May 20, 2019

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  • Counter culture and the Ganzeer virus

    Graffiti artist Ganzeer tackles censorship in his solo exhibit at Safar Khan Gallery. (Photo by Rachel Adams)


    I first met Mohamad Fahmy (aka Mofa, aka Ganzeer) in 2011 as he was developing a major city-wide mural project in Cairo, depicting large-scale portraits of those killed during the revolution. Described by The Guardian as “the major player in a flourishing counter culture art scene”, he was looking for “the right wall” on which to paint the face of a friend.

    Some of those portraits still watch over the city, in cheerful reds and yellows, tricking the eye into lingering longer on what are actually haunting visual reminders of a very recent past.

    Since then, as international interest in artistic responses to the revolution have developed, so has Ganzeer’s career. He has become the go-to for international stories about revolutionary street art. He has spoken and presented work in Poland, Brazil, Switzerland and Italy, developed “mad graffiti weekends” in Cairo and designed artwork to support international causes like Pussy Riot and Syria’s “spray man” Nour Hatem Zahra.

    His sardonic humor and cutting edge graphics steer him naturally towards the forefront of a new generation of politically motivated artists. A lifelong reader of comics who learnt to draw with Marvel, he was rejected by university art courses for not being talented enough and instead studied business at Zagazig University.

    This week his first solo show, “The Virus is Spreading”, opened at Safar Khan, whose dark wood detailing give it an old Cairo feel, which contrasts with Ganzeer’s ultra-modern aesthetic.

    “The virus can be used as an analogy to anything that shakes up The Establishment, read the press release.

    “Downstairs is representing counter culture  and upstairs represents the establishment,” explained Ganzeer amid the colorful mess of his work in progress.  “So for counter culture you have objects that are made, layers and posters and things put on top of them and so on.”

    A homemade cabinet will represent a “grafittied” electricity mains box, on the walls posters are glued on and half torn off, and layers of tags and scrawled graffiti contrast with carefully designed calligraphy. It is a mass of confusion and diversity, redolent of the chaos outside.

    A raggedy cat, one of Ganzeer’s recurring motifs, faces the entrance and is the first thing you see. It represents the Egyptian people, once revered as a deity, and now scrabbling around in the rubbish trying to eke out an existence. It is an extremely powerful symbol, at once historical and contemporary, and most importantly for Ganzeer’s frame of reference, very much “of the street.”

    Although by no means a street artist as such, he says his work exists within both the established art world and the non-traditional, and he has always had a brush in both pots.

    “I’ve always had a problem with galleries,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I’ve never exhibited before, but the gallery tends to feel like an isolated space that is created to exhibit art in a certain way. Because of that I feel artists themselves are forced to create art in a specific way.”

    This, he believes, makes the works somehow feel less significant, less relevant. “I would like to do work in galleries that might challenge the way galleries do work and get other than regular gallery goers going to them.”

    His now iconic “mask of freedom” is repeated in a non-aligned triptych on one wall, with the addition of the mouth being sewn up, with three religious symbols hanging onto the edge of the thread.

    “It’s a reference to censorship and the way people use religion to censor themselves,” he says.

    We move round to the back wall and a landscape diptych showing a veiled, faceless woman at the top, with a pair of high-heeled legs in fishnet stockings at the bottom. An extra-long umbilical cord leaves the woman’s vagina and swirls around the board, along to the left, round a devil / sheep character and up to a foetus on the top. The traditional forms of framed work are indeed torn apart as the cord leads your eye around the wall in non-linear ways.

    A phrase in between the panels reads “this should be made public.” The legs are a representation of controversial Egyptian “Nude Blogger” Aliaa Al-Mahdy, who caused a furore in November 2011 by posting a nude photo of herself online. The recycling of images and collage effect is again relevant here.

    “My approach is based on observations of what I make on the street and then someone else will add something and that’s how I’m trying to work with it,” says Ganzeer.

    “But how would you feel if someone came along with a big black marker and added to the installation?” I ask.

    “That would be interesting. I’m not sure I’d endorse it. And I’m not sure what the gallery would think,” he says, noting that he had invited some friends to add their own take to the artwork. There are some signs of collaboration, with doodles and graffiti on one of the walls.
    Sad Panda peeks from behind the subject of a traditional painting in a gilt frame. (Photo by Rachel Adams)
    On opening night you can’t miss those signs.  A huge Sad Panda, courtesy of the eponymous artist, makes his way up the gallery stairs. Other bits of graffiti and tags are hidden amongst the cacophony of imagery on the ground floor. Upstairs is more ordered, but still collaged, with an antique effect oil portrait of a women traditionally framed in gilt, with the addition of a marker pen veil and a cheeky panda peeking over her shoulder. An abstract of Mecca, a diptych of the word “Mohamed” add to the establishment frame of reference, and a large scale landscape drawing on canvas finishes the collection, bleak in its barrenness, its minimalist line contrasting starkly with the rest of the pieces.

    But back downstairs, something is missing, perhaps the most interesting part of the show. The fishnet legs have gone, in their place more graffiti, which looks a little like an afterthought.

    I ask Ganzeer where the legs are.

    “They were censored,” he replies, “by the gallery owner.”

    Since I had the pleasure of meeting mother and daughter owners Sherwet Shafei and Mona Saeid on my first visit the previous week, I asked Mona first about the legs.

    “It couldn’t happen,” she says, regretfully.

    I press a little further. “It just couldn’t,” she says.

    I take the opportunity to chat with her mother, a veteran art dealer.

    “Was it nerve-wracking to give over the whole gallery to a young artist known for his dissent?”

    “Not at all,” she says. “We have to do this for Egypt’s young artists.”

    But when I ask about the legs, she simply replies, “They were sold,” and looks away.

    “The Virus is Spreading” is on until Nov. 1 at Safar Khan Gallery, 6 Brazil Street, Zamalek, Cairo. Tel: 01223127002

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