A conversation with the graffiti artist Ganzeer.
Bidoun: Introduce yourself. All we know is that you are a street artist.
Ganzeer: No, not all. But some things are more suitable on the street.
B: Have you been making things a long time?
G: Since 2007.
B: What were you doing before that? Are you a designer, for example?
B: So art has been something on the side, or design was on the side?
G: Not necessarily. I mean, I do both.
B: You do commercial work?
G: From time to time.
B: Meaning you don’t have a job?
B: I’m trying to get at what you were doing before…
G: What do you mean?
B: I’ll come out and say it — are you an artist? Were you an artist? C’mon, it’s a straightforward question.
B: Let me put it this way: are you someone who thinks about your work and the use of your work and the question of why one should work?
G: Yeah. I mean, sure. In general.
B: So before the 25th, how were you feeling about your work and the uses of your work?
G: I mean, I obviously didn’t think it was very meaningful… before.
B: You were, let’s say, frustrated?
G: I’m not sure I had reached the point of frustration yet…
B: Had you done shows in galleries?
G: Yeah. But that’s more of the problem.
B: Tell me why?
G: Why is it part of the problem? It doesn’t… Because it wasn’t fun.
B: It wasn’t satisfying?
B: But it’s your very own show?!
G: Yes, it’s my very own show!
B: A solo show!
G: Yes, even solo shows!
B: It wasn’t satisfying because it wasn’t important. Okay. And what was the center of your work at the time?
G: My work as a whole?
B: Yes, in general.
G: I mean, it depends on the thing.
B: Now we are getting somewhere. So work depends on the thing?
B: Is it fair to say that?
G: Yes, that’s fair to say.
B: So, you didn’t want to just… work. You wanted to be responding to something?
B: So what kind of things would you respond to?
G: What kind of things? Okay, it’s like this — there are two types of shows… or art-type things… I’ve been involved with so far. There’s one where I have an idea, independently, and I do it, tell people and they’re like, “Great, okay, let’s do this.”
Then there’s when someone says something like, “Okay, we’re going to do a show about this theme, this thing.” And a bunch of different artists do something on this theme. And then I’ll do stencils for this thing, let’s say. So yeah, I’m really involved in both.
However, both are kind of dictated… In one you are put in this situation of having to figure out what to do with it, this specific theme. To respond to it or whatever. So you do a specific thing, responding to the thing, and it might be nice for this thing or whatever, but… there is still a very specific type of audience that goes to this thing to see these types of things… Whether it’s a specific audience in Cairo or elsewhere, it’s still the same very specific audience, and they see things in a very specific sort of way.
On the other hand — even if you do your own stuff, for yourself — you do your own stuff knowing you’re doing it for a gallery, eventually… Obviously if I do something for a gallery it wouldn’t be the same as something I would do for the street or in the form of a freaking zine that I give people on the street… or something for the internet. Like, in each situation I have the audience in mind, otherwise I would be kind of stupid.
So basically, I’d say the gallery stuff is the least satisfying work you could ever do, because — uh — what it means to the audience is not relevant to life. You know what I’m saying?
B: Yeah. I just want you to say it. So how did the thing that happened since the 25th affect the things you make?
G: You mean since January 25? It’s kind of fucked up. Like it always is. I was mostly staying at friend’s places, bumming around, whatever.
B: More concretely?
G: Well. I kind of did a thing that’s kind of hush-hush, top secret. I did this little leaflet as a PDF. Advice for protesters…
B: Is this the twenty-six page thing?!
G: Was it twenty-six pages? I made it on the twenty-seventh…
B: What was in the manual?
G: Just advice.
B: Like practical advice?
G: Yeah, like where, and how, we should move, maneuver, things like that.
B: And how did you come up with this stuff?
G: Well, kind of by coincidence — I hadn’t planned to join the protests on the 25th. I was just hanging out with friends who lived close to Tahrir. Day of, right. We were just dicking around. Listening to music.
B: What music?
G: Bob Dylan.
[Laughter. Short break for applause.]
And then, so I’m like seeing these tweets, Twitter activity, and all of a sudden I see masses of people, masses of tweets, live videos. Like masses right? And to see it happening — people joining, chanting, like, the Arab anthem. Just on the streets — it felt really amazing.
So I went down, I hit the streets and there were shitloads of riot police everywhere surrounding the square to make sure nobody gets through. By the time I reached them, the people… I’m not sure where they were coming from — they were marching, they kept coming, they kept arriving. I was kind of walking on the sidewalk and there are shitloads of people standing on the sidewalk too… lots of protestors chanting, and they met up with the riot police who were just behind me and at that moment — they clashed. Pinned them in. And then the people who were just standing on the sides went berserk. They started shouting at the police and then everyone started jumping off the rails, and fucking pounding the police….
B: The people on the sides weren’t actually protestors?
