Ahmad al-Labbad: Revolutionary Walls of Memory

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Accountability - Total Revolution | Purification - Total Revolution

By: Sayyid Mahmoud

Published Friday, August 26, 2011

Ahmad al-Labbad lived through Tahrir Square’s popular intifada, which turned into “the largest open art exhibition the world has ever known.” These exceptional moments in Egyptian and Arab memory are captured in his posters and photography.

Like many of his fellow Egyptian artists and intellectuals, graffiti artist Ahmad al-Labbad spent most of the “Tahrir Days” inside Tahrir square with protesters. The son of the late artist Muhyi al-Din al-Labbad produced nine pieces that express his feelings towards the January 25 Revolution and sum up its demands: Ya Halawet al-`Adala (The Sweetness of Justice), Muhasaba (Accountability), Tathir (Purification), La Nisyan (No Forgetting) and La Tasamuh (No Forgiveness). When the revolution was at a high point, al-Labbad could rarely return to his studio, and worked instead on a friend’s personal computer in an office downtown. There he designed the posters that the revolutionaries descended with upon the Midan (Square). His posters became one of the icons of the revolution.

Al-Labbad does not consider his images a tool for raising awareness. Rather, his posters engage with a complex reality. “They switch several times between moments of desperation, hope and expectation, moments in which it was impossible to catch your breath and stop to contemplate what was happening, or produce a visual piece that has the artistic elements capable of surpassing the status quo.”

No Forgetting - Total Revolution | The Sweetness of Justice - Total RevolutionNo Forgetting - Total Revolution | The Sweetness of Justice - Total Revolution

As al-Labbad finished designing his images, he stood before them and was moved by feelings of fear. He worried that the revolution would not be completed, as some Egyptians began to chant counter slogans, chants of “Enough” or “Come let’s calm down, catch our breath, and give the new government a chance.”

Concerned with these growing sentiments, al-Labbad feared that the masses may not be galvanized again. Still, he refused to turn his images into materials for mass consumption. They were not meant for mass-publication or as a visual motif for the book covers that he designs.

“I did not wish to register my position or show off, and I will not organize an exhibition for them right now,” he says. The young designer is content that his works document and engage his experiences in the Midan. “I wanted to open up the path for an alternative way of dealing with the revolution, as an aesthetic action.”

Al-Labbad marvels at the aesthetic content of the revolution: “The visual imagination was surprising. The revolution was the largest open art exhibition the world has ever known. Common people competed with each other to create means to express their political stances in an aesthetic way. It is unlikely such a thing will be repeated.”

“There are those,” he continues, “who wrote amazing placards, those who painted their bodies. Most importantly, all of these pieces had an audience relating to and debating them with their creators. It was an opportunity not given to professional artists who have exhibited their works in the world’s most famous galleries.” The Egyptian streets produced spontaneous creativity during those days that shook the world. al-Labbad recalls a citizen who constructed an iron cage, placed a tortoise inside it, and wrote a single word in front of the cage, 'Adala (Justice).

Al-Labbad, who has designed covers for more than 1,000 books in the last 10 years, has left his visual imprint on publications of publishing companies Merit, al-`Ayn, al-Bustani, and others. He believes that public expressions communicated in the Midan were among the most important things he witnessed. The millions that went to Egypt’s squares learned to practice many new forms of free and innovative expression. This is what led him to produce his images, now seen by people in a society opening to many new forms of artistic expression.

January 2011 | Expiry Date 25 Jan 2011Departure January 2011 | Expiry Date 25 Jan 2011

During the first days of the revolution, al-Labbad spent much of his time experiencing the events through his camera lens. But he quickly tired of this role and preferred to join the masses: “I felt that in revolution, it is hard to perform a task that someone other than you can carry out with greater success. So, I put the camera aside and preferred to demonstrate.” However, when the 'Tahrir Days' ended, al-Labbad picked up his camera once again to record what he saw on the city’s walls. There was a noticeable resurgence of graffiti on the Egyptian street during the revolution. He documented images of the graffiti, which represent to him an accurate log of what happened during the revolution. The graffiti glowed brilliantly from the minds of Egyptians who joined in the revolution. As soon as Labbad finished photographing, he immediately categorized the images and visual symbols and placards according to their subject and date.

Labbad points to the process of “erasure” that has removed traces of the Midan experience: “I imagined that the revolution would spur us to reconsider the value of the idea of accumulation. It is unfortunate that Tahrir Square was subjected to a frightful operation that erased the artifacts of the revolution. The removal of all the paintings and writings that appeared in the 17 days prior to Mubarak’s stepping down were done under the pretense of cleaning up. Magically, all forms of graffiti were removed from the walls. Thus, under the charge of ‘beautifying the city,’ the authorities launched an attack on history.” Ahmad feels that call to develop Tahrir Square are “a personal attack on [his] imagination. What is required is to embark on a campaign to counter this aggression to consolidate the great moment of the stupendous revolution.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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