One of the works appearing prominently in the Egyptian artist Ganzeer’s first US solo show has already been displayed to the thousands who attended this fall’s anti-police brutality protests. It’s a silkscreened 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-KILL-PEOPLE.
Mohamed Fahmy, 32, who goes by the name Ganzeer (or “bicycle chain”) achieved international fame during the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt. For many foreign artists, a New York show might be viewed as an opportunity to focus an audience’s attention on their home country, but Ganzeer wasn’t interested. “I think that’s what they were expecting: ‘This guy’s from Egypt. He’s going to do a show about Egypt and the situation there,’” he said about being approached by the Leila Heller Gallery curator and Middle Eastern art expert Shiva Balaghi. But Ganzeer had other ideas; he wasn’t going to be Orientalized—a problem, he noted, that never seemed to be experienced by the British street artist Banksy or the Italian artist Blu. “I’m interested in making art about relevant things that are happening in the world,” he said. 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. He began to immerse himself in American politics and history. “He’s been reading Howard Zinn,” said Balaghi. The only link to his Egyptian work is a reference to a poster that landed him in the clink. In 2011, Ganzeer and two associates were arrested by Egyptian security forces while hanging a silkscreen called The Mask of Freedom, of a man wearing a ball-gag and blinders, wings protruding from his temples. In the new image, the ball-gag remains, the blinder is replaced by a full Captain America mask with no eye holes, and the man sports a business suit. “Great American Mask of Freedom,” the poster reads, “since 1776 and still going strong.” At least for now, Egypt’s loss is our gain. Ganzeer’s show will be on display at the Leila Heller Gallery through February 21.