G: No! Exactly — they were just the people on the street, locals, workers, but when they saw what was going on, they just had to join because it was just so fucking — you know? So, anyway, I ended up there… and I started to notice how the riot police had a strategy… they would pull back and people would start relaxing, just chilling… They started chilling and started marching toward, say, Kasr El Aini Street, but at the same time they were totally ignoring the fact that riot police were closing off the rest of surrounding streets. It was weird for me, just as an observer: why were they ignoring the riot police behind them and to their sides? Obviously they were going to get cornered. Which is what happened. It got me to think, okay, maybe I should put something together and spread it out. Maybe I could help….
B: So it was just from observation?
G: I mean, it was observation first, plus things I looked up online. Like, what to do with tear gas: Don’t use water, use this or that… But the more specific Cairo stuff had to do pretty much with observation. With the hope that people would be more collectively organized.
B: Were you an activist before this?
G: No! I’m not an activist, but I wouldn’t have minded being one, obviously. But it wasn’t like my mission in life. Yeah, but it was obvious that we didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. They just wanted to head to the streets and figure shit out on the way.
B: What else did you do during that period?
G: As far as design and art, that was the main thing. And then there were stickers and flyers and specific things for Heliopolis, where I’m from. We did a protest in Heliopolis.
B: What was the impetus for that?
G: Midway during the thing — the whole situation — there was a point when you got all these really honest, really sincere, pro-Mubarak people. Especially where I am from. That was the part that was really sad. I would come here to Tahrir, and everybody would be celebrating, as if they were all of Egypt, penned in by the army. But on TV, and in newspapers, there were these lies being spread, that the people in Tahrir were mixed up with foreigners, and… I’d go home to Heliopolis and people were plastering pro-Mubarak fliers everywhere — and I was like, Dudes?! Thinking they’re doing, like, nice good deeds, for the people of Egypt. Handing them out to cars in traffic. And the guys inside are probably like, “Far out!” So I would come, and they would ask me for stories, and I’d be like, Yeah, check out these videos. And I’d show them these videos. And they’d be like, “Oh shit, all these people in Tahrir!” They had no idea that this was a revolution.
B: Okay, so that was during the revolution. What about now — with the changes that have taken place, whatever we call them — the change of atmosphere. Would you say it has changed the way that you work, or just given you a different context?
G: I think it’s just given me a different context.
B: It interests me coming from a country where we have not overthrown Mubarak — in a way we still want, and do not have, what you now have, in terms of a different context in which to make and show work.
G: Well, I know. Although, umm, I think you guys — and I guess by you guys, I mean people living in the States — you do have a lot to talk about… but you might not necessarily be very aware of, of, of… I mean. Listen. America is not a democracy. Okay? That’s something to talk about. You don’t need Mubarak to talk about politics, you know what I’m saying? Just because you guys have a little piece of paper you put in the ballot doesn’t mean you have a democracy. I think the situation has been neutralized in the States, in a way, for you guys to believe it is a democracy — that you are free.
B: We are totally free… to express ourselves.
B: How have you been expressing yourself lately?
G: The martyr mural project, which is, like, big murals with martyrs. This is a long-term thing, because it takes me a while to do one. And there are a lot of them. So it’s ongoing.
B: And you do this without permission — you just pick a wall?
G: Yeah. Usually public walls.
B: I heard one of your martyrs got painted over…
G: One of the martyrs was erased, with a horrible brownish-beigeish-pinkish weird color. It caused an outrage in the Twittersphere.
B: Do you know who erased the…
G: Looks like a government job to me. That awful color, man! And the paint splattered all over the floor — very government. It started an outrage so we’re kind of organizing a… response. We’re calling it the Mad Graffiti Weekend. And we’re going to mobilize and hit several locations across Cairo.
B: How many of you are there?
G: I have no idea, dude; it depends on who shows up.
B: So now you’re a street artist?
G: Well no, not at all.
B: Would you say that you care about street art? Or you don’t not care about street art?
G: Yeah. I mean, I don’t oppose the idea of street art.
B: But it’s not a fetishized thing.
G: Right, but I do think that it is an important thing. As a way to reclaim the streets, make it the people’s street, not anybody else’s… the idea that you need permission.
B: You have a new employer. You have a new context and you’re talking to a different audience, which is suddenly… the people. Rather than… art people. Does this audience exert a different pressure in terms of intelligibility… the pressure, let’s say, to be easily understood?
G: I mean, I don’t think it’s a good idea to underestimate your audience at all, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s fair to create something that doesn’t deserve to be created in the first place. That isn’t worthy of being… seen. If it’s too unclear to the point of it not meaning anything at all — if it’s that unclear — then I feel maybe it doesn’t deserve to exist… it needs to have people involved when seeing it. It’s like writing a book that shouldn’t be on the shelf. It has to be worthy of a person’s time to work through, to flip through, to read it.
B: But what makes it worthy?
