July 20, 2014

Artist in a Revolution: Ganzeer and his Wounded Cat

Artist in a Revolution: Ganzeer and his Wounded Cat

 It’s a thrill to read about the graffiti genius Ganzeer in the New York Times Sunday Arts Section, and about his prominence in a big show at the New Museum in Manhattan. And it’s a chill to discover that Ganzeer is a refugee in Brooklyn now — because Egypt under military dictatorship again is not a safe place for an artist of revolution. Ganzeer’s imprint on the walls of Cairo was my epiphany in 2012 about the depth of the art and passion under the so-called Arab Spring, and the universal reach of its graphic language. So I’m re-posting that enlightening moment, and linking to a few of our conversations with Arab artists that, after so many reversals, feel still current: the novelist of The Yacoubian Building, Alaa Al Aswany and the historian, Khaled FahmyMy brief season in Cairo in 2012 was also a grave crisis moment in Gaza.

CAIRO — A coin dropped yesterday as I was looking at Ganzeer‘s painting of a wounded cat in the stylish little Safarkhan Gallery on Brazil St in Zamalek. This is what I came for — the painting and the feeling it induces. Out of an Egyptian tradition of cats and calligraphy, it’s a stunning large (guess: 8′ x 4’) canvas of a cat: fur painted in red; left eye shot out and bandaged, right eye on the horizon. It’s an irresistible image of suffering and survival in a revolution. In an all-Ganzeer show just being taken down, called “The Virus is Spreading,” the cat painting is the piece I would steal. Ganzeer himself is in Berlin, doing a month’s workshop — which tells you something about the spreading of his insight and his touch. Not yet 30, he is exemplifying and teaching defiance in his young generation in the face of every establishment, though in a familiar Egyptian language. Mona Said, daughter of the gallery founder, says Ganzeer (aka Mohamed Fahmy, aka Mofa) was a painter before he was a graffiti artist, and always more humanist than painter.

Immediately, I thought, here’s a statement that will keep, or is keeping, the revolution deeply alive in the world, a current more charged than politics or journalism or social media, finding its own network and resonance. Ganzeer as I imagine him has something in common with the young rockers and rappers in the decorated Egyptian film “Microphone” about the music underground pre-revolution in Alexandria; except that Ganzeer has a much grander talent and now global reach. The musicians remind me of our own Amanda Palmer — defiant energy and confidence to “make art every day” … and then? Ganzeer reminds me more of the late Joseph Beuys (1921 – 1986): “every man is a plastic artist who must determine things for himself.” Ganzeer’s work looks more considered, more beautifully executed, older, newer, more political, more universal than anything new I can think of. It’s worthy of a book project to decode this work, and find the others. Part of the fun of his work, specially this cat, is the element of old “Pharaonic” Egypt about it: the semi-sacred cat who symbolizes freedom and endurance, not to mention the Egyptian tradition of formalist painting on the walls of tombs. The words in the stylized Arabic script come from the cat, in a vernacular Egyptian expression: “One day he entertains me. The other day I’m on my own. And I can work with that.”

Ganzeer — painter, graffiti master, humanist — in Cairo. Photo Credit: Baldwin Portraits

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  • Potter

    The link above to the show:”The Virus is Spreading” yields a multimedia show that makes me feel as though it would be a great show to see in person, and would have an even more potent effect from not only the cat poster/painting. But as for that I immediately thought of Steinlein’s Le Chat Noir ( 1896) as well, also reminiscent of the ancient Egyptian cat, and an excellent symbol of freedom and endurance as you say. I know, having three cats here (somewhat subdued and non-revolutionary).

    The NYTimes article today by Neil MacFarquhar was helpful in confusing me further about this fluidity, this change happening:

    Sunni Leaders Gaining Clout

  • Sarah

    Wow–steal it! Or rather buy it! Amazing piece.

    • Amanda

      Love it, too! It doesn’t hurt that Ganzeer’s doppelganger is Mark Bajakian ; )

  • Pingback: Cairo artist portrays revolution as wily Egyptian cat with one eye shot out | Mondoweiss()

  • chris

    Garrett Zevgetis writes:

    Ah yes the red cat is amazing! I like the photo of the sign that reads: “KEEB OUT NO PHOTO.” And I like the old-man-graffiti artist…that’s not how you imagine a guy holding spray paint to look. I feel like Ganzeer has some Andy Warhol in him, superimposed images that invert the presupposed context and give birth to new meaning…

  • Robert Zucchi

    What a thankless business it can seem, getting people to work as hard together for their common betterment as they do despising one another. In our own country, with its model democracy (TM), we have just endured a year or more of insanely expensive political Grand Guignol, featuring insult comics called politicians who had to have boot-camped their acts in provincial roadhouse latrines.

    One has to be wary in “middle” age of conflating one’s own weariness with the eternally parlous state of the world. But Mr. Lydon’s discussions with Arab artists, many of them by no means young and thus under the sway of biological meliorism, leave me revived somewhat in my spirit … there is something imperishable about the human drive to freedom.

    Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66 (See also Heinrich “The Silesian Weavers” Heine and Woody “Life is a Concentration Camp” Allen)

    1) Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
    2) As, to behold desert a beggar born,
    3) And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
    4) And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
    5) And guilded honour shamefully misplaced,
    6) And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
    7) And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
    8) And strength by limping sway disabled,
    9) And art made tongue-tied by authority,
    10) And folly doctor-like controlling skill,
    11) And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
    12) And captive good attending captain ill:
    13)Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
    14) Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

    (Gack! Glossing the Bard:)

    2) I give you the example of the worthy person born into poverty,
    3) While the nonentity is clothed in finery.
    4) The trustworthy are through trickery betrayed,
    5) While authority wears the gold insignia of undeserved office.
    6) Virtue is compelled to do evil.
    7) Wholesome perfection is unjustly disgraced.
    8) Youthful idealism is checked by an enfeebled and corrupt élite.
    9) (A crucial focus of Chris Lydon’s discussions with artists of the Arab Spring.)
    10) Ignorance pretends to erudition to intimidate its juniors,
    11) Honest truth is falsely labelled stupidity.
    12) The good are menially in thrall to wicked authority.

  • wellbasically

    I wish I liked the art on this show. I wish I appreciated Amanda Palmer. But it just seems like the output of loudmouths.