One of the works that will appear prominently in the Egyptian artist Ganzeer’s first New York solo show today has already been displayed to any of the thousands who attended one of this fall’s anti-police brutality protests. It’s a silk-screened print in yellow and blue, with a picture of Eric Garner being choked by an NYPD officer. Along the side, bold lettering reads “BE BRUTAL.” The mock recruiting poster carries contact information at the bottom: “NYPDKILLS.COM / 212—KILLPEOPLE.”
Mohamed Fahmy, 32, who goes by Ganzeer, or “bicycle chain,” achieved international fame during the uprisings in Egypt. But don’t pigeonhole him as just an artist of the revolution—though his work has always been political, he was producing pieces years before “Tahrir Square” was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. And though his perhaps most famous piece, a huge mural of a tank facing off with a bicyclist under Cairo’s 6th of October Bridge, was a masterwork of street art, don’t limit him to that label either: a graphic designer by trade, street art only constitutes a tiny portion of his oeuvre.
“I’m not really a street artist,” Ganzeer told me after arriving to Leila Heller Gallery to help oversee the installation of his show, his mouth upturned in a constant grin and framed by a few days of thick stubble and a mustache. “I’m not as talented as those guys. They have crazy control of spray paint.” What he may lack in spray-paint skills, though, Ganzeer more than makes up for in aesthetic appeal and ingenuity—as his prolific New York debut is bound to demonstrate. And now, after several months living in New York, he has a brand new subject: America.
Ganzeer, Stop Pamphleteering, 2015, screenprint, 25 x 38 in.
For many foreign artists, especially those from outside the West, a New York show might be viewed as an opportunity to showcase their home country: gallery-goers in Chelsea might arrive at an Egyptian artist’s show hoping to learn something about Egypt. That can go doubly for an artist like Ganzeer, whose work is loaded with politics and social commentary: Come here and tell us about Egypt’s problems. Ganzeer wasn’t interested.
“I think that’s what they were expecting,” he said about being approached by the Leila Heller curator and Middle Eastern art expert Shiva Balaghi. “‘This guy’s from Egypt. He’s going to do a show about Egypt and the situation there.’” Ganzeer had other ideas; he wasn’t going to fall into being Orientalized—something, he noted, was never expected of British street artist Banksy or Italian artist Blu, whose work focuses on whatever locale they’ve wound up in.
“It’s weird for someone to sit down and think, ‘Who am I and where do I come from?’” he told me. “I’m interested in making art about relevant things that are happening in the world.” In other words, when in America, set your sights on America. “At first there was some hesitancy,” he said of the gallery, “but I think they really got into it.”
He arrived in New York in mid-May, his first trip to the United States. “It’s not landing in Amsterdam: ‘Welcome to Amsterdam! You’re an artist? That’s cool.’” He dove into work, linking up with arts-oriented printing shop Booklyn to produce and sell his silkscreens. And he began to immerse himself in current American politics and its history. “He’s been reading Howard Zinn,” said Balaghi.
Ganzeer, Mickey, Marilyn, and Me, 2015, screenprint, 25 x 38 in
“I think he is fucking bad-ass as all hell to tackle America and the powers that he deals with now,” said the artist Molly Crabapple (who has contributed to The Nation), a friend of Ganzeer’s who recalled her excitement at learning of his show’s focus. “His work is not about self-plagiarism. It’s not about taking this revolution that he became famous in and commodifying it and selling it to American collectors of kitsch. It’s about taking a genuinely rebellious outlook that he has and turning it on America and making people uncomfortable.”
In the past week, Ganzeer has been overwhelmed by the work of designing the installation of his own show and putting the final touches on the around eighty pieces that will appear in it; he’d slept more than ten hours the night before our meeting, but not at all for days before, he said.
The show features beautiful silk screens, original painting and drawing and some letter-press work—often all in the same piece. Aside from the “BE BRUTAL” poster (which will appear in a genuine New York subway advertisement frame), none has been seen publicly. And the only link to his Egyptian work is a callback to a poster that landed him in the clink. In 2011, Ganzeer and two associates were arrested by Egyptian security forces while hanging one of his prints: a silkscreen called The Freedom Mask, of a man wearing a ball-gag and blinders, wings protruding from his temples. In the new image, the blinder is replaced by a full Captain America mask with no eye holes, the ball-gag remains, and the man sports a business suit. “The Great American Mask of Freedom,” the poster reads, “since 1776 and still going strong.”
Ganzeer, Masked Congress, 2015, screenprint, 25 x 38 in
In the back room at Leila Heller, Ganzeer showed me where binder clips hung from the ceiling; posters will form the walls of a maze guiding the viewer to larger pieces: The Great American Mask of Freedom on a piece of wood; twenty-four small portraits of pop icons smiling, a commentary on America’s need for its celebrities to be happy, not complicated; a series of four handpainted black-and-white pictures of American presidents (Obama, Bush, Clinton and Nixon) smoking joints, with speech bubbles (“Four presidents having a dialogue with each other—while smoking pot—about pot!” Ganzeer explained); and a series of American currency called Honest Money designed and printed by Ganzeer, with Native Americans on the one, slaves on the five, North America wildlife gone extinct since European settlement on the twenty, and plundered artifacts and art from abroad on the hundred.
For the three windows of Leila Heller Gallery running along Eleventh Avenue, too, Ganzeer has something planned: literally confronting America with its own face—or faces. Each window will show a giant posterboard silkscreened with an image of a young black boy with his hands in the air, after the slogan of the Ferguson marches, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” But the faces of the boys are cut out, and behind them a screen will show a video that Ganzeer himself shot around New York: a montage of faces of kids of color. To get a taste of Ganzeer’s message for Americans, all you have to do is drive by.
“I just love his work on a technical level,” commented Crabapple on Ganzeer’s style. “These bold lines! It’s like graphic and scathing and gorgeous in a really fucked-up way.” From what I saw at the gallery, the New York show fits that description to a T.
And yet for some of Ganzeer’s longest-standing fans, his move from Egypt to the United States, however long, is bittersweet. Thoughtful, sometimes scathing art like Ganzeer’s exploded in Egypt because that’s where thoughtfulness needed to retreat to. “Art has become a space where opposition voices and a cacophony of opinions can be expressed,” said Jonathan Guyer, an editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs who frequently writes about cartoons and art in the Middle East, “especially because within the news media and public forums, political expression has been stifled to a great extent in Egypt today.”
But even street art fell victim to the pressure. Soraya Morayef, who documents and writes about street art in Egypt, said, “Ganzeer is actually part of this mass exodus of young Egyptians who left Egypt during the post-revolution, who left to make a better life.” She added, of his New York show, “I’m glad there’s some positivity coming out of this brain drain. There are a lot of young artists leaving and doing works that will never appear in Egypt.”
“Everyone back home is getting fucked over by the state,” said Ganzeer. “Everyone who has something to say is getting fucked over by the state.” But his New York show is a testament to the notion that things are honky-dory here, either, even if the severity isn’t comparable. For Ganzeer’s part, the breadth of things he has to say extends naturally to his new surroundings. Egypt’s loss, at least for now, is our gain.