G: What makes it worthy is that it is relevant to the viewer, not only relevant to yourself. If it’s just relevant to yourself, then there is no reason to put it on the street. I could just do it on my own, at home, on a piece of paper or sketchbook. But why do I choose to put it out there? Because it has to be relevant — obviously, if I’m doing it, it should be relevant to me, but if I’m putting it out there, I want it to be relevant to other people.
B: You want your work to work.
G: Yeah. But without underestimating people’s intelligence.
B: Do you have any examples of coming up against this issue?
G: Well, for example, I did a piece in Zamalek of Mubarak and his family.
B: Oh you did that piece? It’s very photo-real.
G: It’s life-size. It’s just the Mubaraks, taking a stroll, surrounded by little hearts. I drew them, and I drew little hearts around them. And that was it for me, I was done. But then when people were passing by some people would be like: Mubarak’s on a wall surrounded by little hearts — what the fuck is going on?! And I noticed that some people confused the message. It might have read like…
B: “I love Mubarak.”
G: Right. It might have seemed to people…
B: I thought it was state art!
G: So people got it confused. But initially when I came up with the idea it just made sense to me in that these people love each other. [Laughs]
B: It was right outside this really stodgy gallery though… was it commissioned?
G: Well… the owner of the gallery wanted me to do something at the space, and it was right after Mubarak stepped down. She was telling me, “We could have an evening where people could show art, speak, and talk about ideas, play music, poetry, whatever.” And people’s art could be sold and the profits could go to charity, whatever. And I was telling her, “I’m not sure if I would be interested in doing that sort of thing.” And she was telling me, “You know all these artistic people, I’m sure they do art, they respond to what’s happening.” And I’m telling her, “Yeah, they respond to what’s happening, but not necessarily in this gallery context.” And she’s like, “What! How are you responding?” And at that point I show her the picture of the mural for the first martyr, I had just finished it, and she’s like, “Perfect!” And she gets up and opens the gate and she’s like, “Do martyrs on all of these walls!” [Laughs] And she’s like, “Do Sally! Sally’s really cute!”
G: She’s a martyr.
B: Is she the hottest martyr?
G: She’s a chick. So, I told her, “Okay, I’ll see what I can do.” And then I called her back and said, “I’ll do it, it’ll be a nice surprise.” It took me a while to get around to it. She’d call me and be like, “I’m waiting for my paintings!” So I did the Mubaraks with the hearts. Outside the gallery. The attendant from the gallery calls me the next morning, very cautiously: “What does this mean?” I told him, “It’s a painting!” And he’s like, “But they’re not martyrs!”
And he says the gallerist told him to get a guy to come paint over it — the normal gray color. And so I talk to her and she says, “You deceived me!” I asked, “How did I deceive you?” And she said, “You said you would do martyrs and you didn’t do the martyrs.” And I’m like, “Well, at the time maybe I was reacting by doing martyrs, but right now I’m reacting to the situation at hand — and I did this. And you said you wanted to have an event where people react to the situation and stuff, so I thought I’d do this and then tell people, hey, check this cool gallery out, they have this wall, they allow us to do this critical art outside the space.” And I was talking to her that way. And she’s like, “No, no, no, no, no. It’s not acceptable, it’s not cool,” whatever. And then I had this really existential conversation with her about what’s acceptable and what isn’t acceptable, and what should be on the street and what shouldn’t be on the street. And then I made a deal with her that I’ll do the martyrs for her inside the gallery if she leaves this thing on the wall for one week. She said okay. But somebody else took it upon himself to spray paint over it.
B: So what’s happening — she’s disassociating from the mural?
G: I don’t know. But I’ll do the martyrs. There are walls on other streets. And it’ll make her happy. I want to do the martyrs anyway.
B: Why do you want to do martyrs?
G: Well, the martyrs are obviously — they are the safe street art you can do that is not offensive to anybody, so you know the possibility of them staying up for a long time is more likely than something more political. But at the same time they’re kind of powerful. Even though they’re the safest thing, they’re powerful. You’re seeing the person — it’s a strong reminder. These people died for a cause and you don’t want to let the cause die, for the sake of these people.
B: It’s a prickly issue, martyrs. It’s important. It’s important for it to stay in the public consciousness, but at the same time … when you repeat an image — when you see these people every day on walls and t-shirts, when you live on the street and you pass it on the way to work — there is the risk of them becoming like the Mona Lisa. Becoming invisible, kind of banal. I just kind of wonder if that’s part of your process?
G: Well, I never thought of that before. [Laughs] But it’s a good point. I mean, you do make a good point.
B: But is there a way of doing it that does both and not the other? It’s an interesting challenge. Because the easy thing to would be to think, “Okay, I don’t need to paint martyrs because somebody else is going to.” But the better question is, “How do I paint martyrs…”
G: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know…
B: There are a lot of martyrs.
B: Do you want to do them all?
B: Jesus Christ
B: How many have you done?
G: Three. [Laughs]
B: If you do one a day… so the one they painted over, are you going to redo it?
B: And every time they paint over one you will redo it?
G: That’s a very good question I haven’t thought of yet. I don’t know.