By Jeffrey Bussmann
I first met Bassem Yousri in 2006 when he traveled to Drexel University on a Fulbright grant. At the time, he was painting on canvas and papyrus in a style that referenced figuration and visual patterns in Ancient and Coptic Egyptian art. While at Tyler School of Art from 2007 to 2009, Yousri significantly altered his modus operandi. All The Important Issues, his MFA thesis show, encompassed new directions he had taken, mixing wall painting with video and installation. He had also begun to directly confront contemporary issues in Arab life, prefiguring political unrest that was bubbling under the surface. Yousri returned to Cairo just before the Egyptian Revolution, participating in the events as they unfolded and continuing with his artistic practice. I recently spoke with him about how current affairs in Egypt have come to bear upon his recent work and ongoing projects.
Jeffrey Bussmann: During the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, and in the year since, you have used video to document protests and military crackdowns. Your role appears to be one of a documentarian, interviewing people on the street and presenting occurrences as matter-of-factly as possible. How has the experience of filming the Revolution affected you and your work?
Bassem Yousri: After the beginning of the revolution, a big movement of independent media arose. Young filmmakers and activists are constantly filming and posting it online; recently they have even been taking projectors to the streets to show people the truth. The governmental media is totally corrupt. It is controlled by the Military Council and has been constantly telling lies about the crimes the military committed against peaceful protesters. When I take footage like that, I don’t necessarily think of it as material for my artwork but more as my contribution as a citizen who owns tools that could help clarify the truth of what’s happening on the ground.
To answer your question more specifically, I feel that my role right now as an artist is not very different from my role as a citizen: to be a protestor. The subject matter of my work has always been social and political issues and their relationship to our daily lives. I am sure that my work has been affected by what has happened in Egypt, but I am still concerned about the same issues as before. The difference is that I feel that whatever I do now matters more. It’s very important to do something if you can. We’re at war with a brutal regime, and art, with all of its forms and implications, could be one of our stronger weapons.
JB: A few years ago, the character Mr. Mokhtar began to appear on your video feeds and in your gallery installations. Although he is easily distracted, speaking in manic and rambling manner, he always has a point to make about issues ranging from love to religious extremism, or even constipation. Why did you create Mr. Mokhtar and what is the significance that his voice plays in your work?
BY: Mr. Mokhtar appeared out of my frustration with Egyptian reality. I could say that he is an alter ego who represents the person I don’t want to be. He is an old-fashioned man who has the desire to change the world and the people around him, without having the capacity to change anything because he’s quite narcissistic to the extent of craziness—in other words he’s a complete failure. He always has very important things to say to an audience of his own creation, an audience quite eager for his lectures.
Mr. Mokhtar in a way helps me reflect on my own practice as an artist: who am I talking to and why? Is what I am saying relevant to anybody? I think it’s important as an artist to ask oneself those questions. In other words, it’s important to understand the context in which one shows his/her own work and to understand the audience(s) being addressed. In addition to those notions, Mr. Mokhtar reminds me of a lot of public speakers, politicians, and men of religion who appear on TV quite often to embellish lies or to preach nonsense.
JB: In January 2012 you were included in a show titled Shift Delete 30, which attempted to reconsider the last thirty years of Egyptian history. You contributed the piece The Parliament of the Revolution, which offers an unflattering view of the turn that Egyptian politics have taken since the deposition of Hosni Mubarak. In wall drawings such as this, and in other previous works, you have satirized extremism. How do you see your role, as well as the role of your artist peers, in being critical of the military junta now in power and the uncertain transition to more democratic governance?
BY: As I mentioned earlier, I think that art in Egypt right now could be considered one of several different forms of resistance against the brutality of the military rule, and the lack of democracy and freedom of speech. Of course there are still some Egyptian artists who are trying to avoid political topics; but personally, I don’t think that is very relevant at times of war. The outside world, as well as a good number of Egyptian citizens, is convinced that a revolution started in Egypt on the 25th of January, 2011 and ended 18 days later when Mubarak left, especially now that a Parliament has been elected. This image is far from reality: this revolution will probably go on for years to come.
I think this is why my piece in Shift Delete was trying to question the validity of the elected “Parliament of the Revolution”. The artist is a protester, a rebel, and a revolutionary like anyone else, except that he/she has the tools that allow him/her to help raise awareness amongst others or to inspire them in such difficult times. This is why, for example, graffiti was born in Egypt after the revolution. Young activists and artists claimed the walls in the public realm and transformed them into canvases for self-expression. One could claim that all street art currently made in Cairo is quite political and revolutionary. This is why policemen and military soldiers paint over it repeatedly. They cover it with ugly yellow paint, the same color they paint their tanks with.
