After two months of seriously hard work, the exhibition ‘This Is Not Graffiti’ opened last night at Townhouse Gallery’s Factory Space in Downtown Cairo. Bridging a common ground between the art institution and graffiti artists is an unnervingly risky business; you never quite know what to expect of the artists – let’s just say a lot of pranks and schemes were being considered – while the art institution has preconceived notions and standards that need to be reached to impress it, which often put the feasibility and longevity of this exhibition at a serious risk.
Based on the great turnout yesterday of a diverse crowd including graffiti fans, art collectors, activists, journalists, art students and the graffiti artists themselves; I’m happy to think that ‘This Is Not Graffiti’ achieved its goal.
When I developed this concept, I received a lot of flak for commercializing/bastardising/ mainstreaming an underground art scene that belonged to the street. While I don’t completely subscribe to this puritanical belief, I wanted to bring graffiti artists inside and see if audiences would still come to see their work. Because graffiti survives on being seen and reacted to. And based on the very diverse crowd of yesterday, including many who were completely against the exhibition, I’d like think that – based on my own understanding of what graffiti is – the exhibition succeeded.
In my humble non-expert opinion, the artists produced wall art that perfectly represents their identities and the different forms of graffiti: you have the provocative and controversial piece by Hend Kheera, you have the direct and offensive messages by Sad Panda and Adham Bakry, the layered and compelling stencils of Charles Akl and Amr Gamal, El Teneen and Keizer. Dokhan’s massive self-portrait could easily be an example of self-aggrandisement. Hany Khaled’s wall mural incorporated simple shapes with Arabic words drawn out in a boxed, hip-hop-style font; perfectly combining Western and Arabic influences (as did Charles Akl and Amr Gamal).
Adham Bakry and Sad Panda took the opportunity to send a direct message to the exhibition and art gallery, a fact that wasn’t lost at all on the audience. Their wall art pieces were probably the most photographed of the evening; and the fact that these graffiti artists were directly insulting the gallery from the inside out was an exciting experience for many people present.
That’s what graffiti can be: blatant, witty, offensive, attacking directly or subtly commenting. Nuanced, layered, thought-provoking or simply beautiful to look at.
In that sense, I’m happy the way this exhibition came together. The nine participating artists put a lot of thought, heart and effort into their wall art; some wall pieces needed up to eight people and three days of hard work to complete. One artist pulled two overnights to get his wall art finished on time.
No one made any kind of financial profit out of this exhibition. What it did was connect the artists and their with fans and members of the press. This was the first time for many of these artists to be exposed to direct feedback. It’s one thing to make a stencil on a wall. It’s another thing to stand next to your piece and listen to what people have to say about it. This can be both liberating and intimidating.
Two art collectors approached me at the gallery, asking about the artists’ work; one documentary maker and a producer of a graffiti book wanted to get in touch with them. Depending on how you look at it; these might be great opportunities for the artists or the death of their authenticity. If this means the graffiti scene is being corrupted and ruined, it’s comforting to know that the streets of Cairo are always there to go back to.
I’m very happy to have worked with these artists and watch their creative process unfold; if that makes me a sell-out, I’m ok with that. Because I got my answers to all my questions.