‘The point of street art is that it’s accessible to everybody’
The relationship between street artists and the municipalities in Lebanon differs greatly from those elsewhere around the world. Although, generally speaking, the idea of street art as vandalism is eroding, the undercurrent remains present. In Lebanon, though, the notion was never there; the police are too busy, and the soldiers at the checkpoints throughout the country welcome street artists with open arms – after they put down their M16s, of course.
The nature of this relationship set in motion a seemingly invisible legislation – not unlike most legislation in Lebanon – that allowed for a more fluid process with respect to the production of public art. I’m not just talking about tagging or graffiti; the truth is, that in Beirut, these activities are too common and insignificant to authorities and the public, and do not elicit any noteworthy responses. Perhaps this is due to the fact that most graffiti in Lebanon revolves around teenage drama and the conspiracy theories of high school students; that being said, though, there are a number of areas in Beirut that boast some of the largest and most intricate murals and street art installations in Lebanon.
Somehow, maybe as a result of Lebanon’s tumultuous history or the general Lebanese attitude often described as blasé and nonchalant by other Middle Easterners, a malleable relationship between the public, the municipalities, and street artists has been forged. Street artists are now able to communicate directly with the public about the art they’re creating; people often stop, voice their opinions, and enquire as to what these artworks are about. When I spoke with a local graffiti artist, FISH – whose Facebook bio reads, ‘graffiti is only a crime if you’re anal’ – he told me about how people often park their cars and bring their children to watch street art in the making. He further went on to say how people even honk their horns and shout out compliments as they drive by.
In many ways, there is no legislative middleman; the authorities only step in when street artists begin stepping on private ‘toes’. This is what has made Beirut the perfect environment for street art in the Arab world – the authorities leave it up to the local community to decide on what should or shouldn’t be painted in or around their public space; and, as a result, Beirut has been drawing in various artist organisations attempting to take advantage of the city’s laissez-faire sociopolitical climate. A successful exhibition entitled White Wall Beirut was launched by a group of curators from Germany, France, and Lebanon last year working in collaboration with institutions such as the Beirut Art Center, and brought in street artists from North and South America, Europe, and the Middle East. Interestingly, a similar project executed in the States an organisation named Living Walls received a less enthusiastic response from the public, as it failed to consult local communities beforehand.
I recently spoke with an Egyptian street artist, Aya Tarek, who participated in the White Wall Beirut exhibition, so I could get a feel of the public response, as well as the relationship between the public, the authorities, and artists in Beirut. More importantly, though, I spoke with her because she is an artist working in the region with a concrete understanding of how Arab states function, and is foreign to Beirut – just like many other street artists who are commissioned to produce public works of art around the city.
You’re based in Alexandria – how long were you in Beirut for the White Wall Beirut exhibition, and what kind of work did you produce for it? As well, even though a deal was struck between the exhibition organisers and the municipalities granting you ‘immunity’, did you ever have to censor yourself?
I’m based in Alexandria, yes. I was there for two weeks. My major piece was a big piece in the Beirut Art Center. [I did not have to censor myself] – absolutely not. We were able to paint whatever we wanted. Let me tell you something – most of us are not really political; [us] artists … are not about politics, nor is our art. We’re about style and technique. It’s not about heavy political subject matter.
I don’t feel like a stranger when I go to Beirut … you can do whatever you want in Beirut, wear whatever you want – depending on where you are – and no one so much as bats an eyelash
Why do you think it’s important to stress that your art isn’t political?
Let me tell you why. After the revolution – or the ‘Arab Spring’ – I didn’t care about politics, and I still don’t care about politics. I mean this in a direct sense; I have my political opinions, but it doesn’t show vividly in my work. The thing was that a market opened up after the revolution. Everyone was looking at Egypt. If you produced anything about the revolution [or] about politics, it would sell immediately – it would sell rapidly, in a scary way. A lot of artists, writers, journalists, and activists worked with politics and thrived on politics, even if [the works] were really poorly done or … naïve … it didn’t matter. As long as [they were] about a political situation, [they were] good.
