Dia de los Muertos (or How I Learned About Life, Death and The Spanish Invasion by Building An Altar)

Graphic 2Words and Photos by Stella Becerril

As with much of Mexico’s customs, holidays, and identity, El Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a mix of pre-colonial indigenous rituals and post-colonial Catholic rites. The latter bit however, was brutally imposed on the indigenous people of Mexico by the Spanish Crown and Catholic Church. Originally an indigenous pagan holiday, El Dia de Los Muertos was a celebration of the life and death of family and friends who had embarked on their journey from this life to the next. Unlike the colonizers who viewed death as the end of life and feared it, Mezo-Americans embraced and respected death and the duality of one’s existence. This celebration the Catholic Church found distasteful and savage and moved to eradicate it, no matter the cost. So relentless were the Crown and the Church that in the first 100 years of the Spanish invasion 96 percent of Mexico’s First Peoples were murdered, leaving the indigenous population at only 1 million by 1600 from 25 million in 1491. But even genocide wasn’t enough kill a tradition that went back 3,000 years. Realizing this, the Church decided to employ a different, less genocidal strategy and make the indigenous people’s celebration more Christian by moving it from August to November and condensing what was a month long celebration down to two days so that it would coincide with the Church’s established All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days.

Altar with offering for Bertin Ventura, October 28th, 2012 (photograph of Bertin with his sisters and his mom, circa 1979; post card of “lady death”)
Altar with offering for Bertin Ventura, October 28th, 2012
(photograph of Bertin with his sisters and his mom, circa 1979; post card of “lady death”)

 

 

Altar with offering for Bertin Ventura, October 28th, 2012 (perforated paper decorations, Mexican marigolds, Virgin Mary candle, Mexican beer Victoria, chicken in green sauce tamale, sweet bread for the dead, sugar skull, assortment of Mexican candy, hot cornmeal and chocolate breakfast beverage, photograph in clay frame.)
Altar with offering for Bertin Ventura, October 28th, 2012
(perforated paper decorations, Mexican marigolds, Virgin Mary candle, Mexican beer Victoria, chicken in green sauce tamale, sweet bread for the dead, sugar skull, assortment of Mexican candy, hot cornmeal and chocolate breakfast beverage, photograph in clay frame.)

Today, El Dia de Los Muertos is still wildly celebrated in the central and southern parts of Mexico and recognized as a national holiday in all 31 states of the Union. While details and rituals vary from state to state, it is customary to build altars in memory and celebration of the deceased, set up Hanal Pixan -Nahuatl for offerings of food for the souls- and visit their loved one’s grave sites to spend the day cleaning and decorating it and sharing anecdotes to remember shared times. However, because so much of our cultural and spiritual beliefs and behaviors are a complex marriage of two different approaches to life and death, the dualities and contradictions abound. While Dia de Los Muertos is largely regarded as a celebration, it is likewise a sad and mournful time for those left behind on earth. And even though Mexico’s First People’s put up tremendous fights for centuries following Cortez’s debut in the Americas, Catholicism was largely successful in it’s take-over of Mexico, and with that came fear, guilt, and regret.

Graphic 3
Altar with offering for Bertin Ventura, October 28th, 2012
(perforated paper decorations, Mexican marigolds.)

It seems nearly every aspect of our lives as Mexicans- or Mexican-American in my case- is a great balancing act fraught with contradictions and dualities. It’s simultaneously celebrating and fearing death; longing for eternal-life in heaven but never being quite ready to leave this place. For me it is abstaining from organized religion but never failing to drop-off red roses to La Virgencita de Güadalupe on her birthday the 12th of December; being relatively successful at living bi-culturally and yet waking up somedays with an unexplainable anxiety until I realize it’s that familiar feeling of not knowing where the f*ck I belong. It’s proudly announcing my departure from the Catholic church at seventeen and then running all over town trying to find cempasúchitl (Mexican marigolds) for my uncle’s altar. It’s being that nerdy Mexican girl who never quite fit in with the other Mexican kids on her block or with the white kids in her dorm. In a word, it’s limbo.

Altar with offering for Bertin Ventura, October 28th, 2012 (Mexican beer Victoria, chicken in green sauce tamale, sugar skull, hot chocolate cornmeal breakfast beverage, photograph in clay frame.)
Altar with offering for Bertin Ventura, October 28th, 2012
(Mexican beer Victoria, chicken in green sauce tamale, sugar skull, hot chocolate cornmeal breakfast beverage, photograph in clay frame.)

But it’s also having a wealth of culture and experiencing life in a unique (albeit sometimes rather confusing) way. Whatever it is, there’s a reason why it’s still such an important and relevant holiday and why despite growing up in Chicago and not Mexico, the ties that bind are still strong and ever presenta.

