During the London Olympics, i painted a mural minutes away from the Olympic stadium, heres a short film about that:
During the London Olympics, i painted a mural minutes away from the Olympic stadium, heres a short film about that:
I’ve been invited to speak at the first TedX to take place inside the Vatican state, more here>> http://www.tedxviadellaconciliazione.com
A few years ago i took part in a fascinating BBC Radio 4, five part documentary about ancient graffiti, made by archeologist George Nash. Here is an article he wrote recently about the ancient stencil image of the Handprint, what does it mean?
September 2012, I returned to Amsterdam to paint my second mural in the city. It was part of the ‘Three Artists, Three Cities’ project where myself and 2 other artists Martin Travers and Benjamin Benrakad painted the mural in Holland. Prior to this mural, we had already painted murals in Casablanca and in Birmingham, now we come to the Niew West area in Amsterdam. The area is relatively poor with a number of ethnic communities settled there, mostly of Moroccan origin. The three of us painted this mural over a period of three days. As always with the murals i paint, we attempted to create something that resonates with the community, reflecting their issues and speaks to them directly. We were informed about the popularity of Street Soccer in the city, where many local people had gained international recognition, and had become unofficial icons for the city, where local youth saw them as role models. In one local person’s words ‘either they sell drugs, or they get into street-soccer’. That was their reality. We captured the image of local hero Nabil Akaazoun- a renowned Street-Soccer player – and decided to incorporate his figure playing with what appears to be a ball, into the mural. Looking closer, one may see something entirely different. This was deliberate. We decided to keep the theme ambigious, where one may not see a footballer, but just a young person – with maybe not a football – but perhaps the circle representing the globe.
2 years ago when i visited this area, we noticed something directly in front of this building- a giant palestine flag hanging from the balcony of one of the residences. This time, we saw it still there, but to our surprise, we witnessed the demolition of that building, with the flat that had the flag standing proudly – being cleared out – the resident standing on his balcony next to his flag, while all his belongings where being removed by a removal truck. After enquiring we discovered that the flag would dissappear in a few days once the building is torn down. This flag was known locally, it had become an icon on this street and much loved by the locals! We decided to extend the life of that flag and give it a new home – incorporated into the new mural we painted. The owner of the flag was immensely pleased that support for the plight of Palestinians would continue even after his relocation from the area.
So the flag became something that physically hung within the mural by being nailed into wall, the young footballer looking up towards the sky in the direction of the flag – alongside the painted silhouettes of a flock of birds. From the roof of the building we dripped paint down the entire side of the building (which was fun to do!) For some- the figure in the mural no longer appeared to be a footballer, but perhaps he is watching the paint drip. Or perhaps he is a Palestinian looking upwards towards the flock of birds and the flag of Palestine.
NOTE*Although the figure of the footballer has been adapted greatly, the image was inspired by a photograph of Nabil Akaazoun taken from a street soccer clinic of Imagine IC (www.imagineic.nl)
*The ideas expressed in this blog post are those of myself – Mohammed Ali – and not representative of the Three Artists Three Cities aka TATC project or any of the other artists involved in the collective.
Egypt Today Magazine / Writer: Jacky Tuinistra / Date: 2003
I just dug out a fascinating article that was written 9 years ago on arabic graffiti. It never got published, but I had a copy of what was proposed to Egypt Today magazine. A journalist called Jacky Tuinistra got in touch with me and had been doing extensive research into the lack of arabic graffiti. I thought i’d share this, since there has been a lot of media coverage about the explosion of arabic graffiti following the arabic spring, especially in Cairo. its a really interesting read that you can’t help but contrast to how things are now. To an understand an ‘art movement’ which i believe ‘arabic graffiti’ is, its important to know how it all came about. Some interesting ideas expressed here about why there was a lack of it so many years ago, such as the lack of suitable spraypaint. Read on>>>
From Maadi to Sayedda Zeinab to Giza, the underpasses whisper, the subway walls shout and street corners chatter on. Amr loves Noor. Heart heart heart. Plus forever. Political expressions are hard to find, but there are names- names and more names- so many people just wanting to announce “I’m here”. Prayers and praise to God are offered up in paint with regularity, while obscenities are scrawled hastily in washrooms or near the Metro. All these messages are less street art than random no-frills signage.
The very term Arabic graffiti conjures up contradictions for some, but it has always existed, even in ancient times. While elsewhere street art and graffiti have exploded into a full-fledged genre of color and style, Egypt’s chicken scratches remain visually uninspiring. Despite curvy Arabic letters so tempting to a spray can and a long tradition of calligraphy, the marriage between the word and the art has just not happened here. Why the most public displays of the rich Arabic script languish behind in furtive, drippy, usually singularly colored representations, is a mystery.
