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Painted houses in Beirut's southern Ouzai neighborhood as part of Ayad Nasser's project, in August 2017. Credit: Anwar Amro/AFP

Beyond Protest Art: A


New Wave of Graffiti Is
Coloring the Arab
World
Walls in Beirut and Djerba are again
covered in paint, but this time it's
vibrant street art - not political slogans
By Zvi Bar'el |  Aug 29, 2017

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“At the age of 18, I moved to my own place and became an


independent man,” Ayad Nasser writes on his English-language

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8/30/2017 Beyond protest art: A new wave of graffiti is coloring the Arab world - Middle East News - Haaretz.com
website. “I realized I didAllnot need the financial, moral, or physical
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support of my parents.”
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Nasser, who did not see his mother again for 12 years after his Log in

parents divorced, when he was 6, waited tables and worked at other


jobs to support himself in school.

“I had to exist and create myself, build my reputation and care


about strangers,” he wrote. “I met all kinds of people and by being
nice, kind and caring toward them, I realized they started giving
back. All the hard work and honesty paid off. I co-founded a
successful development and investments company called ‘Loft
Investments.’” And eventually, “I decided to be an active member of
society in my home country, Lebanon.”

Artists draw a mural on a wall, as part of the "Ouzville" project, in Beirut's southern
Ouzai neighbourhood, on August, 2017. Credit: ANWAR AMRO/AFP

As part of his contribution to society, this idealistic businessman


helped start Urban Dawn, which invited 50 artists from around the
world to paint murals on the walls of Beirut neighborhoods that
included his own, Ouzai – or Ouzville, as it is now branded – as well
as Achrafieh and Burj Hammoud.

According to a crowdfunding site for the Ouzville project, they


started with the southern Beirut neighborhood, near the airport,
because it’s “the landing point of Lebanon. ... the first thing
foreigners and Lebanese see upon their arrival and the last memory
of Lebanon as they leave.” The first mural project there cost around
$120,000.

These extensive murals are the hallmark of a project whose goal,


Nasser says, is to banish the fear that divides Lebanon, acquaint its
residents with international art and give them a sense of belonging.
Nasser attributes Lebanon’s divisions and fear to the horrors of the
civil war of 1975-79. Nevertheless, the murals don’t depict war,
weapons or blood; they are beautiful, aesthetic and colorful.

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Children walks past houses, painted as part of the "Ouzville" project, in Beirut's southern Ouzai
neighbourhood, on August , 2017. Credit: ANWAR AMRO/AFP

There are similar projects in other Arab states. Dubai Walls, for
example, also owes its existence to a corporate donor, which invited
16 street artists from around the world to leave their marks, writ
large, on the streets of this lively Arab metropolis.

The artists include Aiko, from Japan, who apprenticed in the New
York studio of Takashi Murakami; Eelus, who works in London and
Magda Sayeg, who has decorated buses in Mexico City. Since its
beginning in 2016, the project has expanded into a venue for public
expression by young Emiratis.

On the Tunisian island of Djerba, a similar project began in 2014


and has since developed into a kind of open-air museum, where
visitors can also try their hands at making street art.

For most people in the Middle East, the word “graffiti” is associated
with the protest art that accompanied the Arab Spring revolutions.
It began with hundreds of protest slogans scrawled in the dead of
night by young people who turned walls into “newspapers.” But the
slogans were quickly joined by drawings and caricatures that
portrayed then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a tyrant, the
police as a gang of criminals, Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi as
a murderer and Syrian President Bashar Assad as a mass murderer.
Some ascribe the outbreak of Syria’s civil war to drawings
expressing disgust with the regime by a few youths in the southern
town of Daraa.

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Painted houses in Beirut's southern Ouzai neighborhood as part of Ayad Nasser's project, in
August 2017. Credit: Anwar Amro/AFP

A picture taken on August, 2017, shows painted houses in Beirut's southern Ouzai
neighbourhood. Credit: ANWAR AMRO/AFP

Compared to the new graffiti in Beirut, Djerba and Dubai, the


protest art of the Arab Spring was crude and violent, full of color
and vociferous captions. Some drawings were so accurate they
resembled photographs — especially when they depicted the police
running amok and abusing demonstrators. The Egyptian
government couldn’t stay silent in the face of a flood of such
drawings, which circumvented government censorship and
expressed the public’s feelings.

The protest graffiti later gave way to a new form that sought to
embody a quieter, more civic revolution, one that no longer tried to
topple regimes, but demanded rights and reforms. Yet as time
passed since the revolutions, graffiti art has dwindled.

A few of the artists gained international fame, like the Egyptian


artist Ganzeer, who moved to Los Angeles after being persecuted in
Egypt because he was suspected of belonging to the Muslim
Brotherhood. But most of the street artists found new occupations
and abandoned graffiti. Today, Egyptian and Tunisian street art
from the revolutionary period can be found mainly in a few art
books that discuss the connection between art and protest or
revolution.

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A picture taken on August, 2017, shows painted houses in Beirut's southern Ouzai
neighbourhood. Credit: ANWAR AMRO/AFP

The new projects that have revived graffiti in the Arab world are
therefore seen as anti-revolutionary, and some people accuse the
artists of seeking to erase one of the most prominent symbols of the
revolution by turning graffiti into “submissive art.” Even the
Lebanese project has received plentiful criticism from people living
in the affected neighborhoods, who charge that Nasser and his
artists seek to depict a happy, colorful reality in place of the poverty
and violence that are an inseparable part of their lives.

Others complain that graffiti artists, who are supposed to be


committed to contrarian art and criticizing the authorities, are now
cooperating with the authorities, since without government
approval, they would be unable to decorate public walls openly,
without fear. These critics charge that the governments are actually
encouraging the artists, as long as they don’t deviate from
government-approved artistic guidelines.

The paradox is that only in countries where wars are still in process,
like Syria and Yemen, can artists define themselves as genuine
protest artists — as long as a bullet doesn’t kill them.

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