This is my problem, generally, particularly with how the ‘West’ looks at us. I think it happened with Beirut after the Civil War, and [the same thing] happened with Iran. All the Iranian [directors] who make movies about oppression, women, and politics – [they] all sell well. I [have an] issue with this, because I want to be critiqued for my work, my artistic value – not the value I gain from being in a political situation or because something happened in my country, or because I’m Middle Eastern or a woman … or – oh God, imagine – a Middle Eastern woman! If I were from the West, then my art would be critiqued [for what it is]. But because I’m Egyptian, I find there is often this undercurrent, like, you are just so brave for making art in spite of all your suffering.
[Laughs]. That’s a nice way of putting it … so you’re saying that you sort of feel that you have to be political as an artist and that you don’t want your art to be appreciated for the politics around it, but for the art itself.
Yeah, exactly. Even if I want to be political in my work, I’m deterred from [being so]. There is a stigma on being political in the field now – that was what [got me interested in] White Wall Beirut. It was open. We weren’t expected to [be political].
There have been a lot of issues in different cities regarding foreign artists coming into cities and painting subjects that local communities fail to identify with. When you went to Beirut for the exhibition, did you find it hard to connect with the local urban ‘fabric’?
Beirut is a very cosmopolitan city – it sucks you in. I don’t feel like a stranger when I go to Beirut, unlike in Cairo. [When] I go to Cairo, I feel like a stranger. You know, you can do whatever you want in Beirut, wear whatever you want – depending on where you are – and no one so much as bats an eyelash. The thing is, we didn’t feel strange – there [were] artists from all around the world; we felt welcome. People loved what we were doing indoors and outdoors, and they were helping us. We didn’t have a problem with the public.
I want to be critiqued for my work, my artistic value – not the value I gain from being in a political situation or because something happened in my country, or because I’m Middle Eastern or a woman … or – oh God, imagine – a Middle Eastern woman!
Aside from the public, what was dealing with the municipalities like? When policemen or soldiers walked by your work or the works of other artists, were there any confrontations? Did they already know that you were allotted certain spaces?
Actually, no. They used to stand and watch – it was encouraging. I went to Beirut in 2010, and I was making street art informally and didn’t have permission from anyone, and they still used to stand and watch. For me, the authorities in Beirut are much easier [to deal with] than the army and the police here in Egypt.
I know you’ve been commissioned to produce street art in Germany and Denmark – how is it different making street art there compared to in Beirut?
Well, in Germany, we had a licence or permission from the authorities. There, the police came up to us and asked us questions, and asked to see our passports as well. As for the public, I’d say [they] are kind of used to it. They’re not really thrilled like [people are] in Arab countries where people stand, look, and enquire. Some of them ask you for a drink or a coffee or something. People there are used to it – they appreciate [street art] and are really nice, but they aren’t as enthusiastic as [the] people in Beirut. It’s because there’s not enough ‘art culture’ in Lebanon.
You think that there isn’t an art culture there? I think I would disagree with that, especially in Beirut.
There is – there’s a huge scene. But the average person crossing the street isn’t necessarily involved in [it].
How did you find painting murals indoors? Did you see a difference in the public reception or the process?
There was something that was particularly interesting – for me – that I noticed. In the exhibition itself, on [the] opening day, a lot of people came, and a lot of people were dressed up nicely, because it’s Beirut … People went to the first floor to see the artworks, and within half an hour, everybody was on the second floor, which featured products we made for the exhibition. They were having … free drinks and free food, and buying souvenirs. They bought everything … there was no one downstairs. I think that’s what’s different about the reception and [the] process. The domain in which the art exists in different, and … people interact with it differently.
What do you think about that?
You know, this is street art; you can’t contain it and put it in a gallery. The people who come to the gallery [do so to] see and shop.
Do you think you can bring any inherently outdoor and unconstrained form of art and place it in a constrained indoor environment?
It sort of loses its value as street art. You can call it art, a painting, but it’s not street art. People are dressed up, holding their glasses, observing the art; it’s not accessible, it’s not the same. People who are walking by aren’t necessarily comfortable enough to walk in. It’s intimidating for a lot of people. The point of street art is [that] it’s accessible to everybody.