From ABC to Alif, Beh, Teh
Graffiti as an art began with a kind of empowered vandalism. Used for political propaganda, hobo signatures and name “bombing” North and South America’s graffiti scene was a nascent underground movement on the verge of explosion in the 1960’s. By the 1970’s more people were writing their pseudonyms on subway cars, attracting attention as to their true identity. People were painting subway trains in the lots after hours. As more artists were attracted, competition began to have the most tags, the biggest, and the most colorful and to develop different styles. Soon whole graffiti murals were popping up- but mostly with tags. By the 1980s city councils and transit authorities were clamping down, high cost clean up and paint-sale restrictions attempted to discourage the movement. But the trend had carried over to London, Berlin, Paris and beyond. When hip hop’s popularity rose, it was tied to the spread of graffiti art. While tagging (a signature or name) was predominant, punk popularity meant graffiti as a means of political expression became more frequent- an artistic empowerment to challenge the “establishment”, however foggy the foe was. The tradition continues to this day with diverse missions: anarchists, culture jammers, hip-hop fans and the anti-globalization movement all use graffiti to convey their messages.
Bubbly letters, bright colors, checkers, polka dots and jazzy slanted tags are everywhere in Europe and North America, as were numerous examples of graffiti’s sister style of stencil graffiti, increasingly used for protest movements. Susan Farrell, who works with the first online graffiti site, Art Crimes: graffiti.org, has been exploring the existence of graffiti outside North America.
“When I began learning about graffiti outside the US a decade ago I asked why, for example, the graffiti in the Czech Republic was in English instead of the local language. I was told that graffiti is an American art form and so it’s traditional to write it in English.”
Farrell suggests that the prevalence of English graffiti is more than tradition, but part of a desire to communicate to a wider audience. For example, graffiti has its own common symbols across borders: like space invaders or toasters that pop up on walls from Barcelona to Berlin.
“Graffiti culture, like its close relative, hip-hop, is a global youth community and it is primarily talking to its own constituency,” she says “English is the lingua franca of that community.”
Art Crimes has now started receiving more graffiti in non-Western characters. Top non-English graffiti nations include: Israel, China, and especially Japan.
“Non-English characters are not less suitable to graffiti; on the contrary, they are in many ways more suitable.” Farrell is optimistic about a multi-textual renaissance in graffiti that would include Arabic.
“I expect that we are at the beginning of a long period of development of graffiti styles in those countries that will reflect the aesthetics of their cultures and languages as well as those of the subculture of graffiti.”
Even the Arabic ignorant see the potential inherent in the swishing, commanding script. But still, no one expects to see mammoth, multicolored murals on the Cairo Metro anytime soon. Yet, Arabic could be the best suited of all to graffiti: since the time of the Umayyads, there has been a history of intense calligraphic study, meaning Arabs have studied their alphabet, made art from it, made rules for that art and forged an intimate relation with their words. Hamed el Eweidi is a calligrapher of the progressive kind. When he’s not designing book covers, he exhibits his modern take on the classical calligraphy.
“I wanted to make a relation between calligraphy and modern art”, he says, explaining that his content and his style are increasingly modern. He uses poems, and is working on an exhibit of famous Egyptian songs written in his own interpretive calligraphy. His materials and style are a marriage of the old and new.
“Those who insist on the classical way make calligraphy unrelated to modern life,” he says. Well versed in the complexities of calligraphic art, el Eweidi says graffiti and calligraphy haven’t met up in Egypt, partly because classical calligraphers are reluctant to experiment, but more because calligraphy simply can’t be properly duplicated in spray paint.
“The art of calligraphy has its own principles, and complex rules but spray painting is more like a kind of handwriting,” He takes out a box of calligraphy pens “calams” and demonstrates how the size and shape of each nib is used to create calligraphy from the varying schools of style. This technique is based on the calam nib and is difficult to impossible to simulate in spray paint, he says. So those with the best knowledge of Arabic letters are accustomed to their calams and wouldn’t easily trade them in for aerosol.
Like in any art, there are those who maintain you have to know the rules before you can break them and this might account for the lack of Arabic graffiti.
Yousry El Mamlouk, an Arabic calligrapher in Alexandria, partly agrees on the power of the calam, but has still been trying to incorporate graffiti and calligraphy since 1982.
