The Egyptian graffiti genius known as Ganzeer is working on our turf now. I am presuming to welcome him as an artist of radical humanism.
Four years ago in the Tahrir Square uprising in Cairo, Ganzeer was first among the young outlaws who painted the truth about Egypt’s dictatorship and the promise of the Arab Spring on the walls of their city. They made images that beat guns, for a while.
Ganzeer hand-painted that famous highway billboard, of a tank bearing down on the bread-delivery-man on his bicycle. He made the iconic poster of Egyptian police with American weaponry, stripping and beating up a lady protester in Tahrir Square. Four years later the same intrepid Ganzeer, just into his 30s, has taken root in Brooklyn. He’s got New York and the United States in his sights.
For his “All-American” gallery show in Manhattan of new paintings and posters, his impressions of us are merciless – not exactly funny, not quite incendiary, but tough: maybe just what we need from an artist and humanist of Egypt and the wide world. One Sunday afternoon this winter Ganzeer let me into his Brooklyn studio for a long gab about art as social commentary, about Concept Pop, as he calls it – which is to say idea-driven art that comes with a sort of punch in the nose. We’re talking about what he sees as the face of America, and I keep wondering: can we take it? “I guess I’m going to find out,” he smiles at me. “We’re all going to find out.”
G: I just notice things. I just noticed that Robin Williams’ death, for example, grabbed far more media attention, in the papers and whatnot, than the events in Ferguson happening at exactly the same time. Media aside, just normal day-to-day experiences, you just see things. You’re on the subway for the first time, and the loudspeaker is telling people that all their bags are subject to random search by the police, which is a quality of an authoritarian state; it doesn’t get more obvious than that, you know? You see cops harassing guys who are playing music on the subway if they’re African-American. Of course when you’re entering Williamsburg and there are some white hipsters playing music on the subway, the cops are standing there but they’re not doing anything about it. So you start to see trends…
For example, enforced nationalism. The display of the Egyptian flag in public space to a nauseating degree is something new that happened recently with the military takeover in Egypt… but then you come to the United States and maybe this practice has been here for a longer time: you see the flag on every single vehicle of public transportation… You see these incredibly pointless glossy magazines at every newsstand trying to sway society in a particular direction: to constantly be happy, to constantly have great sex, a great American body, great American summer, great American dad – whatever it is, you know, it’s just like ridiculous.
CL: And what about the people?
G: I see a lot of immigrants mostly. People who are actually not American at all, not in any way American. So what’s interesting about all this Americanism that’s in the air – it’s trying to get people to assimilate and become American when they’re so obviously not. Most people in New York are not really American.
Egypt seems mostly behind him now, except for the native confidence it gave him in the power of images — “we’re a visual people, back to ancient times” — and the force of ridicule. “Egyptians have a reputation for liking to laugh… If the joke is good, people are not going to remember anything else.” “Honest Money” in Ganzeer’s “All American” show is his redesign of our legal tender, six bills memorializing moments in our history:
The $1 bill has a hand holding a severed head of a Native American man. This exemplifies what I would argue is the first major event in American history, the genocide of the Native American population… No, There’s no Thanksgiving on my bills! The rear side shows where there are Native American reservations today. They tend to be seen as the American way of doing good by these people… but these reservations are about 2.3 percent of the entire country… To be honest, looking at this map the only thing it brings to mind is Israel and Palestine. So you have some scattered bits of Palestinian land, right? But then the fact of the matter is the entirety of the land is occupied land, taken from these people.
On the $5 bill we have the enslavement of the African population, bringing them on board ships and taking them to the Americas to serve European settlers… The $10 bill shows the exploitation of the Chinese workers in building the transcontinental railway… On the rear… in 1882 the U. S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion act, which was their reward…
Finally, on the $100 bill we have an illustration of ancient artifacts in American museums. For example the Met: 39.5 percent of those artifacts come from Egypt, India, Greece, the Roman Empire, Peru, Syria, Turkey, Korea, Africa and Asia. The Met makes an annual revenue of approximately $68 to $70 million, one museum in the US. Zero percent goes to Egypt, Syria, Turkey… Meanwhile the Disney Consumer Products Co. made $39.3 billion in 2013 off licensing the use of Disney characters in foreign countries.