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Crystal Stella Becerril is a Mexican-American community organizer, activist, and photographer currently living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Red Wedge Magazine and she has contributed written work to SocialistWorker.org. Stella studied photography at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and in 2007 her photography was part of a group exhibition at Caza Aztlan Community Center in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. She is currently a student at Harold Washington College where she is majoring in History and Philosophy, as well as a community organizer with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education and the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign. She is also a member of the International Socialist Organization.

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Toward a Holistic Revolutionary Critique of Art

By Bill Crane

China Mieville
China Mieville

China Miéville’s talk on “Guilty Pleasures: Art and Politics,” delivered at Socialism 2012, points socialists in some interesting directions regarding our critique of art. As there have been some interesting arguments on Facebook recently that I’ve participated in – particularly around Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, but also things like Homeland which I’ve written lengthy critiques of before – I thought now would be a good time to remind everyone, including myself, of the outlines of China’s critique.

China says that one axis of our appreciation of art (for which term, let’s include every cultural product regardless of medium or quality, just for the sake of utility) is the political worldview a certain piece of art has underlying it. As socialists, we are particularly sensitive to this category for obvious reasons. We know, for instance, that art is never politically value-neutral in class society as it can reinforce patterns of class, gender or racial/national domination. In capitalist society, most of the assumptions of artists as a special breed of intellectuals have this effect on their work.

At the same time, however, a piece of art can also propose a politics of liberation in either a broad or narrow sense. Most art doesn’t lie entirely on one side or another of this axis as it can lie somewhere in between based on countervailing pressures of the official ideologies Gramscian “common sense”, and the equally common notions the oppressed or exploited have pointing toward their liberation.

It is common for socialists to recognize that a particular piece of art embeds the politics of oppression in one way or another. There are two typical responses to this.

The first is we can swear off any art that does this, condemn it and refuse to appreciate whatever relative merits it may have. Logically, this position tends to reduce itself to absurdity. I have seen some leftists write that they refuse to watch The Wire because the worldview it promotes is based on a strange breed of Fabianism. This particular breed  believes structures of domination, such as the police department, can be reformed with the right people put in charge.

As a result, I think that more often than not this reductive and agitational position is only in very rare cases completely consistent. Because all art in class society, or nearly all art, reflects the influence of systems of domination, to embrace it completely means we wouldn’t ever be able to enjoy anything that doesn’t spring fully-formed from the mind of a revolutionary socialist.

This means concretely, I think, that people who embrace this position are highly selective about where they apply it. The consequences of this can look somewhat bizarre. In the past couple of months I heard a person condemn the film Lincoln because it doesn’t include any black characters. In the next breath, the same person also claims Django Unchained as an anti-racist masterpiece despite the fact that it reduces the talented tenth to the talented ten millionth in the case of the title character; the only other options for slaves laid out were to be completely passive or to actively collaborate with the slaveowners, as in the case of Samuel Jackson’s character.

I say this without accusing anyone in particular because my appreciation of art has been equally deterministic at times. Well after I had transitioned from sci-fi and fantasy geek to revolutionary socialist, I looked back on my youthful infatuation with the work of Tolkien as a particularly regrettable part of my past. The homage to feudal, courtly values paid in every page of his work kept me from seeing the reasons why I’d once appreciated the professor; his keen sense of adventure, his wonderful devotion to world-building being rightly so influential, and romance and myth have made him a hero to generations. It was only after reading pieces by China and John Molyneux that I was able to arrive at a nuanced appreciation for The Lord of the Rings, long-cherished books and movies that I had rejected in the past.

Django Unchained
Django Unchained

So what I’m saying in other words is that a perspective that uses the axis of “progressive/reactionary” as its main determinant is more often than not applied incredibly selectively. This works both ways, jumping from politics to quality and from quality to politics. We might assume a work is bad because we find its political worldview distasteful, as in the example I gave of my changing appraisal of Tolkien.

I have had less success thinking of an example of the reverse, since fiction with an agitational purpose is usually only interesting in how it fails. I have never been particularly fond of Upton Sinclair, the socialist author most famous for The Jungle. As someone smarter than me once said, allegorical fiction (which includes agitational fiction) is hard to take seriously because even its own characters realize that what they’re doing isn’t real. Of course, this only really applies in fiction. I don’t think that poetry, theater, music, etc., are forced to abide by the same limits.

Upton Sinclair
Upton Sinclair

So if we don’t like a film or a book, this may have a conditioning effect on how we see it politically – it will probably be negative. Similarly, the reverse is true: art we do like can be discovered to have good politics on a somewhat shaky basis.

