[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f you don’t already know who he is well perhaps you remember the major demonstrations, riots and occupations of plazas in Cairo a few years ago in which civilians demanded the overthrow of the Egyptian president. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the situation but as someone who follows world news, it’s easy to understand that the 2011 events in Egypt were historical.
Well Ganzeer is an artist and an activist who was arrested during this time for his involvement and political artwork. As a result he gained worldwide recognition and now continues to communicate his criticism of government visually through a variety of mediums. Today Ganzeer is in the states and defends freedom of expression against authoritarian governments through “concept pop.”
If you’ve read our interview with Matre, an artist Ganzeer collaborated with on a project against LAUSD school militarization, you’ll recognize some of his work. The video shoot for Matre’s song, Listen is what led us to digitally interrupt Ganzeer’s Hawaiian stay with an interview. Check it out his responses along with some of his work below. He let us know what he thinks about New York, let’s see what he thinks about LA!
Where are you currently responding from and what are you surrounded by?
I’m currently responding from the Shangri-La in Honolulu, Hawaii. I’m surrounded by historical tiles, stained glass, and a crazy ornamented ceiling gathered from the “Islamic World” by Doris Duke. The serene sound of the ocean can be heard close by, and the rays of the setting sun are peering through a thick layer of tropical clouds.
Where do you presently call home and where do you work? What made you leave your hometown?
Egypt is home, but I now work in Brooklyn. Although I am currently emailing you from Hawaii after having just worked on something here. Thus is the nature of being an artist in the 21st century. Leaving Egypt was based on a combination of having possible projects lined up in the US and the initiation of a defamation campaign against me in Egyptian media, quite likely based on encouragement by the state, but there is no official evidence to make that claim yet.
How would you explain your form of art to someone who has little knowledge of your background? Can you explain how you became involved with it or what inspired it?
I call it Concept Pop, which basically revolves around relying on popular iconography and readily available symbolism/information to create a conceptual framework built around highlighting the possible elephant in any given societal room. I think the core of this approach has much to do with my realization of how meaningless (or I would go as far and say wrong) my work was back when I did commercial design work. I realized that I was wasting my life putting endless working hours into servicing things I really didn’t believe in or at the very least had no feelings towards whatsoever, and I decided I would really like to spend the remainder of my life working on things I truly care about and in so doing hopefully making a difference in the world, even if on a very small scale, or even if it is sometimes completely unsuccessful.
What mediums do you use for your art?
Whatever I can get my hands on. The medium usually comes after the concept for me, not before. So the concept or idea I have will often inform the medium.
What is the process like from concept to reality?
Well something will somehow be brought to my attention, or I’ll happen to observe something that bothers me. I try to inform myself about it a bit more, and based on a series of givens I’ll come up with an idea that will possibly be reflected in a sketch of sorts. This sketch, I’ll either draft in a sketchbook or using my computer. And then I bring it to life. The bringing to life part is difficult to narrow down, because it could be a mural or a painting, it could be a comicbook, a screenprint, a structure, a video, an installation, or an object of some sort. It could be anything really.
Are there any other art forms you want to explore? Perhaps photography or painting?
Funny you mention it. In past weeks I’ve been fantasizing about doing a photographic project that would incorporate set-building, projecting, drawing and painting. Many media would be involved, but the end result would be photographs featuring models.
Many artists pride themselves on their form of street art but you on the other hand, have a different opinion about the term “street art.” You classify your work as concept pop. How do you describe the difference between street art and concept pop? Does your opposition to the term street art arise from the hostility around street art in Cairo?
Street Art implies art on the street, which encompasses only a handful of the projects I’ve done. Also, Street Artists are masters at what they do. They usually have a very specific character, approach, technique or style they like to repeat over and over and over again till they perfect and master it. I can’t claim to have that kind of dedication or mastery of anything.
From Egypt in revolt to currently being in Hawaii, it seems as though your life has drastically changed. How is your present reality in America different from your expectations prior to moving?
Well I didn’t really come here with any expectations really. I was just ready to keep my eyes open. And America’s a place with a whole host of very obvious issues, conflicts, and problems, which makes it a fertile ground for great art.
Can you describe what your initial reaction was to America after leaving Egypt in turmoil?