“The spray paint is one media I like, and there are many materials and media for calligraphy art. It’s possible to use anything to get what you want, but also we need to keep the traditional pen of calligraphers to keep the different styles of Arabic calligraphy.” He stresses a combination can be used, rather than using one tool as a substitute for the other.
El Mamlouk is probably one of the earliest artists to experiment with Arabic calligraphy and graffiti, working with the two mediums while still studying fine arts. He did wall paintings and painted on asphalt while teaching art in Kuwait in the 1990’s.Though the interest in graffiti is small in Egypt, EL Mamlouk has participated in workshops with Egyptian and foreign artists and collaboratively painted 1 km of asphalt in Alexandria in the eighties, when graffiti was hardly conceived of in Egypt. Mamlouk is one of the pioneers of Arabic graffiti in Egypt.
“I like to see graffiti and calligraphy together in new vision with the feeling of the calligraphy beauty,” he says.
French graffiti artist Frédéric Florit, AKA Rézine, has invented creative solutions to the problem of the calam. He incorporates calligraphy into his work with spray paint and the calam, like Mamlouk, but on his graffiti canvases, he reproduces the effect of sprayed walls using a “luminous calam”, created with photography and digital effects to bring traditional calligraphy into the digital world.
“This is a synthesis between two forms of expression, one ancient and noble, the other contemporary and socially repressed” he says. Rezine has been busy with this synthesis since 1997.
Despite having varying degrees in their relationship to calligraphy, Rezine, El Mamlouk and el Eweidi have all been hypnotized by Arabic letters.
“I love the harmony of the shapes, the freedom allowed at the end of the letters- the elongated endings- and the search for diverse large and thin lines,” says Rezine, who doesn’t actually know Arabic.
“Arabic calligraphy has its own movement,” agrees el Eweidi. “Even if you can’t read it is so beautiful.” For the Arabic illiterate, the letters el Eweidi paints convey meaning through their very shape: you can imagine the mim as a kind of mouth opening. El Eweidi illustrates two Eins set side by side, one inverted, to make a set of eyes. As el Eweidi works to make slow lines into smooth arcs, it easy to feel you are witnessing the process of thought itself: a representation of the words swimming and forming inside a poet’s mind.
Both Arabic calligraphy and graffiti take inspiration from the flow of letters and both manipulate a message and a visual representation out of the arrangement of letters. El Eweidi, though not interested in graffiti exactly, points out that adapting calligraphy to modern styles and purposes has been underway for some time: ever since Sadaat Hosni wrote Coca Cola in Arabic.
The words of the prophets written on the subway walls?
Or Wanted: Intelligent Vandals
Despite the work of contemporary artists with modern ideals, like el Eweidi, El Mamlouk, and Rezine, walking the streets of Cairo still reveals a gaping hole of unfulfilled potential. What graffiti that does exist in Cairo, everyone agrees, is simply not beautiful and is hard to label as art.
El Eweidi maintains it is a problem of progression for calligraphers who are wedded to the classics, and also a technical problem of adapting the pen to the spray can. EL Mamlouk, who doesn’t see the pen and spray can as incompatible does acknowledge that to do Arabic graffiti takes the combined talent of a qualified calligrapher and a gifted painter. He says graffiti hasn’t come to Egypt simply because of a lack of exposure.
“There are no international official competitions in this type of Art in Egypt,” he says. With no flow of ideas and trends between cultures, art becomes internalized.
Egyptian efforts at graffiti are not as intricate and evolved as graffiti in other countries (and in other non Latin characters), and the messages carried are uninspiring to say the least: most are juvenile. Some are religious and a few are outwardly political, criticizing America, decrying Israel and supporting Palestine. None are directed at Egyptian domestic politics. The fact that graffiti was primarily a Western art form does not fully explain the pathetic state of walls in Egypt: since other non western countries have embraced the art for both aesthetic reasons and for political expression. Besides Japan whose graffiti thrust is very visual, closer to home Israel, Palestine and to lesser extent Lebanon, boast many examples of political graffiti messages.
Farrell, who receives samples of graffiti from all over the world, has given the problem some thought and says there are several factors which cause graffiti to grow in a country. Availability of spray-paint is obviously the most important ingredient. Some countries have attempted to ban the sale of spray-paint to minors. Farrell says that in countries where spray-paint is unobtainable or prohibitively expensive, sometimes a latex paint tradition will develop like Brazil, or Cuba.