An example: I really enjoy Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I think the books are very entertaining and I am glad, in a general sense, that a series that speaks so unabashedly for women’s liberation – even using force – has had such an effect on mass consciousness. At the same time, as a revolutionary socialist, I find the absence of any notion of collective struggle rather disturbing for a work of its nature as I do with storylines that put the main characters in the position of collaborating with “progressive” people in the Swedish state apparatus against its own security forces and the far right. Larsson was a revolutionary socialist as well at one point in his life, being a member of the Swedish section of the Fourth International.

I also don’t happen to think that as art, Millenium ever really rises much above the level of pulp – a fact due in no small part to the central character, Mikael Blomqvist. Blomqvist seems to me a male fantasy rendered in a very un-feminist way. Somewhat oddly, I seem to agree more with the hyper-sectarian World Socialist Website on this than my own organization. Even if they are a scab operation run by half-psychotic scum, broken clocks and so forth.

In a conversation I had with some comrades and other general left-leaning folks a while ago, I mentioned these things when the subject of Millennium came up. One comrade, whose company I’ve always cherished, had the most curious response; the gist of which was that Lisbeth Salander’s lovingly described vigilantism had a progressive purpose because in the context of the books she stood in for the working class. I found it hard to formulate a response to this.

But I digress. The other axis of our chart is quality in the most general sense. Obviously the judgment of quality is a very subjective affair, the reasons for which I’m not very interested in. We can get around this by dealing in terms of works whose quality or appeal is generally recognized, which I’ll get to in a second.

Laying emphasis on the axis of quality over the axis of politics also leads in some strange directions. The most popular one we are very familiar with. Something like this: I like x even though x is reactionary, rightwing, reinforces power relationships of class/gender/race-nation-ethnicity. Obviously this can be a legitimate response to the distorting impact of relying overly much on the political axis. But I would argue its effect is just as distorting.

To return to the example of Tolkien, I have heard generally left-wing people absolutely refuse to consider the reactionary attitudes to women and non-Europeans in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was on the record about this: “they [orcs] are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” (It’s less often recognized that the dwarves are in part an equally racist caricature: they represent the Jews, who in Tolkien’s mind had an irrational love for gold, spoke their own languages and never really tried to fit in with the larger society around them.)

There may be hardly any women and it’s said that orcs may represent a more than vaguely Sino-phobic caricature but, why should that detract from our appreciation of it as a text? I think to argue this is to place a barrier in between ourselves and a true appreciation of Tolkein’s universe – which surely requires us to appreciate the mind of the creator and how it was affected by the surrounding class society with all its prejudices. To say this doesn’t involve the intentional fallacy, the application of which  postmodernism has [u3] utilized to turn a useful piece of advice into its opposite.

What I’m arguing for in short is a holistic revolutionary socialist approach to art and culture. This is very much in the tradition of literary revolutionaries – Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lukács, Brecht and Benjamin – who argued that the understanding of the conditions of production for any work of art was key to the understanding of the work of art itself. The political critique can be allowed to trump the critique of quality, or vice versa in this form of inquiry.

I’ve been overusing it lately, but I think the phrase “concrete analysis of concrete conditions” put forward by Lukács is really the secret of the Marxist method. The method includes all criticism but specifically for us, cultural criticism. So we have – the concrete analysis of concrete art.

One example I find incredibly useful, raised by China in his talk, is that of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This is a wonderful book in my opinion, among any reasonable “top ten” of English-language literature in the modern era. However, Conrad explicitly intended his book as a plea for the “enlightened colonialism” of Britain, his adopted homeland (a point of view given voice repeatedly by Marlowe, the narrator), as against the supposedly more savage rule of King Leopold in the Belgian Congo.

Heart of Darkness is a work of such importance that using just one axis of critique I have outlined will not suffice. This has not stopped the literary and political left, however, from praising it as a work of literature while pointing to the supposedly limiting conditions of its imperialist politics (a critique advanced much by Chinua Achebe and other postcolonial African writers).

What China says about Heart of Darkness is that we should consider another avenue of critique. As the novella is a product of a colonial culture, what were the things that made it compelling in a society whose common sense regarded colonialism as a positive? In other words, Heart of Darkness may be compelling precisely because of its reactionary stand on colonialism. Form and function are, after all, united in a dialectical whole – which should get us to consider that Conrad’s book is compelling for the same reasons it is politically reactionary.

The water gets even more muddied if we take a closer look. At the same time that Conrad’s implied author is a proponent of colonialism, the characters and events in his own novel revolt against this view. Much has been speculated about the character of Mr. Kurtz, whose brilliance is told of from the beginning of the book, but when he appears, he barely says anything. I refer most of all to a line that is as famous as it is misunderstood: “The horror… the horror!” Part of the misunderstanding is of course based on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which seems to adapt the novel only in how Coppola misinterprets every part of it in the most systematic way one could imagine.

