How did commercialization affect art?

Egyptian sociologist: "Graffiti died in Cairo"

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Cairo / Linz - As a sociologist at the American University in Cairo, Mona Abaza became a central theoretician of the Arab Spring. In her research, she is particularly concerned with art and culture in Egyptian society. A keynote at the "Art and Revolution" conference of the International Research Center for Cultural Studies took her to the Art University Linz last week.

DEFAULT: A series of Arab Spring protests began in late 2010. What was left of it in Egypt?

Abaza: The past few years have been marked by violence and confrontations. The city of Cairo is falling apart, there is an urban war. The army built a lot of walls so that you could hardly move in the center. Many people were shot or injured. After the massacre in 2013, in which almost a thousand people died, we now live in a military dictatorship. Governments - not just in Egypt - use the war on terror to gain legitimacy. In Egypt the military said: Either we take power or the Islamists come. So many people have said: okay, better the military then. And there is actually a problem with Islamist terrorists like IS.

DEFAULT: How did the Arab Spring affect art and culture in Egypt?

Abaza: Tahrir Square was seen as a theater, a festival, which also plays an important role in tradition and religion - for both Muslims and Christians. People have played with exorcism, for example: exorcising the spirit of Hosni Mubarak (former President of Egypt, note) - that was of course meant as a joke, like many other things. Our revolution was also called the laughing revolution.

DEFAULT: What role did photos and videos play?

Abaza: The Arab Spring was the most photographed revolution in human history. The image of Tahrir Square with millions of people has become an icon. But this revolutionary image from then has now turned against us and was used for the counter-revolution. So it has lost its original meaning. The same applies to graffiti.

DEFAULT: What role does graffiti play in Cairo today?

Abaza: Between 2011 and 2013, graffiti played an important political role. They were like a mood barometer: you went to the walls every day to read what was written there, to understand how politics was going. But with the 2013 massacre, graffiti lost this function - it was criminalized by governments and commercialized by the art market. Graffiti died in Cairo with the revolution. In an atmosphere like today, one no longer feels like writing or working. There is self-censorship.

DEFAULT: What does this mean for the graffiti artists of the Arab Spring in Cairo?

Abaza: Dubai's galleries play an important role in the commercialization of art - revolutionary art is sold lucratively there. This is really a paradox: Dubai is now becoming the possible archive for these artists. In the meantime, graffiti artists travel around the world, are celebrated as stars and appear with their real names, no longer anonymously. Some of their art is brought back into public space by galleries and museums - but graffiti is forbidden in the streets of Cairo.

DEFAULT: Which art forms are present in Egypt today?

Abaza: We now have a new generation of artists who are very critical of the army and what is happening there. Both artists and intellectuals have researched the city and the bodies in the city. There have been many confrontations where officers deliberately blinded people or shot them in the eyes. There is a long tradition in art about eyes and how people lose sight - it is now being taken up a lot. There are two trends: on the one hand, playing with tradition, and on the other, with pop culture. Artists like Huda Lufti and Hani Rached work with second-hand objects, with waste and recycling - for the Egyptian context these are new debates that are already well known to Europeans. Her forms of expression are videos, collages and multimedia - these are contemporary, internationalized formats. The question is what's new about it.

DEFAULT: Can you see this pop art on the streets of Cairo?

Abaza: No, only in the galleries. The streets are taboo and the government is afraid that the uprising in Tahrir Square will repeat itself.

DEFAULT: Do you think that would be possible?

Abaza: I don't think history repeats itself. There will be no second Tahrir Square. That was a brief moment when everyone played along and that is over. A revolution is very exhausting and a great many people died in it. People today are tired. This is also due to the serious economic crisis. Our currency has lost almost 80 percent of its value. The government is tightening the belt for the poor. There is resistance, but it is suppressed. I am very pessimistic about the short term future - not just for Egypt, but for the entire region. I am optimistic about my daughter's generation and grandchildren. But there is no optimism for my generation. (Tanja Traxler, October 25, 2017)

Mona Abaza, born in 1959 in Ash Sharqīyah Governorate in the eastern Nile Delta, is Professor of Sociology at the American University in Cairo. Research stays took her to Germany, Singapore and Sweden, among others.

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