Availability of or familiarity with spray-paint isn’t the issue in Egypt, since it is common for the government to use stencil graffiti for messages on trash cans, electric boxes and other public spaces. Shopkeepers have undoubtedly the most colorful examples of aerosol, used as a cheap and relatively permanent solution to signage. Stenciling along public walls is common for people wishing to advertise everything from a used car to tutoring in psychology. Egyptians are not so sterile as to refrain from painting in public spaces, or cleaning them up, rather it seems Egyptians are just more practical painters, than political ones.
Echoing El Mamlouk’s belief that cross cultural exposure is essential, Farrell says graffiti grows when international visitors demonstrate graffiti on local trains or walls. Local youth try their hand at tagging their names, perhaps grab media attention and develop a following. Prominence of hip-hop culture also goes hand in hand with graffiti.
The fact that the Cairo metro trains are not the most accessible things for a graffiti visitor to make an example of, and that hip-hop culture has permeated only a small cross section of Egyptian society, go a long way to explaining the quality and nature of street art in Egypt.
Farrell has also discovered that the tagging of names in hip-hop graffiti style is not as predominant on the walls of warring countries or in countries where a lot of tension exists between the government and the people. There, most of the graffiti is political instead.
“This makes sense when you consider that the young men in many countries may well have life and death battles to fight instead, and the tensions in the street may make graffiti of any kind a death-defying matter,” she says. “If someone might kill you for doing it, it makes more sense to write a message of defiance and resistance than your name.”
Conflict zones lack of tagging is due the prestige economy of graffiti culture, Farrell says. Usually, tag graffiti artists favorite currency is fame, but she says “it may be undesirable to seek such fame under some political or social conditions.”
Political graffiti exists more than tagging in zones of conflict also because the lightheartedness of tagging is a luxury artists in conflict cannot afford. “Graffiti can also be viewed as playful urban warfare, and is redundant in countries where real urban warfare exists.”
As Egypt isn’t at war, that eliminates the drive for political graffiti. The absence of hip-hop culture means those who do graffiti in Egypt have no intricate examples to go by and end up with crude and rudimentary tags.
Dr. Mohed Zaki, a political sociologist at AUC says illiteracy may also be a factor in Egypt’s sparsely decorated public spaces.
“This is partly because fewer people can read and write, but also people who can read, don’t read a lot here.”
What is ultimately read into graffiti is a representation of the psyche and the mentality of a society: funky and colorful, philosophical and clever, or angry and revolutionary. To Zaki, Egyptian graffiti paints a picture of an Egypt where apathy reigns.
“The level of political participation here is low- the culture makes people uninvolved,” he says, explaining that Palestine’s wealth of graffiti comes from the high level of participation: “in Palestine, everyone is political.”
Zaki says that the fundamental basis for any graffiti is a strong and healthy civil society- one which creates a dynamic tension between the government and the people to keep the state on its toes. Zaki says Egyptian civil society is too weak to create the conditions that produce graffiti as kind of public dialogue.
“To do an act (of graffiti) implies you think it can cause change- you wouldn’t do it if were too depressed or ambivalent,” he says. “There is a kind of resignation here: people say “oh you can’t change things”. It is defeatist.”
Unlike the growing frustration of black youth in inner cities of the US, or the revolutionary spirit of South America, or the hurt and anger in Palestine, Egyptians don’t have enough fire in the belly, or anything to spark that fire.
“Anger itself is a symbol of optimism: you feel strong enough to think things ought to change,” says Zaki. “Anger is a sign of hope – you feel your expression can motivate, create consciousness.”
A high police presence may account for a lack of graffiti, since, like most countries, it is illegal to vandalize in Egypt. But Zaki says the authorities don’t pay much attention to graffiti. While in the west, city councils devote energy to combating graffiti and anti-graffiti groups sprout up from time to time, Egypt tolerates its few scrawlings under overpasses. A few half hearted attempts at neighborhood beautification went largely unnoticed and much of what gets spray painted in Egypt actually stays, unlike in the west. But that is perhaps precisely because the graffiti never directly attacks the power structure- if it did, Zaki says it would likely be erased.
The rare case of Mohamed Nada is a warning to would be radical aerosol artists. Nada spray painted “No to inherited Power” on a wall and was arrested, though later released- his actions declared not politically motivated. Still, Nada spent 15 days in custody for his brush with the can and would have been charged with defamation of national leadership, facing 5 years in jail.
Nada’s experience is not common, but it does illustrate the obstacles to challenging internal politics in a public space. Zaki says the Nada case merely shows that participation in Egyptian politics makes you a marked person. Most Egyptians would rather forgot the notoriety and get on the business of living. Perhaps in time, as Egypt’s youth population increases and becomes more educated and exposed, graffiti will become more advanced.