Now, as someone who loves Heart of Darkness, what I understood Kurtz means by “the horror” is not the horror of the darkness and barbarity he has been reduced to in the “savage” Congo – it is his realization that the comfortable, sedentary bourgeois way of life he enjoyed back in Europe is based on the systematic acts of exploitation and barbarism he engaged in as a colonial official in Africa. Surely one could not ask for a better literary condemnation of the system of imperialism, even if it is only implied.

Lukács was noted for his view that literature was only progressive if it exposed the dynamics of the whole society – the capitalist system as an internally mediated totality. Based on this notion, he tended to reject all forms of literary expression outside realism as reactionary. His view has often been reduced to the point of caricature. It is never noted, for example, that in the context of the struggle against fascism, Lukács’ view was linked to an attempt to salvage Enlightenment rationalism – something that he thought for better or worse was part of the Marxist heritage. Nevertheless, his views did incline to a certain purism which was not helped by his embrace of Stalinism – see for example his incredibly unsubtle denunciations of writers of such stature as Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf and Rabindranath Tagore.

I don’t mean to comment on the long-running debate between Lukács and Brecht – I’m not sure I fully understand it although Brecht’s notions seem closer to my own impressions of the truth. But Lukács’ notion that we can judge art in terms of how it exposes the totality of social relations strikes me as a useful guideline, or at least a reminder of what good art can accomplish. It is also a useful corollary of Marx’s, and especially Engels’ own views on art – that good political art does not accomplish its point through propagandizing, but through subtle subversion of the existing social relations. This incredibly hard goal has only been reached by a very few political authors, among whom I might mention China himself.

Bill CelineAnother way of putting the case is the following: We would never have to think about art in a nuanced political way if there were no good fascist artists, This is, of course, not the case. To restrict ourselves to literature alone, there have been some wonderful authors of the far right. Some of these, off the top of my head, are Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Knut Hamsun, Gabriel D’Annunzio and Yukio Mishima.

To describe their art as a fundamentally political intervention in society – that is, political in a fundamental sense – should not stop us from appreciating what they do, and especially how they do it. Trotsky’s essay on Céline pointed to the contradictions inherent in the author’s worldview as shown in his first novel, Journey to the End of the Night. Trotsky concluded that the disgust with the hypocrisy and barbarism of bourgeois society that drips from every page of Journey could go one of two ways: Céline would either see the light of revolution, or he would adapt himself to the night. We know in retrospect which way this played out.

The question of fascist art might be a bit of a heavy example to use. So I will end with considering a different one: that of cultural kitsch, especially in its reaction to the war on terror. I mean primarily Homeland, which I seem to keep coming back to in my writing.

From my perspective, Homeland is an enjoyable show. It is not great art, but so little TV is. TV is functional as it is meant to entertain and explain at a very basic level. This, Homeland does admirably. I see it as very compelling and interesting even as I recognize that what it does is to reinforce and justify the intervention of the US government into foreign countries and its repression of native Arab and Muslim communities; it’s fundamentally racist and imperialist.

Unfortunately if you praise the merits of a show in this genre among socialists, in my experience, you tend to get accused of sharing some of its values or at least ignoring them. This is very different from what I’m trying to do. At a fundamental level, most cultural products of the Homeland variety share the same values but surely we should have a bit more to say about them than “that’s racist” or “that’s imperialist”? Shouldn’t these declarations (perfectly true, mind) be followed by some sort of exploration of how racism, imperialism, etc are perpetuated?

This brings up something else, very important I think, in China’s guidelines: The idea of art as a “guilty pleasure”. He says that whether the guilt comes from bad politics or poor quality, it is fundamentally dishonest. There is no real guilt in pleasure, except the kind that is staged and performative in the declaration of a “guilty pleasure.”

It’s related to the tendency among people – not just socialists – to take something amiss when someone else disagrees on cultural and artistic preferences. All too quickly, a civil discussion on x cultural product can turn into something along the lines of “You don’t like x? You bastard!” (or, of course, the reverse, which I have experienced). Something which, as China says all too rightly, is an expression of commodity fetishism – to prove his point, many of us hissed during his talk when he mentioned he dislikes The Wire.

One caution I have here is against a sort of relativism that China’s critique implies. As an example, I think there are some really great left-wing movies out there: Reds, Matewan, Norma Rae all come to mind. Would it be a complete distraction to believe that some of their appeal comes from the very clear way in which they propose a politics of liberation? I think this would be to miss the point in a pretty major way. The reverse of this is, as China mentions, that if all your favorite books are written by fascist authors, it likely says something about your worldview.

