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Art Revolution Blooms After Arab Spring

In the U.S., graffiti is often condemned as vandalism. But during the Arab Spring, artists say city walls were often the only places where they could talk back to tyrants.

Street art can be found across the Middle East and North Africa, and the Arab Spring protests inspired an artistic revolution. The "Creative Dissent" exhibit at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan is putting that art on display.

Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee spoke to guest curator Christiane Gruber, an Associate Professor of Islamic Art and Visual Culture at the University of Michigan, and Nazeer, an Egyptian street artist featured in the show.

Interview Highlights

Facing government brutality...with a smile

Nazeer: There were lots of people being shot by the Egyptian police. My good friend said, they built these walls, and they keep killing people. But we're so used to being killed here, it became something that doesn't strike a lot of people anymore. So it's something normal that we have to live with and it's part of the struggle. And he said, OK, we will be consistent and we will be happy about it, because the revolution will win in the end. So let's do a huge smiley face on the wall that they built.

Defying tyranny – and death through art

Gruber: Creating satirical lampoons of [former Libyan dictator Moammar] Gadhafi had serious consequences. For example, Kais al-Hilali is a famous Libyan political cartoonist who created murals also in Bengazi. And he was gunned down and killed by pro-regime militias earlier on. We see that time and again, we see rappers and musicians killed. We see cartoonists whose hands have been broken. So being a street artist, like Nazeer, and being highly critical of the government will have consequence.

No law will stop them

Nazeer: We always hear about lots of laws being put in Egypt. For example, when they set curfews or something we don't really listen because that's how it is. We're working against them. When they issue a law, the Minister of Development says people will be in prison for four years and pay $100,000 in fines [for graffiti], we don't listen to something like that because we will continue doing what we do. And regardless of what they say we will continue to do the things that we feel like doing.

Finding humor despite the violence

Gruber: What I find really inspiring about all of this, and Nazeer described it through his happy face, is that even in the most violent of situations you see cultural entrepreneurs, you see artists, again and again using humor in their artwork. I see that the humor is a kind of release of tension. It's poking fun in a sense. It's a killer joke, if it's more malicious. But we see a lot of wit and satire being used to mock incumbent power and that shows to me the level of creativity and intelligence of the younger street artists that are out there practicing and putting themselves in harm's way.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tell Me More Staff