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Expressions of a Revolution: Egypt’s Revolution Artist Union
Text and Photos by: Kevin McAfee
Since January of this year, Egypt has been undergoing a revolution that has set the standard for regime based Arab countries currently experiencing the same phenomenon. As with any revolution, the people of Egypt are seeing great hardships and learning the cost of creating a better country for themselves. Between the martyrs of the first wave of the revolution who died beneath the hooves of the ousted regime’s horses and the angst of a population currently struggling with different emerging political factions, there is plenty to be inspired about.
An overwhelming need for an expressive outlet among protesting Egyptian artists led to the organic formation of the Revolution Artist’s Union on February 3rd, 2011. Over the last six months, over 600 artists have found their way through the masses in the famous Tahrir Square to be a part of the collective expression. The group is comprised of painters, poets, photographers, and even playwrights. Members describe the group as inherently peaceful but with a strong cause in the Egyptian revolution as they claim to be protestors before artists. At times, that mentality has come at a cost.
In April, members of RAU painted a large image negatively depicting the Egyptian military in response to recent military violence on peaceful demonstrators. Two members, Omar Fathy and Mohammed El-Tarras were captured and detained by the military for the painting. When other members of RAU became aware of their capture, many formed in front of the district holding building where they were being held and demanded their immediate release. With the unity and power of what has become that of a large family, the two detained artist were released after some time. Incidents like this have been steadily decreasing as the military and police try to reform their image with the public and peaceful demonstrations are now freely allowed for the most part.
Later that month, RAU held a public exhibition for all to see in the metro station beneath Tahrir Square. Prominent RAU leader and director of poetry and literature Amjad Shashai described a scene during that exhibition in which he freely recited his poetry as something he had never seen before in Egypt. “Before it was like breaking the rules, but now it’s not. Before the revolution that would have been considered very abnormal, but people watching were happy, it was great,” he said. Prior to this experience, Amjad was captured and detained on three occasions by both police and military officials.
Art Evolves with The Revolution
Each new day of the revolution brings new obstacles and conflicts both between protestors and authoritative officials and among differing factions of protestors themselves. However, the newest wave of the revolution has proved inherently peaceful and that tends to show in many of RAU’s newer works of art. Two sisters who paint for RAU, Raihana and Rabab Sawabi, were compelled to create a visualization of peace between Christians and Muslims after clashes between small groups of each religion became well known in May. One of their paintings entitled “One Hand” depicts Muslims and Christians living side by side and shows similarities between the two religions that may serve as common ground. For artists like Raihana, the revolution has perhaps become the most artistically motivating inspiration ever experienced.
“I used to paint when I was young but I stopped. I heard about RAU on an announcement in Tahrir and decided to start painting again after 7 years of not painting” Raihana said.
Young and talented painters like Raihanna and her sister who create peaceful depictions of future progress in Egypt are abundant, but no more common than those who want to embrace and commemorate the past. On January 28th, 2011, more prominently known as “The Day of Anger,” former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime ordered hundreds of soldiers on camels and horseback to attack peaceful demonstrators in Tahrir Square killing hundreds and injuring thousands. Those who lost their lives on that day became known as martyrs of the revolution and are considered to have died with great honor. Among other works of art, RAU artist Mohammad El-Tarras, comically known as “Picasso,” devotes much of his time to creating portraits of revolutionary martyrs. There are hundreds of these beautiful portraits at every RAU exhibition by dozens of artists and they are iconic of RAU’s presence in Tahrir Square on days of protest.
The Future of The Revolution and RAU
The newest wave of the revolution in Egypt kicked off on July 8th when the public returned to Tahrir Square with demands of quicker reforms. Since then, twelve new ministers have been sworn in and the Square has remained occupied with peaceful protestors who say they won’t leave until their demands are met. Many want Hosni Mubarek to be tried, then if found responsible for the deaths from the Day of Anger, jailed or even executed. A democratic election is said to take place in the coming months but an official date has not been set and that seems to make many Egyptians uneasy.
It is uncertain what the future will bring for the Egyptian revolution but according to Amjad Shashai, it is certain that the Revolution Artist Union will be there. RAU is currently looking for a sponsor so that some of the artists can travel around the world to show the artwork that has accumulated over the course of the revolution. The proposed traveling exhibition would have three goals: promoting the economy and restoring tourism interest in Egypt, teaching the history of the revolution, and of course showcasing the artwork itself. The group has high hopes for achieving both private and public endorsement for their traveling exhibition as the engagement of art and history could provide a brilliant outlet for educating the world abroad about this important revolutionary time.