I don’t mean all this to be systematic, much less advisory in any way. I would only offer my hope for a deeper and more systematic critique of all art on an intelligent political basis. Conclusions can be drawn as the result of further conversation.

“Toward a Holistic Revolutionary Critique of Art” originally appeared in Red Wedge Magazine and Strike #3 . More essays by Bill Crane are available on his blog http://thatfaintlight.wordpress.com/

Bill Crane is a socialist writer and activist living in London, UK. He has been active in the movements for housing rights, women’s rights and reproductive justice, and a variety of other issues. A member of the International Socialist Organization, he has maintained the blog That Faint Light (thatfaintlight.wordpress.com) for several years, where his commentary on literature, politics, history and Marxist theory has appeared. His other writings have been published at Socialist Worker (socialistworker.org), Red Wedge Magazine, ZNet, and elsewhere. A recent graduate of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, he feels most at home either reading, messing up articles on Wikipedia, or discussing arcane Marxist theory over a beer.

The Fix 10/03/2013

Another (late) edition of The Fix is bringing you another round of nuggets from the world wide web.

culturestrikeElyveth:  Some of us forget how big a role technology and social media play in organizing and getting information to the people. This article looks specifically at CultureStrike and how designers use technology strategically to get their messages out quickly and virally all over the world. They conduct silkscreening workshops to teach young people how to cheaply produce a run of posters for a rally or demonstration. Using social media, they allow downloading of their posters for quick distribution, and that’s just scrapping the surface.

turtle giantRaul:  This ain’t exactly cutting edge, but I came across this radio station, KEXP, out of Seattle that regularly holds these short in-studio performances with a wide array of alternative and indie artists. The setting is nice and intimate, the interviews are informative and some of the artists seem to really get into it. Favorites include performances from Grimes, Neon Indian and Beach Fossils. I picked this mostly because we’re getting our own radio show (woo!) and I would love to see us get to this point one day.

TarekMike:  Street art has played a continuous role in the development of the revolutions of the Arab Spring that began a couple of years ago. As people took to the streets in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and other places to demonstrate against repressive regimes, street artists amplified the voices of those struggles. In Syria, revolutionaries have been engaged in one of the most protracted, bloodiest fights in the region. And, artists in Syria have participated in that battle from the beginning.

In this piece Vice talks with Syrian street artist, Tarek Algorhani, about the role his work plays, facing down the Assad regime with art, and the costs of the Syrian revolution for the people and for artists.

Beatriz:  Blam! “Knowing Where Youre Gadgets Come From” –Hyperallergic

“So much of the electronics we use are built on the backs of child soldiers and millions of dead, a war the world ignores but has killed more people so far than World War II.”

Hypoallergic

Art as Resistance: The Street of the Eyes of Freedom

by Raul Alonzo

The uprising in Egypt has defied all preconceived notions that the power of popular protest had been marginalized and that the great revolutions of yesteryear were simply motifs of a historical narrative. Like wildfire, the 2011 Egyptian Revolution ignited following the ouster of Ben Ali in Tunisia, in one of the defining flares of what has been called the Arab Spring.

As people took to the streets to demand an end to the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, who had maintained control of the country with the blessings of the U.S. government since 1981, the aspirations for liberation that materialized began to coalesce into a defining cultural expression. With the growth of street protest, came a growth in street art as graffiti artists emblazoned walls with images of social commentary, jarring depictions of those in power and memorials to those martyred during the uprisings.

An egyptian man waves a flag as military police run towards him, shooting
An Egyptian man waves a flag as military police run towards him, shooting

A Culture of Resistance

In these months of post-revolutionary Egypt (or second-wave revolutionary Egypt in the words of many of it’s participants) a renaissance has grown amidst feelings of jubilation. Festivals celebrating the goals of the revolution, like El Fan Midan, draw crowds to witness innovators in visual art, music, poetry and prose. Anti-government sentiment runs strong through political literature and music – such as the artists of the Shaabi genre, a sort of Egyptian hip hop that emerged from the slums and took root as a favorite amongst the country’s youth.

The outburst of such a cultural display can be interpreted as the effects of pent-up desires, conditioned by years of repression under the 31-year State of Emergency, finally being loosed. Much of this was first encapsulated in the graffiti that began appearing during the January 25th Uprising.

According to Waleed Rashed, writing for Smithsonian:

“Graffiti was a rare sight until two years ago, when artists began documenting the crimes of our regime. The artists – some acting on their own, others as part of an artistic collective – remind those who take political stands that nothing escapes the eyes and ears of our people.”

Some of the artists that define the growth of this new movement include Sad Panda, Ganzeer, El Zeft, Nazeer and Keizer – sharing commonalities with other street artists from around the world, such as Bansky and Shephard Fairey, with a distinct style embodied by the concerns of working class Egyptians.