“Graffiti is usually the culture of the young,” says Zaki. “And what’s on the minds of young Egyptian boys of 20?” Evidently not politics. Zaki says the romantic and the vulgar graffiti stem from high levels of sexual frustration, due to the contrast between traditional morals and modern media. It’s an explanation- but somehow incomplete.
Is this art? Is this Graffiti? No: its kalligraffie
After stripping down the social factors, political theories and technical explanations, the fact remains that classical Arabic calligraphy and modern graffiti art have hooked up in places, though it is a rare find. People have noticed that the two make a great couple and at least for aesthetic purposes, there will be more to come. Like two friends who just met and are getting on famously, the few crossovers in genres that have occurred, have been successful.
Remember Calligrapher El Mamlouk? Already interested in graffiti, he met up with a French graffiti artist named Marco in Alexandria last December. Marco had come to Alexandria and was to paint a mural for the French Cultural Centre there. Marco had developed a reputation for using Arabic letters in his work and so enlisted the help of El Mamlouk in creating the mural and harmonizing their two unique approaches. While painting the mural, Marco explained why he was attracted to a language he couldn’t’ read.
‘The strokes are so dynamic, the forms are so pure,” he said. Marco has christened his style “kalligraffie”. Rezine calls aspects of his work kalligraffiti Textur: a sign that the overlap between calligraphy and graffiti is becoming more concrete, since it has a name
Through Magrebi friends he had in France, Marco started incorporating random Arabic letters into his work, choosing whatever “looked good”. It was the grace or the curves, or maybe the new possibilities, but most of all, it was the feel of the letters that intrigued Marco.
“I’m using this form of writing; I am transforming the letters and putting them together: It is an emotional transcription- more than significance or meaning,” he said.
While traditional calligraphy relies heavily on the direct relationship between the meaning of a word and the visual representation of it, calligrapher El Mamlouk had no difficulty subscribing to Marco’s aesthetic-only approach.
“No problem if the letters have no meaning- but I must have the beauty of the calligraphy,” says El Mamlouk. “You don’t read Marco’s calligraphy, but you feel it. He doesn’t use Arabic letters in his graffiti, but more uses the effect of Arabic letters.”
While in Alexandria, Marco was assisted by students from the College of Fine Arts. He then visited their school and painted graffiti on walls and doors with some of the students. One of the students expressed her surprise at the freedom graffiti allowed- like attacking a bare wall. But others were bothered by the lack of structure and the lack of purpose of meaning: art for art’s sake didn’t wash here.
“It’s impossible to understand and appreciate this because it doesn’t mean anything it’s not beautiful,” said another student.
The mural at the French Cultural Centre is colorful and bold- a giant Mim signifies Marco and El Mamlouk- the most literal remnant of their kalligraffie cooperation in Egypt. Marco’s experience with Arabic has inspired him to explore the richness of script in general. He is already experimenting with Chinese and Japanese and wants to mingle- not language exactly, as that implies meaning- but forms of writing together.
Likewise Rezine likes to mix scripts and languages together, most often using textual combinations of English, French and Arabic. Both Marco and Rezine are captured by the movement of Arabic letters- not by the sounds or words they represent.
“It is not Arabic letters exactly, just an inspiration of the shapes of them,” says Rezine. “The beauty of the letter is very important, as well as the harmony of the composition of the calligraphy.”
A raw appreciation for the winding and adaptable letters native Arabic speakers take for granted is a good start, but for graffiti artist Mohamed Ali, it isn’t enough. Unlike Marco, El Mamlouk and Rezine, he craves meaning. His art is driven by it.
“I always choose a word with some kind of meaning: patience, knowledge, virtues, and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed,” says Ali. Raised in Birmingham, the path of Ali’s life is traced out in his graffiti. It has been the barometer of change in his life. Ali’s current graffiti work is Arabic- mostly religious- and mostly done indoors and on canvases. But he didn’t start out that way- in fact it was quite the opposite. Caught up in the 1980’s graffiti fever, Ali’s early work was mostly tags, always in English and outdoors. It wasn’t popular with his family or his art teacher in college.
“My teacher hated it. We were supposed to study the traditional methods like post impressionism and figure drawings: it just wasn’t me. I ignored the teacher and kept doing graffiti ‘cuz I liked it.”
Eventually Ali found graffiti was the only art he could relate to.
“I thought art is a waste of time and is full of pretension. I wanted to do something that was accessible: art for normal people.”
