On the occasion of Human Right’s Day, on December 10, 2013, the World Organization against Torture (OMCT) promoted four-days of artistic activism for human rights in Tripoli, Libya. In cooperation with local and international partners and with financial support from the European Union, OMCT convened educational, artistic workshops for children and youth, commissioned a huge graffiti mural on Al Saidi Street in Tripoli, as well as an original hip hop song, and held a conference on civil society’s fight against torture in Libya, movie screenings, and various musical concerts. On December 10, 2014, OMCT released a documentary film about these events, called “No to Torture – A Libyan Experience.” The film captures the hope and energy felt by artists and activists in Libya only one year ago.
In this continuing series of interviews, OMCT speaks with young artists, Libyan and non-Libyan, who participated in last year’s events. In these conversations, the artists remember and discuss their experiences at the Human Rights Day events, and how circumstances have changed in their lives, Libya, and the region as a whole, since then.
N°4: Ammar Abo Bakr
(This interview has been edited for clarity)
Ammar Abo Bakr’s drive to educate and communicate through art has taken his work from the atelier to public spaces. He is one of the most famous graffiti artist of the Egyptian revolution, known in particular for his martyrs’ murals on Mohamed Mahmoud street in Cairo and writing about the Egyptian Revolution’s many turning points, as well as Coptic and Islamic culture, folk art, and Ancient Egyptian history. Abo Bakr is a teacher at Luxor’s Faculty of Fine Arts and is very accustomed to conveying his experience to young artists.
What expectations did you have about Libya before you visited the country and how was your experience there?
At the beginning, I was not very enthusiastic about visiting Libya, because of my perceptions about the revolution there. After Hosni Mubarak left in February 2011, we wanted to continue the fight for all the revolution’s demands. When the uprising suddenly started in Libya on February 17, it quickly became very bloody and violent.
Libya become an excuse for the Egyptian army to take action against us. The army started to compare us to people in Libya, saying “do you want Egypt to become like Libya or Syria?” At the time, this created a negative feeling about Libya for me. Until now, the regime uses the example of chaos in Libya to scare the Egyptian people.
My negative feelings changed after I went to Libya for the Human Rights Day event in 2013. Of course, many things have changed since 2011, both in Libya and Egypt, where things have become weird and bloody, so I wanted to go to Libya and see things by myself.
After I visited Libya, my impressions about the people became so positive. Everywhere I went, the Libyans I met were so nice. I could see they were really in a bad situation.
I saw so much graffiti and writing on the walls, and started to interpret the situation in the country based on these graphics. In this way, I realized things in Libya were just like they were in Egypt. Fighting between two elements or more, erasing each other, and writing again. It all meant something. I realized Libyans had a revolution like we did in Egypt. Because they did not have any chance to express their desires, they made the walls the revolution’s newspapers. In this way, I found a connection between Libya and what we have been doing in Egypt.
What sort of memories do you have from last year’s events in Tripoli?
I always have my sketchbook with me and as soon as I arrive somewhere I try to feel the place. I try to see what ideas emerge from what I feel.
Behind the writing on the walls in Libya, I saw the old flag of the Libyan monarchy. Their colors were everywhere. I felt it was dangerous, as an idea, that they brought back the old flag and presented it as the flag of the revolution. This was my first visual memory of Libya.
On the first day, while we were choosing a place to paint, something happened that helped me understand the situation in Libya even more. As we were getting ready to paint, a car approached us and the people inside asked us to stop painting, or at least not to cover a name written on the wall. I asked if the person had been a martyr of the revolution. They said he was not but he had just been killed the week before. From this, I understood how the chaos in Libya was impacting people in a very real way.
At the same time, we started to hear shooting everywhere, which was apparently something normal in Tripoli. Despite this, I was really proud to be in Libya, and believed nothing would happen to me. I felt that, if anything did in fact happen, it would be as if it happened in my own country. I realized we were all the same. I was with the people. I was one of them.
What are the meanings of the graffiti pieces you made for last year’s events and why did you choose to paint them?
