a sick thing. Itâ€™s one thing to create an axe for the purpose of chopping wood, hunting for food, and fending for yourself against another man, if the situation calls for it. But building a tank, for example, which could only function to kill other men and destroy property indiscriminately is something else entirely, and completely stems from a sick mind with sick intentions. Such sick ideas should have no place in our world, and I think its time for humanity to evolve from dumb barbarian-ness and end all this bullshit already.
Karem: There are ways to create order and enforce law without the use of advanced weaponry, including guns, which might be viewed separately from dismantling standing armies. This all sounds very ambitious and a little improbable in places like Egypt, where cultural associations with military code and dress have been woven into basic and widely-shared concepts of nationhood. Any thoughts on how Egyptians might relinquish such attachment?
Ganzeer: Iâ€™m not really sure, but Iâ€™m hoping it might be done through the promotion of a humanist way of thought. I donâ€™t think this would have to interfere with national pride, except in cases where this pride oversteps the boundaries of humanity. We all may be Egyptian, but weâ€™re also all human beings. Being â€śEgyptianâ€ť might be a concept that is culturally instilled in a person over the years, but being human is something that we are born with. I sense (hope) that itâ€™s a quality embedded in us all that will therefore inevitably prevail.
Karem: Aim for the impossible. This seems to be a major lesson of the revolution. Would you say that your artwork has changed since the revolution began? Are you more interested in taking on the seemingly impossible than before?
Ganzeer: I suppose I may be less inclined to come up with excuses not do so ;-)
Karem: Iâ€™m looking at a copy of a booklet you created in 2009 called Ů…Ů† Ř§Ů„ŘŁŘ®Ř±. This literally translates as “from the end” meaning â€śexceedingly coolâ€ť or â€śbottom line.â€ť Each page uses collage work and sketches to whimsically illustrate a single directive, such as â€śStay away from television. It controls your mind and makes you lazy.â€ť Ů…Ů† Ř§Ů„ŘŁŘ®Ř± discourages consumerism and urges readers to think and live independently and simply. What was your inspiration for this booklet?
Front and back covers of Ů…Ů† Ř§Ů„ŘŁŘ®Ř± booklet, 2009, by Ganzeer.
Ganzeer: The honest and not so exciting answer is, I was working on a newsletter for a client that would be printed on the same paper stock in the exact same ink. The size of the newsletter would lead to an incredible amount of paper waste, so I quickly put together the content of Ů…Ů† Ř§Ů„ŘŁŘ®Ř± to make use of the extra paper. Thatâ€™s pretty much it, really.
Karem: And the content?
Ganzeer: I guess, the process of making it was sort of a reminder of the things I try to keep telling myself on a regular basis.
A page from Ů…Ů† Ř§Ů„ŘŁŘ®Ř±, 2009, by Ganzeer.
Karem: One page of Ů…Ů† Ř§Ů„ŘŁŘ®Ř± reads â€śAnything a human being thinks of can probably come true.â€ť The collage includes references to the Giza pyramids, architecture and outer space. The meaning conveyed by the images celebrates not just imagination but human achievement. I wonder if the revolution changes ideas about human achievement. Would you illustrate this page differently today?
Ganzeer: Are you saying, would I include the fall of Mubarak in that collage? Maybe :-]
Karem: Itâ€™s a pretty astounding achievement, no?
Ganzeer: Absolutely. But then again, as many of us have seen in the film â€śPulp Fiction,â€ť the idea of the untouchable â€śmob bossâ€ť is a complete sham. We have this guy Marsellus Wallace, whoâ€™s set up to be all badass and takes no shit. But he ends up getting fucked in the ass after all. Anybody in this here world is prone to getting fucked in the ass.
Karem: You seem to notice the remarkable in ordinary lives, such as in your exhibition of illustrations in 2007 featuring everyday heroes, such as a street sweeper and a newspaper salesman. What is heroic about these people?
Ganzeer: Well, take the street sweeper for example. If Iâ€™m walking down the street, just to buy groceries or whatever, then I have to withstand heat (or cold if its winter), pollution, and noise, and only for a few minutes really, and its tough. The street sweeper is out there all freakin day. And sweeping up Cairo? Thatâ€™s a superpower right there. The amount of dust I have to sweep out of my own room is enough to drive me crazy.
Karem: Do you see the murals youâ€™ve done of revolutionary martyrs as an extension of this project?
Ganzeer: Not at all, actually.
Karem: How important is it that your art communicate to an audience? Does this depend on the piece? Who are you most interested in communicating with?
Ganzeer: Itâ€™s absolutely important! It really is the point of making anything, as far as Iâ€™m concerned. And I will say that I am not particularly concerned with communicating to a specific group of people all the time, but I sincerely am invested in communicating with everyone, which means I would sort of communicate with a specific community depending on the project at hand, and then move on to communicating with a different community with a different project. Sometimes projects will communicate with more than one community at the same time. Itâ€™s possible.
Karem: You have commented in a blog post on Rolling Bulb about how street art is covered over not only by state authorities, but also by regular folks who would like to censor revolutionary messages. Most recently, plainclothes police were photographed covering two pieces of street art you made with another artist while in Beirut.
In a more disturbing example, your mural of Egyptian revolutionary and martyr Islam Raafat was covered in Cairo last April. Do you think these acts are related to preserving a certain kind of order in public space? Who or what is protected by covering street art that explicitly critiques those in power?
Ganzeer: I think we, as human beings, grow up with certain notions of dos and donâ€™ts and cans and cants. When these notions are challenged, it is not in the interest of two types of people:
1) People in Power
2) People who have found comfort in believing the limitations of these notions.
It is my personal experience that the people responsible for most acts of censorship are those who have found comfort in believing the limitation of these notions. By doing so, they protect what they believe to be right from what they think is wrong. Censorship is a tricky thing, and Iâ€™m totally against it, even in the case of things that I find incredibly wrong. Others will disagree with me, and claim that censorship of racism is not the same as censorship of sexuality. It really is a tricky thing. I say down with censorship altogether.
Now thatâ€™s not as dangerous a notion as it may sound. Just because I wouldnâ€™t censor racist opinions of someone does not mean I would oppose a person being convicted for a racist act of violence.
In a way, the act of censoring gives the censored more of a drive and motive to speak out, because he/she knows a nerve mustâ€™ve been hit, which is why the act of censorship mustâ€™ve taken place.
Published November 12th, 2011.