A little bit of paint rejuvenates Egyptian slums



Fri, 07 Apr 2017 - 12:00 GMT


Fri, 07 Apr 2017 - 12:00 GMT

"Dream as much as you can" - Photo courtesy of Nemo

"Dream as much as you can" - Photo courtesy of Nemo

CAIRO - 7 April 2017: A huge red mural with black silhouettes and the name of many Egyptians’ greatest love, Al-Ahly football squad, catches your eye as soon as you step into Egypt’s largest slum, Imbaba, located near downtown Cairo.

A little bit of paint rejuvenates Egyptian slums (8)_Yasmeen Shaheen
Imbaba graffiti - Yasmeen Shaheen

As you go deeper into the narrow, crowded streets, your eyes will get used to the piles of garbage and the cracked, dusty walls, until you glimpse a series of other colorful paintings: the Kaaba – the holiest site in Islam, a few fading inscriptions about the revolution, some touching love messages and pastel engravings here or there.

In Egypt, sprawling slums like Imbaba and secluded villages are home to millions of deprived communities, whose home address is automatically labeled as “repelling” and marked for isolation. But a few inspired dwellers and national and international artists have taken the initiative to empower these underprivileged areas through colorful and evocative graffiti.

25 year-old street artist Ahmed Gaber, known as Nemo, has dedicated his art to send a message of “optimism, happiness and dreams” in marginalized areas and rural villages. “These people must become a center of attention,” Nemo told Egypt Today.

Settled in Mansoura in the Nile Delta, Nemo is trying to spread his art to neighboring cities. He started in 2009 and has been active ever since, completing over 150 murals and paintings, each delivering a social or political message.

“The message sent through art is much different than direct talk. Its effect is deeper and faster,” Nemo said, affirming that artwork touches the residents’ lives.

Nemo’s latest campaign is titled ’Gedari’ (My Wall), in Damietta, north of Cairo. In collaboration with five other graffiti artists, Gedari is a series of motivational phrases to overcome the difficulties and suffering of life.

“I saw how people reacted…they felt like life is changing,” Nemo said of the campaign, recalling how one resident praised him for “bringing him back to life” with his artwork.

“Dream as much as you can,” graffiti by Nemo in Mansoura, Egypt - photo courtesy of Nemo

“Dream as much as you can,” is one of many motivational messages Nemo is trying to send to these underprivileged communities, in addition to spreading awareness about hunger, poverty, child labor and social values.

“Some people may accuse me of showing the ugly side of the country but I am actually presenting facts that no one can deny. Poverty and hunger are everywhere in the world,” Nemo said.

A little bit of paint rejuvenates Egyptian slums (6)-press photo_resized
Nemo’s graffti campaign against child labor - photo courtesy of Nemo official Facebook page

Egyptian slums have also caught the attention of international street artists who have crossed the globe to add some color to their gloomy gray walls.

A couple of years ago British-French street artist Seb Toussaint and French photographer Spag, together known as The Outsiders Krew, chose Cairo for their very first artistic mission in the Arab world.

The childhood friends took their Share the World project to Mazarita, which Toussaint called a “very tough slum” and a “sad” place.

The residents themselves call it “dirty and horrible” but The Outsiders Krew took genuine interest in this secluded neighborhood in southern Cairo, where a low density community lives between a rubbish pile and the once popular Jewish cemetery of El Basateen.

“These people have a very difficult life … No one talks about them, no one cares about them, no one visits them,” Toussaint said. “To see people coming to interact with them, that was something quite new which they enjoyed.”

Mazarita residents paint their home walls, inspired by The Outsiders Krew project – photo courtesy of The Outsiders Krew official facebook page

Since the project aims mainly to “bring the focus on a specific community through its own words,” the fact that no one in the slum could read or write properly was a major obstacle. But the artists managed to overcome it and they ended up painting 15 colorful murals, with expressive words chosen by Mazarita’s dwellers.

"Thanks God," one of The Outsiders Krew's murals in Mazarita - photo courtesy of The outsiders Krew official website

All of the 15 words have a religious connotation which the artist said was not surprising, but saddened him. “[Mazarita’s residents] feel that they are completely on their own and there is no one else but God with them,” Toussaint explained.

The Outsiders Krew have also taken their project into the slums of Kenya, Nepal, Colombia, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Calais Jungle refugee camp in France and Brazil. They are currently working in India.

“A lot of people do not really know what these areas are about and what stories are there; and they usually have a very negative image of these places,” Toussaint told Egypt Today, explaining that their project is “an opportunity to expose these neighborhoods to the outside world … and to talk about the positive things that happen there.”

The Outsiders Krew in Mazarita, Egypt (Seb Toussaint right and Spag left)-press photo_photo courtesy of The Outsiders Krew

Nemo has chosen secluded villages; The Outsiders Krew picked a forgotten cemetery slum; and in a country where almost 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, the choices are endless. But while adding a bit of color is certainly cheerful, can this “graffiti” really be of significant benefit to communities suffering from daily hunger and deprivation?

“This bit of art is also a bit of hope, a little bit of imagination, a little bit of dreaming for them,” Egyptian-Lebanese artist Bahia Shehab told Egypt Today.

Shehab, a street artist herself and founder of the graphic design program at the American University in Cairo, believes there are endless messages that can be communicated in these marginalized areas, from “educational, to social awareness, to awareness of life.”

“We hope that projects like this can bridge social divides and shed light on these areas so that people would care, contribute, and help in any way possible,” Shehab said. She affirmed that such initiatives must be accompanied with proper follow-up from NGOs, the government and the community or else “it is just a bubble that will fade away automatically.”

A little bit of paint rejuvenates Egyptian slums (1)_press photo_resized
"All I am guilty of is that I live in poverty." - photo courtesy of Nemo



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