As part of the uprising was facilitated by the utilization of social networking (that is, until the government shut off the Internet), artists have utilized the web to forward the ongoing revolution. Ganzeer founded the website cairostreetart.com where users can tag sightings of new work on a map of Cairo. Along with El Teneen, Ganzeer also established the blog magazine “The Rolling Bulb,” which combines the revolutionary art movement with street journalism. The WordPress blog Suzee in the City gathers graffiti works from a number of artists in one location.

"Checkmate" by El Teneen
“Checkmate” by El Teneen

Some examples of the captivating nature of the work can be found in such pieces as El Teneen’s “Checkmate,” in which all the pawns reside on one side of a red-and-white chessboard with the king toppled across from them. Keizer, who dedicates his time fully to producing street art, is known for incorporating aspects of pop culture and including English phrases reserved for the purpose of “[attacking] the upper echelons of society.”

To come upon a large ant silhouette on any of the walls in Cairo is to encounter the work of Keizer. As he says of the ants on his website:

“The ant symbolizes the forgotten ones, the silenced, the nameless, those marginalized by capitalism. They are the working class, the common people, the colony that struggles and sacrifices blindly for the queen ant and her monarchy. Ants are devoted, dedicated workers. They cooperate, organize, delegate, and put themselves first in the line of danger and duty. Under-appreciated and ruled, they receive and expect no reward for their efforts, toil and struggle…”

Wall dedicated to the martyrs of the Revolution found on Muhammad Mahmoud Street.
Wall dedicated to the martyrs of the Revolution found on Muhammad Mahmoud Street.

But apart from the guerilla street art on the walls that bear witness to the ongoing revolutionary process, elaborate and complex murals also appear: glorifying in vivid coloring and divine symbolism the passing of martyrs and the immortalization of the battles seen on the streets of Egypt.

A point of coalescence for this new artistic movement was Muhammad Mahmoud street, where one of the most violent clashes between the security forces and protesters would occur.

The Battle of Muhammad Mahmoud

Leading directly into Tahrir Square, Muhammad Mahmoud street is like a conduit feeding lifeblood into the heart of revolution.

anti mubarak

November of 2011 saw some of the most violent street clashes since the uprising earlier that January. Since then, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), an unelected body of 21 military officials headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, had taken power after Mubarak stepped down.

Beginning as a peaceful sit-in by the families of those killed or injured in the uprising, the Muhammad Mahmoud sit-ins expanded after security forces engaged in heavy-handed tactics, that eventually drew more and more protesters.

Dust filled the air, along with the loud cracks of the SCAF guns. Shouts were raised as fleeing protesters came upon the bleeding bodies of their comrades, holding them up and invoking the cries of God and liberty. Police sirens sounded off the walls of the nearby American University buildings as triumphant shouts were raised by protesters hurling bricks and debris at the security forces.

Protesters organized their own medical units, with injured comrades brought back from the battle line on the backs of motorcycle “cavalry.” A BBC story found that some had reported people coughing up blood and collapsing from the intense amount of tear gas being pumped into the air. Cairo, that day, was truly a war zone.

eye sniper victim
Street art depicting a victim of SCAF snipers that targeted the eyes of protesters.

One of the more brutal tactics undertaken by the security forces was that of the eye snipers. On many of the wall murals found around Muhammad Mahmoud are the grim faces of men and women donning an eye patch or bandage. These are the faces of those who had their eyes blinded by the rubber bullets of security force snipers.

And to accompany them, are the faces of many of the over 40 people killed in the clashes with the security forces that day, as well as those from the beginning of the uprising. People from all walks of life: lifted up into the heavens through the imagery painted by their peers. They line the streets, their portraits in hues of green and blue – their faces fixed in peaceful, jovial, expressions. Immortalized how their loved ones and comrades remember them.

Muhammad Mahmoud, in the aftermath of these clashes, saw it’s walls adorned with many representations of this type of imagery – a sort of hall of collective recollection. All Egyptians remember the days of fiercest fighting, and many found at Muhammad Mahmoud today are eager to share their stories.

Mural depicting incarcerated protester, Sambo.
Mural depicting incarcerated protester, Sambo.

An Invocation on the Walls

Art as a form of remembrance, art as a form of resistance. Art as liberated expression. All such forms are found on the walls throughout revolutionary Egypt. And as the people move into the next phases of the process, the art serves as a reminder of just how far they have come. As Rashed noted:

“People singing revolutionary slogans come and go, but the graffiti remains and keeps our spirit alive.”

The murals found on Muhammad Mahmoud serve not simply as a form of remembrance for the over 840 martyrs who died during the first wave of the revolution (which now stands closer to over 2000), but as a means to inspire the people to continue on with their protests. A popular chant echoed by those seeking justice for their comrades declares “we will get their rights, or we will die as they have.”