The flag of the Libyan monarchy was the visual image that stuck with me the most I felt that in a revolution like this, with all these people who died for the cause, there had to be a new flag. Bringing something back from the past was not a good sign for a new revolution.
Inspired by these feelings, I created a representation of the flag that was a kind of lizard or salamander. The salamander is a negative symbol in Islam. In the hadith, the Prophet Muhammad said if you find a salamander, kill it, and it will be considered a good action.
I used the colors of the flag, and decided to show the salamander emerging from the black color. This was my criticism of Islamist ideology, as a “black” idea of the mind. In Islam, the salamander made the fire stronger around Prophet Ibrahim, so it also represents fire and the dark side of Libya, with its weapons and armed conflict. In my painting, the salamander symbolizes the killing currently taking place in Libya. I placed the star and crescent of the flag at the tail of the salamander.
In creating this image, I wanted to make something that would not be erased and that the people could discover progressively. On this point, I knew the Islamists would accept the old flag but would not accept the face of a martyr on a wall because they are against all human representations.
What is the meaning of December 10 for you and how are you engaged in support of human rights in your country this year?
In my country human rights doesn’t mean anything. Right now, we have lost all our human rights. We are in a really bad situation. People are getting arrested every day. We don’t know how many people are in jail right now for their opinions and beliefs. While officials say there are thirty-one detainees held for these reasons, if this is their claim, it means there are in fact 200,000 people being held for their beliefs.
There were so many arrests and violations after the June 30 protests, after the evacuation of the sit-in at Rabaa al-Adaweya in Cairo. They are now starting a war in the universities because the students are demonstrating, particularly after the latest court decision allowing Hosni Mubarak to walk free.
Since the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, graffiti has been a part of the movement. Now, you can see graffiti has started to be less important in the streets, which means the movement is decreasing in strength. As an artist, I can’t start a “revolution” by myself or talk about it alone. We need the movement, in order to communicate and understand the feeling of the revolution.
The authorities and security services are totally paranoid right now. They are everywhere. You cannot imagine how many policemen are in the streets, especially downtown. They want to show us that we should forget about the January 25th revolution, that it was an illusion and not a real revolution. They are carrying on this kind of psychological war to kill the revolution inside us, take control of the streets, and leave us nowhere to demonstrate. But, of course, we have not lost hope. We are, however, a little bit careful, since we want to continue the fight and not go to jail.
I will not leave Egypt. I will continue, even if they give me the choice to either leave the country or go to jail. If I go to jail, I will be with my friends.
Have you experienced any threats for painting prisoners of conscience?
I am with these prisoners. I support them and what they have done. I support Sana [Sana Seif, a young activist arrested under the anti-protest law], and everybody who is against the law preventing demonstration. It is part of our rights to protest. Even Sisi came to power through demonstrations [held from June 30to July 3, 2013].
I feel the danger but I still do my work, though not at any time I want. My aim is not to create work in order to go to jail.
The last pieces I created were representations of Sana. One of them is located in Rome and the other is in downtown Cairo. I managed to find the right time to paint it in Cairo; I created it on the last day of the Eid feast holiday when everyone was tired after the celebrations. It was also a more conceptual (rather than explicit) piece.
My depiction of Sana was inspired by the Ancient Egyptian, but at the same time it was also a commentary on the current situation in Egypt. In the painting, Sana is sitting in water. This
symbolizes how people are sitting on the truth or hiding facts.
And when I was in Italy, I knew Sisi would be visiting the country very soon. When Italians asked me about the situation in Egypt, my
response came through my graffiti image in Rome representing Sana. The painting represents the situation in Egypt, where our president is arresting girls who are 20 years of age. He is not strong enough, if he is afraid of young activists and puts them in jail.
What sort of artistic projects are you working on these days?
I have lots of ideas and lots of plans, but I want to choose the right time because I work by myself and need to be careful. I have an idea for a new image, which you will see soon, a kind of comparison between the martyrs and Mubarak.