In the 17 months since the Egyptian uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, the streets of Cairo have undergone a transformation of their own. A subculture of graffiti artists has emerged, using the walls downtown as their canvas to address pertinent issues from virginity tests to military authoritarianism and government corruption. Even the less confrontational, expressionist street art seems to bear the mark of the revolution.
Twenty-five-year-old Hend Kheera is one of those at the forefront of Egypt’s burgeoning street art movement, pushing the boundaries of what is socially acceptable in an overwhelmingly patriarchal and sexist society. Kheera has been drawing since she was a kid, and worked as a fashion designer while at university. She’s now a structural engineer, but graffiti offers an outlet for her creative side. One of her most well-known pieces was created in response to the trial of Samira Ibrahim, who took the government to court in August last year as a result of her strip-search by a military doctor after she and several other women were detained at a protest in Tahrir Square, then videotaped while the doctor violated them. Kheera’s provocative stencil was an outline of a woman, crossed out in red, with the caption, “Don’t touch. Castration awaits.”
So far, she says, her street art hasn’t got her into trouble at home. “My family didn’t see this, this graffiti. But my mom heard about it from a newspaper and she said, ‘You said this?’ She was surprised, yeah,” Kheera confesses, laughing. “But she supports me.”
Kheera attributes the recent proliferation of street art in Egypt to the fact that people are no longer as afraid to speak out as they were under Mubarak’s regime. That’s not to say there’s no longer any risk involved. Police and military personnel are still quick to arrest protestors and anyone speaking out against the new regime, including journalists and artists. “Sometimes I’m worried,” Kheera says. “I don’t want to be arrested because I want to be able to keep on doing this. But if I am arrested, it’s OK. I know what I’m going to say: that I believe in what I’m doing, I want to communicate with people and have them share the same ideas. Stop restricting freedom of expression, it’s not a crime to speak out.”
It’s not just the authorities that pose a threat to street artists in Egypt though. Often, members of the public are opposed to graffiti too, declaring that it’s vandalism and/or offensive and demanding that it be removed. It’s not uncommon to see small crowds gathered around a piece debating its meaning. Generally, a positive consensus will emerge and trouble is averted, but there have been occasions when violence has erupted. And, as a woman by herself in a country where female harassment is widespread, Kheera must be doubly careful when creating her art. “I paint during the day – as early as possible,” she says. “I can go painting before I go to work, at six or seven in the morning.” That’s partly so she’s not out alone in the middle of the night. But also, as Kheera casually admits, “so no one gives me any trouble.”
For Kheera, her graffiti is worth the hassle. “You write on a wall in the street to speak to people. In my opinion, a wall is more powerful than any media channel, for example, because you can’t ignore it.” She adds, “By making graffiti in the streets [you] make people aware of what’s happening.” In the end, the most important thing about street art is, she says, “that the work is active and creative, [artists] have a tool not many people have – to express themselves – and maybe they can capture something nobody notices, focus on it and somehow show it in a visually beautiful way.”
Kheera says her main influences come from books and films, rather than other artists (although she admits her admiration for Ganzeer, Sad Panda, Hany Khalid, El Teneen, and, of course, “I love Banksy”).
And while she might use certain characters from literature or cinema in her work, that’s not where her ideas come from. “I think about what I’m going to do in my next artwork according to the events happening at the time,” Kheera says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next, everything is changing so fast.”