And, as such, the imagery of the artwork injects itself into the lives of thousands every day in Cairo. The murals lie right across the street from the Mogamma, the main administrative building in the capitol, and form a corner of Tahrir Square with their depictions painted along the wall surrounding the American University of Cairo campus. One of the main exits from the Sadat Metro Station opens up right next to the murals, themselves. Across the street from them are also many western fast food restaurants, including McDonalds and Pizza Hut, so they are plainly visible to American tourists as well. Thousands of people from all walks of life behold the art daily.

tank vs. bike - ganzeer

Several attempts have been undertaken to remove the graffiti and murals by the SCAF, but each time only proves futile as people, not simply those denoted artists like El Teneen and Keizer, but ordinary people continue to turn to street art to document their collective historical strides.

The SCAF will try to jail these people, like when Ganzeer was arrested with two others setting up posters ahead of protests. “People forget that the streets belong to the people,” Ganzeer said in a Christian Science Monitor interview. “They think that they’re some kind of official government-controlled entity. I think it’s important to remind people that they’re not.”

In the days after Mubarak’s removal, the SCAF set up roadblocks on several streets leading into Tahrir, including Mohamed Mahmoud. Large concrete bricks towered over the streets, disrupting the daily traffic of the citizens.

Like the setting of a silent overnight snow, the following day many of the roadblocks were covered with the markings of graffiti artists. Some were brief memorials to the fallen (“R.I.P. Anas”) while others were more complex, such as the large yellow smiley painted across the length of the roadblock on Qasr al-Aini Street or the wall of the Sheikh Reihan Street roadblock, which was painted in a way to make it appear that the road continued on beyond it.

As it stands now, the task for many is to deepen the gains of the Revolution and further the break with the remnants of the old regime. In recent months this has continued to galvanize revolutionary youth movements, like with the Tamarrud – a campaign to gather signatures for a document expressing the Egyptian people’s lack of confidence in the presidency of Mohamed Morsi and a call for early presidential elections.

The urgency of such actions is to further the momentum of the people, on the paths created by the sacrifices of those martyrs found on the walls of Muhammad Mahmoud. Without the conscious action of the people, the effects of the counterrevolution will seek to head off such gains.

Anti Mubarak graffiti
Anti Mubarak graffiti

When the SCAF sought to repaint the walls of Muhammad Mahmoud in preparation for the celebrations of the January 25 uprising, a day later the walls were again adorned with graffiti, the mutilated faces of those who had lost their eyes, and the faces of those martyred. An inscription read shaaria uyuun al-hurriyyah the “street of the eyes of freedom.”

expect resistance - keizer

The message was clear, and asserted plainly: it is the people who will win the revolution.

This installment of the Art as Resistance series originally appeared in Strike Magazine # 4.

Raul Alonzo is a writer and aspiring journalist from Corpus Christ, TX. His work has appeared in issues 2 and 3 of the local left publication Volume, Red Wedge Magazine, Socialistworker.org, and the Delmar College Foghorn, where he served as managing editor. Raul is a member of the Corpus Christi branch of the International Socialist Organization.

An Interview with Finnish Filmmaker Niko Kostet

With the South Texas Underground Film Festival (STUFF) 2013 set to kick off in early October, we revisit Strike #2 and this brief interview with STUFF “Up and Coming Filmmaker” award winner Niko Kostet.

niko kostet

(Finnish Filmmaker Niko Kostet at STUFF 2012)

By Julia Arredondo

While collectively contemplating the name change of their local filmmaking support group, South Texas Underground Film continues to struggle with active community input. Perhaps the term ‘underground’ scares people away or challenges Corpus Christi’s fascination with mainstream culture; whatever the case be, it’s due time Corpus
Christi steps up to the plate.

Specializing in alternative cinema and film shorts from around the country and giving local film curious movers and shakers opportunities to produce multiple features,
South Texas Underground Film ceases to gain stamina and prepares for the 2013
South Texas Underground Film Festival.

Although local turnout at the 2012 STUF Festival was sparse, those who did enjoy a week of international films and free beer were blown away. Bringing in national and
international filmmakers and boosting Corpus Christi’s status as a filmmaking destination, South Texas Underground Film gained international media attention whilst remaining virtually unheard of within Corpus Christi.

To attest to the success of the 2012 STUFF, Finnish filmmaker and winner of the
2012 STUFF Up and Coming Filmmaker Award, Niko Kostet relays his experience at
the festival and reflects on his time in South Texas. Having featured his film
‘Christian Dreadful” about an ex-choirboy rockstar attempting to save his fans
from eternal damnation by the hands of his antichrist manager, Kostet found a
supportive venue for screening his film and plans to continue screening future
releases in Corpus Christi.

