- Published on Tuesday, 02 October 2012 03:12
- Category: Art
In last month’s demonstrations at the U.S. Embassy, the hyper-charged politics of flags were evident to anyone who cared to look. But there are more important flags to pay attention to on the Cairo streets. A few months back, I was putting together my syllabus for a course I’m teaching on visual culture and political consciousness, and I stumbled on the article “Does Egypt Need a New Flag?” by Egyptian artist and blogger Ganzeer. He asks, “What is the significance of updating the Egyptian flag anyway? Although it might seem like a topic fetishized by a group of designers and artists, with no real affect on the masses, I believe it can have grave effects on things to come.” I’m inclined to disagree—but only slightly. It’s already a mass phenomenon. This article was posted in March 2011; it would be overreach to assume that the street art I’ve been seeing recently has roots in this single online post.
I have no idea who made all of these images; but it isn’t Ganzeer; the imagery is simply too diverse and too stylistically varied to attribute to a single artist. It’s clear that changes being made to the Egyptian flag by anonymous artists, and seemingly—random passersby reveal a lot more, analytically speaking, about Egyptian perceptions of the Revolution’s unfulfilled promises. It’s evident from a single walk through downtown Cairo that an organic transformation of the Egyptian flag—and the symbolism of its Eagle—is well underway. The permutations taking place in Cairo representations of the Eagle can be divided into three categories: absence, replacement, and outright attack.
In 1984, under Mubarak’s regime, the Egyptian flag was altered from its former appearance as the banner shared by countries of the Federation of Arab Republics (including Libya and Syria). The same Eagle of Saladin which appeared that year also figures on Egyptian military officers’ rankings, Egypt’s coat of arms, and generals’ hats, among other prominent symbols of the Army.
In the first category of absence, one might think – at first glance – that the Eagle is too complex and intricate a symbol for artists in a hurry, or for those without strong technical skill. In some cases, such as the Mogamaa portraits of martyrs from the Maspero Massacre, representations of the flag are so tiny that the absence of the Eagle is easily explainable. After all, in the painting of the flag in Garden City, a gold smear of paint is easily readable. Yet in other cases, such as the multiple flags on Mohamed Mahmoud Street—complex details of turtles, doves, human faces and intricate calligraphy overlay one another—but the Eagle is conspicuously missing.
The second category of substitution makes it easier to identify that a thread of unrelated charges are being hurled at the institution with which the Eagle has come to be identified: Egypt’s military regime. Near the old American University of Cairo, a mural brings together images signed by Egyptian Socialist youth. In the detail below, we see a pyramid with the colors of the Egyptian flag—the red signifying struggle predominates. Rather than the Eagle, instead the artists have substituted a clenched fist holding a tool, a familiar emblem from global workers’ party images. The text reads, “Victory to Egypt’s workers.”
In another mural near Mohamed Mahmoud’s infamous (and recently destroyed) Martyrs’ Mural, a wall painting takes on the topic of the first post-Mubarak elections. An Egyptian flag dominates the composition, with the message, “Revolution anew.” The eagle’s central position has been replaced by a ballot box labeled “SCAF control”—although it still faintly appears, it has been padlocked and caged behind barbed wire. The text at the bottom of the wall painting reads, “My vote is for the martyr.”
Finally, whether in “popular” or “high” art, the Eagle-as-official-insignia is being challenged as a symbol of the revolution and the legitimacy of the military in the Egyptian state. In nearly every piece of downtown graffiti, anonymous artists have swapped the Eagle for that of the death’s head, and in many cases a simple skull—forcibly associating security forces with that of martyrs and murders—throughout the revolution and beyond. Even in the so-called “fine arts” (too often analyzed as a separate class of visual expression), this emblem has been challenged. At a recent lecture for the America University of Cairo, visual artist Huda Lutfi explained her April 2011 piece, “Crossing the Red Line,” in which she photographed security forces, police and demonstrators. She later replaced the faces of security forces with those of the demonstrators, and removed the Eagle in favor of the Dove.
No less compelling are the manifold pieces that directly challenge the legitimacy of the Eagle. All throughout downtown Cairo, refined stencils and rough, hurriedly spray-painted imagery directly attack the central image of both the Egyptian flag and armed forces. In recent weeks, I’ve noticed this type proliferating; the images that follow are merely a few among many. The first is a relatively straightforward stencil—a blank flag flies with only an Eagle emblem to define it, linked to handcuffs underneath. There are no red and black stripes to indicate the Egyptian flag, nor are there bars left blank to indicate the original banner. Its message appears to be simple: the tyranny of military rule overtaking the Egyptian people’s desire for reforms in a civilian state. Further down the same street, someone has drawn a quick replica of the Eagle, only for it to be crossed out (whether by the original artist, or another passerby)—an even more direct attack on the legitimacy of this militarized symbol.
The last piece, at the mouth of Tahrir Square and Mohamed Mahmoud, is slightly more ambiguous. Both the soldier and the flag appear, stylistically, to belong to the same artist. This piece might have been inspired by a Polish artist’s depiction of security forces beating the Eagle, in solidarity with a call by Egyptian artists for anti-military graffiti. The soldier is depicted firing in the direction of the flag, under the words, “military killers.” An Egyptian flag beneath is labeled, “glory of the Martyrs,” with the Eagle uttering the emblematic expression, “Aha” (an offensive emphatic). Whether this piece is read as indicating the Eagle’s shame at the military’s behavior, or eliding the Eagle/military itself as shameful—it’s clear that perceptions of the army’s role in the Egyptian State is undergoing a massive shift in the public consciousness.
Any of these images, taken in the singular, might point to a random, individual view on the meaning of the Eagle on the Egyptian flag. But between the proliferation of Eagle/flag imagery in all its absence, replacement and outright attack, it seems obvious to me that the unfinished revolution stands to redefine Egypt’s symbolism, state—and isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.By Amanda Rogers, Aslan Media Contributing Arts Writer