To be honest, first thing I noticed was how American cops in real life talk like cops in American movies. Second thing I noticed with the over-saturated presence of the American flag. Third thing I noticed was how filthy the Subway was. And fourth thing was the subway loudspeaker announcing that anybody’s bag is subject to random search by the police.
What has been the most shocking experience or encounter in the US thus far?
I remember being at the subway station in Williamsburg admiring the live music some dude was playing. I remember admiring that the police was present and didn’t really care. And I remember seeing the police harass another guy playing music at another subway station almost a week or two later and being a little weirded out by that sight. But after doing a double take, I got what it was about, cuz the latter was black, and the former was white. Also, most peeps working at any given Starbucks Coffee are black. Most peeps drinking that coffee are white. At least as far as I’ve noticed.
Is your work received any differently here in the US than back home in Cairo?
Mmmm, perhaps a little too early to tell at this point.
Your work very well translates your dissatisfaction with the idea of government. Where did this theme originally stem from and how does it affect your work in America?
I feel that its incredibly obvious that governments are built around people of privilege enjoying that privilege at the expense of the underprivileged. This seems to be true in a historical as well as contemporary context. But of course every government will try to disseminate the notion that it is at the service of the general populace. This is true everywhere around the world, and some people buy it while others don’t. This also seems to be true in a historical as well as contemporary context. Where this idea originally stems from? I’m not sure. Probably just from the tendency to keep my eyes open, stay observant and keep an open mind.
The term “melting pot” is a commonly accepted metaphor for America as often times people who immigrate to this country bring a piece of their homeland with them. What would you say is the most important asset you brought with you?
Tough one. Possibly my somewhat revolutionary outlook. Y’see, the events of the Egyptian revolution were never just an exciting news snippet for me. I got to witness and experience a very important point in history, one comprised of many little individual acts of heroism, self-sacrifice, and complete and utter selflessness in a way I have never seen before, which were met by acts of ruthlessness, denial, and organized injustice. Its difficult for that not to affect you, and shape your thinking for years to come.
Your approach is to create work based on your present location but is there anything from your experiences in Egypt you would want to share with America. Maybe something you wish we knew or understood?
Perhaps sharing or understanding an outlook and perspective Americans aren’t entirely accustomed to getting.
You seem to be surprised by regulations accepted here in the US, like random searches for example. Is there anything you hope your work accomplishes here in regards to this matter?
Perhaps help people see some of the authoritarianism they’ve become so normalized to living with.
What kind of reactions have you been receiving from New Yorkers towards your work?
Well the attendance to the show was kind of insane. It was crazy packed and everyone seems to have either been impressed or moved in one way or another. I’ve also noticed a lot of positive Twitter and Instagram feedback, as well as a number of positive reviews. Except one very very angry review, which was quite entertaining to read.
We recently met Matre at his community event video shoot for “Listen” where he credited you for the artwork design to Listen. Can you explain your reaction to the militarization of LA school police and how you became involved with Matre’s movement?
Matre sent me the song, and I really commend him for writing such necessary material. There doesn’t seem to be enough discussion on the matter and I fear that without that vital discussion, we will all become normalized with the militarization of school police before we know it, as is the case with most modes of whack authoritarianism we’ve grown accustomed to living with. So upon listening to the song, it really only took me something like a day or two to come up with the image and send it Matre’s way.
Are you currently collaborating with anyone on any upcoming projects? If so, is there anything you can tell us about these endeavors?
I’m in the early stages of developing a music video for Egyptian singer/songwriter Ramy Essam. This would mark our second collaboration together. The first being only a few weeks ago. I’m really stoked about trying out some new things with this one.
Lastly, New York and California are pretty different states. Do you see yourself living in California anytime soon? If so are there any California based topics your would like to address in your work? (We ask this because we are based in LA)
Funny you mention it. I plan on relocating to LA at some point later in the year. Still not entirely sure what locally-specific projects or topics I’ll be working on, but that’s cool, cuz I’d rather go with a clear mind to be able to observe and take it all in.
Do you have any plans to exhibit your work in the West Coast?
We’ll see 🙂
To learn more about Ganzeer, visit www.ganzeer.com and be sure to show him your support!