“All the other graffiti guys were white or black. So it was strange for me. Muslim kids didn’t do stuff like this,” said Ali. “We were just boosting ourselves up: people writing their name to be recognized. Before I was more into self promotion and getting a reputation. But these are all shallow meanings. I began to think what is it all for?”
The big questions now loomed large. The answer was rediscovering Islam and this changed his art forever in terms of content, language and style.
“It became a logical progression to use a word not to boost myself, but because I want to do my part to challenge people.”
Ali’s recent work contains soft, flowing letters and is guided by the meaning of the word. He was moved to combine the two forms because he felt that with calligraphy the art was based around the letter and shapes, while graffiti is the art of the words themselves. He saw a parallel.
“The Arabic language influences what I put on the canvas- Like I’m putting more curves and angles in the background to compliment the script,” says Ali. “The word influences the colors I choose too. Like patience would never be a burning red, it would be metallic blue and grey.”
His new worldview also influenced him to not paint political messages.
“I wouldn’t think of painting anything political because the beauty of the script, well it just makes sense for it to have a deeper, spiritual meaning. With such beautiful shapes I wouldn’t want to write anything less.’
Graphic and web designer by day and tagging by night, Ali began to feel his art wasn’t as useful as he wanted it to be or as spiritually fulfilling. Four years ago he began to experiment with Arabic- though he knew of no one else doing the same thing. Having done large outdoor pieces for city councils and parks, Ali now chose to limit his art to indoors and canvases.
“I really wanted to do one on the walls, a really big one with Arabic. But I thought against it because people here already have a negative view of Muslims, they’d think “what are Muslims spraying on our walls in Arabic?” Especially because for something religious, I don’t want someone to tag all over it”
Ali isn’t the first graffiti artist to take his work inside- many have had gallery shows. But purists will say graffiti belongs in a public space. “When this art is taken from the streets it somehow dies” wrote French graffiti artist pioneer Blek. Accessibility is at the heart of the medium.
Rezine began painting on walls, and like purists, he loves the ability ot reach a mziumum of people and have a dialogue with the public cat large. However, he has also started doing canvases. Like many graffiti artists, he has an intimate with relationship with the environment he paints in. Context, he says essential.
“I am very motivated to paint outside and I do it, but it depends on what I want to create and the medium I am painting on. Outside I paint on ageing textures, a mixture of different textures like brick, rock…. I search for an original wall that I can appropriate to myself.”
In Rezine’s indoor canvases he reproduces the effects of outdoor walls, particularly decrepit ones, which he loves because “they represent the passing of time”.
Taking his graffiti indoors, doesn’t mean taking the outdoors out of the graffiti- it is an expansion of the art.
“The city nourishes me and vice versa,” he says. “I am inspired by the urban environment.”
While Resin’s inspiration is the built environment, Ali’s muse is his religion. Islam has stirred many changes in Ali’s art. He used to paint detailed faces in his graffiti, lost in the eyes for hours. But Islam prohibits drawing figurative images.
“I made a sacrifice. I remember staring at a detailed face I made and it looks at you like its alive and I thought “I don’t want to create souls in my paintings.”
But he says abandoning the detailed faces isn’t a restriction, rather it helps him focus on the pure form of the art:
“In the beginning graffiti was just about words,” he says.
Not painting outside meant Ali had to find not just an audience for his work, but a purpose for it too. This past year he had an event to raise money for an orphanage in Afghanistan and felt for the first time that his art had the power to do good.
“All that time I was just doing web design I felt coldness towards what I was doing because I wanted to use my skills to help people.’
This has sparked a rash of exhibiting for Ali, who just exhibited at Cambridge University for a cultural fair, at Kings College London, Manchester University and Birmingham all for Islamic Awareness, and had an auction at the Kufa gallery in London where his paintings sold to raise money for Iran’s earthquake victims.
“The Muslims were into it, they said it was the first time they saw something like this. But I was most amazed at the non Muslims response. I thought they would think it was scary Arabic But they thought it was crazy mix and really liked it.”
Like a London graffiti that says, “speak softly and carry a big can of paint”, Ali is passionate about making change through his art and using Arabic to do it.
“As Muslims in the UK we are misrepresented: people think ‘young Muslims: oh these guys are nutters, they must hate the west.’ But I was born and bred here and I’m not like that. I want non-Muslims to have access to my work, and say ‘hey this guy is doing Arabic graffiti. Muslims are doing creative things!’”
Ali discounts the notion that a western art form corrupts the Arabic language; instead he says “this shows Muslims that the Muslim world extends beyond the Arab world.’”