Ganzeer is showing us a parody of that bugaboo “Orientalism,” turning it 180 degrees. I’m calling it “Occidentalism” that says in effect: Look what they do in the odd, exotic West — in the New York seat of empire. His language is art for a gallery wall. There’s a bit of theory in it, about art as Activism, Empty-ism (high and low), and what he dubs his own Concept Pop.
You have a certain kind of Activisty art. It’s not going to change anybody’s mind: a pumped up fist is like a slogan… It fails on conceptual and aesthetic measures. If we look at what’s happening in contemporary arts here, there’s a lot of art that is not really about anything in particular. It just entirely focuses on aesthetic experiments and playing with materials. I call it “Art for Supervillains.” If you think about your standard Hollywood villain figure and what his house would look like if he had art in it, it’s probably going to be some of the art you might find in a Chelsea gallery. And then of course you have Street Art, or graffiti, right? So there’s a lot of tagging; people writing their names on the wall, or doing beautiful murals they can do with spray paint: they’re very large and they’re impressive technically speaking, and they’re not really about anything as well, right? So these are the major movements in the art sphere here.
And it is a little disappointing, disheartening, that there isn’t enough art that can experiment with a method but be about something in the process of doing that, right? Mine? I call it Concept Pop, and for me it’s just a way of doing art that can use these pop references, popular symbols, popular forms; but rather than do it for no reason, do it with an actual concept behind you – but of course in so doing it’s also very different from conceptual art which often tends to deliver concepts in a very bland, unaestheticized way, right. I feel like it’s an approach that occupies this particular mid-ground that I try to dance in a little bit.
Ganzeer could remind you of Ai Weiwei — another anti-authoritarian global humanist who lashes his fellow artists to be bolder, more notoriously defiant. But Ganzeer likes the irony in their different stances: Ganzeer sees himself as equal opportunity offender. Ai Weiwei is a celebrity in the West for confronting the government in Beijing. “But he seems to be incapable or unaware or naïve enough not to do anything about the context here” in the States. Ganzeer feels he was invited implicitly to follow suit: “becoming this avatar of some kind of resistance movement in some other country, right? But of course it’s a role that I completely refused.” And still, “almost every profile or review seems to focus on the Egyptian aspect of my work. A lot of artists fall into that trap, right? … It is easy for the artist to fall into… coming from this very interesting, exotic land, right?”
So he is happy to pose for my camera in front of a collaborative painting he made with artists in Germany: it depicts a child warrior in Africa holding the outline of a machine gun that was originally papered with Euro bills. On public display in Germany the painting “experienced citizen censorship,” as Ganzeer put it. His audience stripped off the Euros (fakes, in any event) but the point stuck about neo-imperial interest in Africa’s instability. Ganzeer is restoring the work in his Brooklyn studio. When we do speak of Egypt, where his revolutionary work has been effaced and he himself would be in danger, Ganzeer wants to nail a punchline about the United States. I observe that most Americans know very little about the US hand in Mubarak’s reign, Mubarak’s downfall, the succession of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and now General Sisi and the Egyptian Army. Ganzeer says: that’s just the point:
The one obvious change you can see since the ‘revolution’ in Egypt is that the police force has become incredibly heavily militarized now – and of course these weapons come from the Egyptian military, which gets its weapons from the United States of America. So of course the US government has a direct involvement in the killing of Egyptian people on the streets of Cairo today, and the American people do not know that. And the fact they do not know exemplifies the kind of democracy that they actually have. How is it that these people think they live in a country where they do control the government’s actions and don’t even know that their government is supplying weapons to kill people across the world?
Ganzeer in conversation becomes the very image of his defiant Cairo cat that thrilled me in Egypt two and a half years ago. His wounded common street cat was a comment on the stalled revolution. It was homage, too, to the Pharaonic Egypt, the semi-sacred cat symbolizing freedom and endurance. We’re blessed to have this cat’s fresh, almost fearless, gaze on us for a while.