Also, art right now has the potential to be part of a major movement in Egypt aiming to spread social and political awareness. I think this is why after the revolution I got involved with a couple of awareness campaigns. In my opinion, what’s being done in the streets of Cairo right now is far more important than what’s being shown in art galleries.
JB: You created the Spread a Word campaign, in which you use posters, stickers, and T-shirts to publicize simple commandment-like phrases, such as “Don’t ignore me,” “Don’t threaten me,” and “Don’t kill me.” How did the idea come about and how has it grown?
BY: I got the idea for the campaign in a meeting that I had with a bunch of friends a few weeks before the revolution. The meeting was held after the incident of a bombing in a church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day 2011. We felt Egypt was on the verge of a sectarian civil war and I got the idea for a campaign that uses the means of visual propaganda posters to promote human rights, as well as acceptance of others’ differences. A few weeks later, the revolution started and a bigger matter came into focus: Egyptians bonded together to overthrow the corrupted regime instead of falling in the trap of sectarianism. I thought such a campaign became irrelevant.
Later on, after Mubarak resigned, Salafis’ violent actions went unnoticed by the Military Council, which has supposedly been responsible for the security of the country, including Christians. Salafis burned several churches in different parts of the country. Their sheikhs started appearing repeatedly to promote the idea of an Islamic nation, saying that whoever was opposed to it should leave the country. In addition, we realized that the old regime is still in place and that it only became fiercer in fighting any sort of criticism. In the few months that followed the revolution, the military used extreme force to oppress any protestors and hundreds were killed. Legislation was passed against all sorts of protest; censorship of the media and newspapers became worse and the governmental media was still telling constant lies.
In April 2011, I launched the campaign as a Facebook page where people can suggest more phrases in the same format. I took the suggestions, made the design, and then reposted them to the page. People were invited to use the phrases as profile pictures as a way to spread the meanings. I was surprised by how quickly the campaign spread out. Thanks to a donation from Arab Digital Expression Foundation I was able to take the campaign to the next level by printing posters and stickers. Different neighborhoods in Cairo now have the posters on their walls. Later on, a group of volunteers from Alexandria contacted me and took on the task of putting the posters up there. It is my aim to have these posters in different cities all over Egypt.
Friends also have been taking posters to different continents during their travels. The third stage of the campaign is to print T-shirts, buttons, and stickers, which is possible thanks to a grant that the campaign received from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. I imagine this as a long-term campaign that evolves over time. It helps everybody to voice a short message concerned with personal and human rights. They could say it to a person or an authority. I hope to get people used to seeing human rights slogans instead of being used to seeing the pictures of Mubarak and his family, or Coca-Cola advertising. These visual elements have a deep effect on people’s awareness and general taste, even if they don’t notice it.
JB: Prior to the Revolution, you began to work on Film Romancy (A Romantic Film), in which you intended to examine, among other things, gender relations and the lack of romance in Egyptian society. How has the project changed since you began to work on it and in light of all that has happened over the past year?
BY: Gender relations are seemingly the main topic of Film Romancy, but I am only using it as an excuse to discuss its relationship with the declining social and political situation in Egypt prior to the revolution. The movie is an experimental documentary filmed throughout an informal script writing workshop process. Before the revolution started, I began working on a movie script for a romantic comedy and developing characters with a team of about 25 participants, some actors and some amateurs. I filmed these workshops, along with excerpts from their personal lives. We developed the script throughout the year of the revolution, although we had to stop during the sit-in in Tahrir and later, due to some other violent events that kept happening almost every month. But we would always come back to our workshops and write the story of our romance. I had also been recording the revolution, whether in the middle of protests or conversations with friends, about politics and the romance issue. Now I will choose a few of the scripted scenes to direct and film in a more formal way. Each one of these narrative layers, which all happened in parallel, will become intertwined through the editing process. A revolution is a very romantic notion and it made the movie much richer as a documentary.
Film Romancy will be released in 2013.
Jeffrey Bussmann works at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently researching Brazilian cultural organizations for his master’s thesis in Arts Administration at Drexel University. He also writes for his blog Post-Nonprofalyptic.