Art, détournement and revolution

How many times have we seen images associated with ancient Egypt used for everything from shampoo labels to coffee table nick-nacks? Wherever you are in the world, you can’t escape the “Egyptian” tat – Nefertiti heads and King Tut – recreated in virtually every kind of medium from candles to candies. Do we ever stop and think about what they mean?

Maybe we go to the museum, where we’ll get to see an arrangement of yellowy rags bundled together in a “mummy.” We know about the Mummy, he’s scary. We gave at it through the vitrine. The idea that it used to be a person is as weird and unlikely as the idea that “Tut” was a person. We actual never think about the actual Egyptian civilisation, the people that lived in it, how they lived and how they were ruled, What we do know is the gorgeous figures of Pharaonic art, and we love it. We love it so much, we made two century’s worth of ersatz rubbish based on it.

Actually the Pharaonic art that we know is the art of the Egyptian state. A culture where religion and state were one, most of what we have seen is the art of the rulers and their accomplices. Ancient Egypt was a well run, orderly and very hierarchical society.

Nazir Tanbouli has written about his encounters with Pharaonic and pre-pharaonic art. Many Egyptian artists do find themselves confronting this artistic heritage, in the same way that contemporary Greeks have to confront classical art, and Italians are haunted by the baroque. What do you do? Ignore it and pursue the internationalist style? Reject it openly and vandalise it though your work? Commercialise and commodify it? There is no easy or correct answer.

Now Alaa Awad, a young Egyptian artist from the south of Egypt, from Luxor, has come to Cairo to be an artist of the revolution. A mural painter in Luxor, where the Pharaonic art reached its aesthetic apex – he has chosen to use the mural format to détourn this same, powerful, resonant Pharaonic art to serve the people’s revolution. The Pharaonic images are potent: they served the state and kept the politics and religion together, creating a timeless, formal image of “Egypt” for well over 5000 years now. Yet Alaa is reconfiguring Pharaonic imagery right there on the strret, on the walls and blockades of the state, to serve the revolutionary energies of the people. It’s an interesting détournement: statism into revolution; asserting the continuum of the Egyptian people and their right to “own” the images of their history; the right to take over the streets and make art a tool of revolution.

It’s exciting, and to my mind it’s what public/street art is for. Yes, we’ve seen that kind of artistic action before, in 1917 Russia and in Mexico. Both created wonderful revolutionary art that has lasted longer as art than the revolutionary movement they served. But this feels different, I don’t know why. Nobody can know where the revolution will go next, or where anything will go for that matter. But in the moment, this art is glorious, hopeful and timeless.

For amazing photos of the Cairo revolution murals, see the photos of Jonathan Rashad

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