Walls, Graffiti and Youth Culture in Egypt, Libya & Tunisia

14 May, 2021
Graffiti in Tripoli, Libya (all images courtesy  Claudia Wiens ).
Graf­fi­ti in Tripoli, Libya (all images cour­tesy Clau­dia Wiens).

Photography and text by Claudia Wiens

From ear­ly 2011 till the end of 2014, I doc­u­ment­ed urban trans­for­ma­tion as a result of the polit­i­cal upris­ings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. These pho­tos are part of my long-term project about post-rev­o­lu­tion art and artists in these three coun­tries. While doc­u­ment­ing the lives and work of artists, I real­ized that they often react­ed to (or rather their art respond­ed to) changes in the urban land­scape, includ­ing new fences and walls. Some of them were actu­al­ly adding them­selves to these changes with their graf­fi­ti and murals. A sort of ongo­ing urban dia­logue between artists, pro­test­ers and author­i­ties con­tin­ues to fas­ci­nate both native and inter­na­tion­al observers. “Art is the watch­dog of democ­ra­cy,” some­one once said to me. No doubt pol­i­tics are a source of inspiration.

Dur­ing the upris­ing in Egypt, I spent much time with friends in Tahrir Square wit­ness­ing the unbe­liev­able cre­ativ­i­ty of ordi­nary cit­i­zens and artists, express­ing their dis­like for Mubarak and his gov­ern­ment. The sud­den polit­i­cal change set lots of cre­ative poten­tial free and peo­ple gained a new free­dom of opin­ion, or rather a new­ly-dis­cov­ered courage to voice opin­ion, and this led to a wild cre­ative urge in all three coun­tries. At the begin­ning, it was often straight­for­ward state­ments paint­ed on walls and posters, such as graf­fi­ti dis­cred­it­ing the respec­tive regimes, com­mem­o­rat­ing ‘mar­tyrs’ and express­ing demands. Then cre­ative inven­to­ries of what hap­pened fol­lowed, like dis­play­ing home­made Molo­tov-cock­tails in a small exhi­bi­tion at a youth cen­ter in Mek­nes­si, Tunisia — one of the first sites of the Jas­meen Revolution. 

Grad­u­al­ly, the art evolved into some­thing broad­er, more reflec­tive and often more dar­ing. Many walls turned into an ever-chang­ing visu­al his­to­ry book of murals react­ing to con­stant­ly chang­ing polit­i­cal events. The art con­demned state vio­lence, reli­gious extrem­ism and cor­rup­tion or warned of the new dan­gers of rule by the military.

The col­lages show quick­ly chang­ing cityscapes: graf­fi­ti that appears and then often dis­ap­pears again; relicts of the rev­o­lu­tion like burned out build­ings or cars; flags wav­ing a new­ly dis­cov­ered nation­al pride; and new­ly erect­ed walls and barb­wire by the author­i­ties. I used a panoram­ic Lomo film cam­era in order to trans­port the feel­ing of all is in flux, tran­sien­t/­tran­si­to­ry/short-lived and changes unpre­dictably all the time. The grain­i­ness and imper­fec­tion of an ana­logue Lomo seems to me a fit­ting way to trans­port this quite well. As there were so many con­tra­dict­ing, para­dox­i­cal and also amus­ing things hap­pen­ing at the same time, almost like in par­al­lel uni­vers­es and can­not be caught in sin­gle pho­tos I merged two images that either con­tra­dict or com­ple­ment each oth­er. It is my inter­pre­ta­tion of the com­plex events, action and reac­tion of the var­i­ous players.

Cairo, Egypt

 

Tripoli, Libya 

Graf­fi­ti and street art was for­bid­den under Qaddafi. After his death for the first time peo­ple dared to own the streets and paint murals at the walls express­ing their emo­tions and thoughts. But even in 2014 street art was just start­ing to be a lit­tle more pop­u­lar, unlike in neigh­bor­ing Egypt where was already a bloom­ing way of expres­sion and the streets turned into a fre­quent­ly chang­ing his­to­ry book. Murals and graf­fi­ti in Libya are still quite tame, but the peo­ple are warm­ing up to writ­ing on the wall.

The b‑boying scene in Libya start­ed around 1999–2000 (but was always under­ground and hid­den) and is now since Qaddafi’s death gain­ing new momen­tum. More and more young guys (girls are still not pub­licly com­ing for­ward) are start­ing to break­dance and doing park­our. It is a way of express­ing their feel­ings, rebelling against con­ser­vatism and also stay­ing sane in times of con­stant polit­i­cal tur­moil and vio­lence. They prac­tice in unused sport halls, on sandy pitch­es out­side, even on the street.

Fes­ti­vals take place in a pub­lic space with dozens of par­tic­i­pants and hun­dreds of spec­ta­tors. Break­ing down for­mer invis­i­ble bar­ri­ers as for­eign cul­tur­al activ­i­ties were not allowed. It might look a harm­less thing to do to some­one who is not famil­iar with the liv­ing con­di­tions under Qaddafi. Even after his death it is poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous as mili­tia or reli­gious fanat­ics could object to those young guys gath­er­ing in pub­lic spaces lis­ten­ing to Amer­i­can music and engag­ing pub­licly in some­thing that is for­eign to Libyan culture.

Tunis, Mek­nes­si and Gabes, Tunisia

Dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion many places that belonged to Ben Ali’s fam­i­ly got loot­ed and then paint­ed over with graf­fi­ti and murals. You see here pho­tos I shot of the for­mer vil­la of Mon­cef Tra­bel­si, broth­er-in-law of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who died in 2018 but still is on the EU sanc­tion list. Many artists “re-dec­o­rat­ed” his vil­la. You also see pho­tos of a youth cen­ter in Mek­nes­si whose walls got turned into an exhi­bi­tion about the rev­o­lu­tion in mem­o­ry of what is pos­si­ble when the peo­ple rise up.And third­ly pho­tos of walls in Gabes that also serve as a his­to­ry book and the mosque that was dec­o­rat­ed by the street artist el Seed.

Arab SpringEgyptgraffitiJasmine RevolutionLibyaprotest artstreet artTunisia

Claudia Wiens is a German photographer, author and artist, now based in Sevilla. She spent 10 years in Egypt and seven in Turkey; the main focus of her work remains in the MENA region. Her expertise and knowledge, from over 25 years of working in the region and her fluency in Egyptian Arabic, has allowed her to develop a style of rare intimacy and insight of Middle Eastern culture that has grown into a signature of her work. She contributes regularly to international publications and works for NGOs. She is the author of three photography books. Her latest, Schuhgroesse 37, tells the story about women’s football in Palestine, Egypt, Turkey and Berlin and was supported from several institutions and grants and was shown in more than 10 solo exhibitions around the world.