Marco, El Mamlouk, Ali and Rezine all testify to the success of the graffiti-calligraphy combo, even if selling it indoors is a step away from the accessibility of the streets where graffiti was born. Defining graffiti seems to have gone out of fashion though. What materials you use, whether you exhibit outdoors, indoors or, increasingly, on the internet, seems less important now than the simple propagation of the art- moving it forward, keeping the momentum going and propelling it the direction of the modernity, potentiality, and opportunity.
“I want to take Arabic into the future,” says Ali, whose paintings often have metallic look and who confesses to “getting really excited about silver”.
Recently Ali was invited to show his work to Muslim youth at a local mosque- though it is rare for art to be exhibited inside a mosque. The youth were impressed. While graffiti appeals to the young, Ali shares el Eweidi’s concern that Arabic calligraphy just doesn’t interest young people because it fails to evolve. In Egypt, it is, as el Eweidi said, “unrelated to modern life”.
“For young Muslims there is no art they want their walls: that old style Islamic art needs to be presented in a contemporary light, more modern.” said Ali. “I do feel there is a future in Contemporary Islamic art, but maybe only outside the Arab world.”
The artists, despite different approaches, agree that Arab art and calligraphy must not stagnate. All applaud the use of techniques borrowed from other cultures, as el Eweidi says “the world is a small village.” Ali calls himself a bridge between two cultures.
“With Arabic calligraphy, people see Arabic and they don’t understand it, but presenting Arabic in graffiti is more accessible because everyone can appreciate it,” says Ali. “Muslims and Non Muslims can relate to the funky shapes and colors.”
Marco and Rezine are a new breed of graffiti artist entirely: moving beyond multicultural to multilingual. They want to use the fusion of typography to say something about human communication. Many languages, like plant roots, tangle together in a statement of unity. In combining scripts, the artists are mixing cultures like paint.
“I also try Chinese techniques with a paint brush- or the Russian script. Scripts interest me in general,” says Rezine.
Whether the Egyptian art scene is ready for this fusion is debatable. The metros and underpasses are still shy about the topic: they wonder if the crude wall stencils and hasty aerosols could one day be something beautiful and interesting. Despite the low-quality of Cairo graffiti: its purpose is the same as the more developed art. Rezine says his work is “a reflection of time passing by, a human trace, the mark of my existence.” Beyond any political motives or artistic aspiration, Cairo’s wholly unremarkable attempts at graffiti are the same as Rezine’s brilliant ones. They still illustrate the naked foundation of the art: the urge to prove our own existence and to leave something behind that someone will read. All graffiti wants to say the same thing-
“I wuz here.”
In among the various performances, artworks and activities at the British Museum’s Arabia Late event a couple of Fridays back, Mohammed Ali’s talk about street art was an undoubted highlight….. read on>>>>
August 26th 2012, I was invited to deliver an artist talk at the 39th GreenBelt Festival. The only Christian Arts Festival of it’s kind, that takes place at the Chelternahm Racecourse over a weekend, where tens of thousands of people camp out in tents to celebrate some of the best faith-inspired art. I’ve never been to Glastonbury Festival, but i’ve heard Greenbelt described as the ‘Glastonbury without the drink and drugs’, instead replaced with lovely God conscious people and a pleasant family friendly environment. I also met people who weren’t particularly religious, but just appreciated being in a positive environment. Even on the #gb12 hasttag, i noted that there was a general positivity, without the usual complaints about this and that, that is so prevalent on Twitter.
I was part of the visual arts program and delivered a talk entitled ‘Sacred Street Art: Colouring the Concrete Jungle’ an extract that appears in the official guide i’ve included below. I must say, I have spoken to audiences across the globe, but this has to be one of the most receptive audiences i’ve ever engaged with! I was conscious that i was one of very few muslims present at this festival, but felt honoured to have been invited. It was totally refreshing and went away inspired, feeling that more of this work needs to happen, engaging with audiences and spaces that one would never normally engage with.
A muslim at a christan festival? There is nothing odd about that. There is lots to learn from one another, and its spaces like this that can offer a refreshing retreat from the chaos of the city, to explore issues together. Met lots of interesting people, and had lots of feedback from those who said they had learnt a few things from myself that they could implement in their own communities. Mission accomplished? No, we have only just begun! Lots to do, and look forward to engaging with Greenbelt in future!
