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Egyptian Artists Work Around State Oppression And Censorship

Ollah — installation by Hossam Dirar (2015) CREDIT: VIA HOSSAM DIRAR
Ollah — installation by Hossam Dirar (2015) CREDIT: VIA HOSSAM DIRAR

In 2011, Egyptians flooded into Cairo’s Tahrir Square and demanded an end to Hosni Mubarak’s bumptious 30 year reign. Mubarak’s dismissal as leader instilled Egyptians with a renewed sense of optimism, as they awaited their nation’s amelioration.

Optimism quickly soured though as the coming regimes became increasingly oppressive. The economy tanked and the country’s security deteriorated. An Islamist insurgency in the Sinai worsened and police doled out brutality with as little impunity as ever.

The political and economic chaos, however, burgeoned Egypt’s contemporary art scene. Egyptian artist Hossam Dirar told ThinkProgress about how the 2011 revolution, and the events that followed, changed the country’s art.

“As an artist, the past [five to six] years, a lot has changed, since the revolution in 2011, of the parts of Egyptian life that was most affected was the arts. Both positively and negatively, many newcomers appeared on the scene, especially a lot of youth,” Dirar said. “This was great because the youth refreshed the scene and with the help of social media created a more open environment, many new private galleries opened.”

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In times of chaos, artistic expression can be cathartic. But artist expression in a place like Egypt can be insalubrious while working under an oppressive political regime.

“In recent years, the Egyptian arts and culture sector has faced debilitating repression,” the Arterial Network, a non-profit network of artists and activists building democratic arts practices in Africa, noted in December. “Prohibitive restrictions affecting the freedom of artists and journalists are ongoing.”

The Egyptian government passed a law that debilitated certain art-funding NGOs in 2014, and in December of last year, police raided and closed a gallery and a theater in downtown Cairo without giving an official reason. Some artists have also been banned from traveling abroad to receive awards for their work.

Crackdowns on the arts have led many Egyptian artists to avoid addressing politics altogether. “Most of the art since 2011 has avoided talking about political points, aside from a handful of artists,” Dirar told ThinkProgress.

“The current system is perhaps the worst in terms of attacking [or] not accepting people’s voices, whether artistic, political or social,” he said. “There can be no opposition; the state rejects opinions and ideas that differ from their own. The artist finds himself in a tight spot. If you like the system and choose to defend it, you’re fine, but if not, if you vocalize dissatisfaction, if your commentary does not match theirs, you could end up in jail for life.”

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Politics may be taboo or risky, but artists throughout history have found ways to be subversive or rebellious to oppression. But for some artists, avoiding politics is impossible. Their impact casts a shadow over society and affects the calculated behavior of every individual Egyptian. To avoid repression, Egyptian artists create social and political commentary using Aesopian methods.

Division (2013) installation by Hossam Dirar (Photo via Hossam Dirar)
Division (2013) installation by Hossam Dirar (Photo via Hossam Dirar)

“In the past two years I have not been able to escape political subjects in my work, I try to be as safe as I can, indirect, so I do not find myself in trouble with the system,” Dirar said. “I have a work that I finished earlier this year which was an 11 [minute] video art piece called Cairo 16, and I have not been able to find a suitable venue for it in fear that it could be problematic and land me in trouble with authorities.”

In “Division” (2013), Dirar comments on the split in Egyptian society. A traditional Egyptian chair typically found in cafes is split symmetrically in two. The chair’s inner halves are then pushed up against a wall, reflecting a singularity (the Egyptian people) divided. In Egypt, a Qahwa, which translates to coffee but can also mean a coffee shop, is where locals gather to sit and discuss all of life’s minutiae — from soccer and family drama to current affairs and politics.

“This Instillation is a direct reflection of the status of Egyptians today,” his website says about the Division, hosted at the Palace of Arts, in Zamalek’s Cairo Opera House. “The Division of this chair is a simple statement of the division that occurred among us in each aspect of life. Politics & Media divided us with different perspectives & beliefs when we all needed to be one.”

After the revolution, many Egyptian friends and families split along ideological lines. The calamitous rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and their failure to work cohesively with other political actors turned many Egyptians against the widely-supported Islamist group. Others, however, couldn’t overlook the violent repression inflicted on the Muslim Brotherhood by the military — including the Rabaa massacre that left as many as 1,000 people dead in August 2013 — and the eventual rise of current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But for many in Egypt, there was no room for political nuance — you either support the army wholeheartedly or you are a Brotherhood sympathizer and deserve whatever comes your way.

Last year, Dirar put on an exhibition addressing the hopelessness of Egypt’s youth following the revolution called “Waiting To Leave.” Many Egyptians had lost hope in their revolution and began seeking a future abroad.  “I expressed this in a symbolic gesture, the bindle is an icon of rural Egypt, made of sheets and a wooden stick, to be filled when youth leave the countryside in search for opportunity elsewhere,” Dirar said about a symbol typically found in classic American movies featuring nomadic homeless men. “The bindle here was full, ready, waiting for its owner to pick it up and travel onwards.”

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Using indirect symbolism is a method of protection for artists against repressive regimes. But the objective can also be misinterpreted or missed outright by an artist’s audience, as Dirar found out firsthand with his bindle project. He said the audience didn’t understand how to interact or interpret the bindle. Nonetheless, it’s a necessity for artists fearing repercussion from a state that fears the power that art carries. “This is how an artist displays his work indirectly as to not clash with the system,” Dirar said. “It has become like a game, how to talk about current events without the system taking notice, they fear the direct message that can mobilize and move any audience.”

Politics aside, contemporary art is also a powerful medium for addressing other social issues. In 2015, Dirar used his art to address the state of Egypt’s drinking water. His installation used the Olla — a ceramic water jug with a short neck and wide belly that Egyptians traditionally used to collect, cool, and drink water from the Nile. Multiple Ollas are hung, starting nearer to the ground and rising to show a passage of time. The Ollas closer to the ground are in their original brown, tan, and earth tone colors and shattered to indicate a fracturing of a piece of the country’s heritage and history. The Ollas further away from the ground are painted blue and the necks are wrapped with the branding stickers from bottled water brands.

Vast pollution in the Nile has shifted the country toward the use of bottled water in recent years. But many Egyptians can’t afford bottled water, not to mention that leaving plastic water bottles in the sun can be a health hazard.

“So wouldn’t be best to clean our Nile and restore El Olla instead?” Dirar’s website says underneath photos of the instillation.

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Ollah Project — Hossam Dirar from hossam dirar on Vimeo.

As events in Egypt continue to progress, so too will the contemporary art scene, with artists like Dirar learning to work around state oppression and censorship. While political instability and chaos can provide inspiration for artists, however, Dirar still wants his country to move beyond the troubles that have been so ubiquitous since 2011.

“Like any artist I hope things begin to progress towards fostering an open and peaceful environment,” Dirar said, “and after all the hardships this country has endured, that we can live in safety and stability.”