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.”