Today i was walking past the new Birmingham Library/REP theatre space, that has been in development for the past two years. This huge towering block of geometric patterns that stands behind construction hoardings, i can’t help but dream about what took place in January 21st 2010, the performance of Writing On the Wall. An audience of hundreds stood in the same spot where the new building stands, where live graffiti-art, performance poetry, projected visuals and soundscapes filled the workshop space of the REP. I was given an amazing opportunity to take over the workshop, months before it was demolished to make way for this current structure. Now you have all heard me get excited over Writing On the Wall – so i wont go off on one again. Instead i wanted to share some thoughts on where i’m going with Writing On the Wall Part 2.
Since the event in January 2010, where giant video and light projections met spraypainted walls, there has been a number of outdoor projection events that i have attended only minutes away fron this spot. One is, Wings of Desire, featuring the DJ and artist Goldie, in an outdoor performance of acrobatics, dance and computer graphics projected onto the side of Birmingham Town Hall. The second, is Sampad’s Mandala 2012, where live performance was combined with projected visuals – again on the city’s town hall, both of which were outdoor events. Both events were impressive, and to the annoyance of friends that were with me – i was commenting on every detail, in how it compared to our event 2 years ago! Both were different as they were outdoor events, which comes with many challenges.
Below an image of Sampad’s Mandala performance on the side of the Town Hall.
It took 4 years to put together the first Writing On the Wall, and it’s been 2 years since it was delivered. I always intended on there being a part two, and while It’s been shaping up in my head, i have been working and engaging with different types of artists, collecting the right team, and exploring different ideas, ready for the next big one. I’m not sure exactly where and when Writing On the Wall 2 wil take place yet, but the concept is cooking away, so wont speak too much more on that. One thing i promise is this: Not only will the show have to be beautiful in terms of its aesthetics – of course that’s crucial. But for me, it wont be complete if it doesn’t make the audience go away feeling something deep down, maybe change their perspective on things. Beauty yes, but more importantly – meaning. Writing On the Wall was for me, an epic project. Part two has to blow the audience away on a much bigger level.
It was refreshing to see today just on my strolls through Birmingham City Centre, the construction hoardings of the building site has a mention of Writing On the Wall, with a small picture, see below…. this is what inspired me to write up this post.
The hoardings with a timeline of activity at the REP leading up to the demolition of its workshop after Writing On the Wall
Acclaimed Graffiti Artist takes on the Olympics
Graffiti art mural sets to unite disparate communities
Internationally acclaimed graffiti artist Mohammed Ali has painted an art mural in London on Leyton High Road from 10am-5pm. The mural has brought local young people from the Leyton area together to create a thought-provoking piece of public art, minutes away from London’s Olympic stadium.
Leyton High Road has already been in the media spotlight for sprucing up its shop-fronts in time for the London 2012 Olympics. The East End has also been accused of wiping out its vibrant street art because of it being considered low brow. Mohammed Ali’s art with its uplifting message seeks to challenge that perception, as he says “street art brings life to the concrete jungles that we live in”.
The British-born artist has produced murals in New York, Chicago, Melbourne and Dubai. The South Bank Award winner has been featured on Al-Jazeera, BBC, New York Times and many others prestigious publications. He says of the upcoming project:
“The world might have come together for the Olympics but this time last year London was a place of riots and factions, this project is a perfect opportunity to transcend class, race, and faith to bring all peoples together through art. I didn’t want to paint just a nice pretty mural about the Olympics, but wanted to ask important questions and make people think.”
“He is a graffiti artist who uses his work to intertwine the old and the new…his work has been dubbed ‘urban spiritual art’ was originally street based but now hangs in galleries all over the world…he is heralded as a bridge of understanding” Freema Agyeman, South Bank Show Awards 2009.
The large scale project funded by Near Neighbours, involves young people from youth organisation Adventure Quest, Leyton Scouts and arts organisation Soul City Arts. The mural is located on the corner of Huxley Road and Leyton High Road, on the side of the Kebabish Original Restaurant.
A feature in the Waltham Forest Guardian newspaper: http://www.guardian-series.co.uk/news/wfnews/9872020.LEYTON___Thought_provoking__Olympic_mural_completed/?ref=mmsp
A picture of the wall to be painted:
Pictures of the completed mural showing the process from beginning to end:
It’s not often i do playground murals. I like to be selective of what schools i work with – only because its easy to become babysitters for kids, and the artist isn’t really respected. There are a few schools i would bend over backwards for, and Whitgreaves Primary School is one of them. I worked with their students to create this mural. This area will be transformed into an outdoor ‘garden’ teaching area, so the message had to reflect something about nature. I stumbled across the words of William Wordsworth – ‘Let Nature be your Teacher’ and that became the message. The imagery was taken from the childrens sketches and took over a week to do.