The voices of the people: street art in MENA, a visual guide


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After decades of suppressed voice, an inability to say what one thought, to protest, to offer a contrary point of view or dissent – the Arab world is at last unshackled to say exactly what it wants and wherever it wants.  Nowhere is this more true than on the streets of the Arab capitals where an explosion of graffiti is voicing the views of the people in both words and pictures.
   Simon Bell

As a connoisseur of the many different forms of street art – this first hit me during a recent visit to Libya where I was struck by the fact that many of the motor cars had ugly splashes of paint dabbed, unesthetically, in the corners – covering up part of what the license plate clearly had intended to be visible to the general public.  In discussing this with my Libyan colleagues, I was informed that, in the New – and Free – Libya, the population was painting over the hated word “Jamahiriya” given its connections to the old Gadhafi Regime and his Green Book vision of government.  Increasingly, only those number plates (the more newly issued versions) which loudly, and very proudly, declared “LIBYA”, were left unembellished by the amateurish art jobs of these newly freed people.

        Simon Bell

Beautiful – and extremely artistic portraits of the “Martyrs” (the Shaheed) – adorned several walls around the city.  Even more poignant photographs of young 18 year olds, 19 year olds, 20 year olds have been placed all over the city to commemorate these martyrs – with dates of birth, and death (mainly in 2011 and 2012) – as evidence of their short lives.  Some were accompanied by photos of wives and children – families lost and broken.  

Simon Bell

More amusing were the depictions of the late leader – with the body of a bee or a rat, being punched in the face by a gloved fist, or hung from a tree, all trussed up with rope – smoke seething from his nose like a dragon.  “We have made it” proudly declares another hastily scrawled piece of graffiti on the sea wall looking out over Tripoli’s beautiful harbor to the clear blue Mediterranean.

        Simon Bell

But it is not just Tripoli that boasts literary and artistic talents on its streets.  A January mission to Cairo also provided ample evidence of the Egyptian ability to lampoon their leadership, both past and present, in colorful ways and in strong language – many of which could not be reproduced in a polite blog such as this.  My lack of Arabic surely excluded me from some of the juiciest and salacious of these Egyptian declarations of freedom.

And, of course, the place it all began, in Tunisia where – in down town Tunis – the walls declare a pride, at last, in being Tunisian – and offering Facebook thanks for the role that it played in the oft-called “Face-Book Revolution” – the first revolution of the internet age.
 Simon Bell

Vive La Liberte screams another large spray can painted wall in the heart of Tunis – Liberty at last.
 Simon Bell

Everywhere new Arab Voices are being seen and heard – and nowhere more colorfully than on the streets, walls, and sides of government buildings in the capitals of the Arab World.
 Simon Bell


Simon Bell

Global Lead for SME Finance, Finance & Markets

Join the Conversation

Steve Stenning
May 16, 2013

It will be very interesting to see where those artistic expressions of resistence and triumphant release lead. Will they, for example, herald a new role for the arts and for artistic organisations in public debate? Is it a sign of a a liberation of creative expression through art and culture? Or that the arts will have a more prominent place in the public domain?
It is an area of interest following a research project that British Council commissioned into 'Artistic Practices and Social Change in North Africa' which resulted a publication available in English and Arabic called 'Voices of the People'
(see www.britishcouncil/about/publications for publications and short video)

The questions are ones I am very interested in because I am working with theatre practitioners in Libya looking to present work directly in non-conventional venues and to wider audiences and thereby to find a new role and a new relevence for theatrical performance.