STUFF 2012 Mixer

(STUFF 2012 mixer)

—-

Julia Arredondo: Give us an overview of your
experience at the STUF Festival.

Niko Kostet: STUFF was a film festival for filmmakers by filmmakers. There were a lot
of interesting panels and workshops and the festival was planned very well.
Everything was close by and they had a great variety of films from different
cultures and countries from all over the world. Everybody was treated like a
movie star plus the after parties rocked.

STUFF Screening

(Screening space at STUFF 2012)

JA: Have you gained attention as a filmmaker due to winning a STUFF award?

NK: Oh yes! Since we arrived back home, the local press has been very interested, and we just got two big screenings for Christmas at the new local art center called Logomo. It’s going to be an awesome event here in Turku, with all the cast and crew getting together and celebrating our award winning movie! I also met a bunch of filmmakers from all over the world, and they are very interested in coming to Finland. It is very rare that a Finnish feature gets to go abroad and our movie is a low budget feature, but it still got awarded and that means a whole lot.

Niko Pyro

(Niko and crew on the set of his new film “Pyro” that will debut at STUFF 2014)

JA: Do you have plans to attend the 2013 STUF Festival?

NK: I promised the STUF crew that I’d collect the best of Finnish independent and underground films from the past year and showcase them at STUFF 2013. Hopefully, the Finnish filmmakers will join me there. My next feature, “Pyro”, won’t be released until 2014 but we would be delighted to have our US premiere be at STUFF with all the cast and crew present. It would rock the house for sure!

For more information about STUFF’s upcoming events, STUFF volunteer opportunities and how to get involved visit www.southtexasundergroundfilm.com

Julia Arredondo is a sub-cultural enthusiast with an uncanny ear for rhythm. Arredondo divides herself amongst various career paths including professional printmaking, editorial writing, and doing the supernatural boogie woogie. For excerpts from her zines and travel adventures, visit www.viceversapress.com

Niko Kostet is a filmmaker living and working in Finland. He is the winner of the STUFF 2012 “Up and Coming Filmmaker Award”. His film “Christian Dreadful” premiered at STUFF 2012.

Behind the Wire: An Interview with Islam Ashour

Behind the Wire photo

by Mike Linaweaver (with contextual assistance and translations by Jess Martin)

This interview was conducted in March 2013 and originally appeared in Strike #3

 

The 1948 invasion of Palestine is remembered by Israelis as the Milkhemet Ha’atzma’ut, War of Independence. For Palestinians it represents al-Nakba, The Catastrophe.

 Following the conflict, 600,000 to 800,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from homelands which they had occupied for centuries, effectively becoming refugees. Many Palestinian refugees found themselves remanded to small parcels of land known as the Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean Sea and the West Bank on the banks of the Jordan River.

Today Gaza is confined behind barrier walls and miles of fences. Here, behind the wire, artists like Islam Ashour struggle to give voice to the grievances and hopes of Palestinian people separated from their homeland and their families in the occupied territories of former Palestine.

 

The Interview

Mike Linaweaver:  Tell us about your background and where you are from.

Islam Ashour:  My name is Islam Ashour. I am a Palestinian refugee living in the Gaza Strip. Originally, I am from Ashqelon, a city in Southern Israel just North of Gaza. Ashqelon has been under Israeli occupation since 1948. I studied fine arts at the University of Gaza.

Mike Linaweaver: What motivated you to create art?

Islam Ashour: I’ve always had an interest in art and drawing. My uncle, Ismail Ashour, is an artist. After my studies I began to receive a great deal of encouragement for my work. My cartoons have appeared in a number of Arab electronic sites and magazines. I’m doing my best to be well known among the supporters of Palestinian resistance.

ML: We have seen recently that Palestinian artists in the occupied territories have been under attack by Israeli security forces. What has that experience been like?

IA:  It’s enough to say that the Israelis terrorize Palestinian artists, poets, singers, musicians and actors a great deal. Many young men who are active in the struggle against the occupation and against racism have been arrested. By doing this the Israelis believe they can suppress our ability to express ourselves and our free opinions against the occupation.

 

Ashour

 

ML: On Febuary 16 Palestinian artist and cartoonist Mohamed Shaba’aneh was arrested by Israeli Defense Forces at the Karemeh border. Subsequently he was sentenced to five months in prison by Isreali authorities. How have Palestinian artists reacted to his detention and what actions has the art community undertaken to fight for his release?

IA:  As a cartoon artist, I can say that the arrest of our colleague Shaba’ana provoked anger and frustration among many of the cartoonists. Shaba’ana is a pioneer in cartoon art, with solid standing in the Palestinian community. We all sympathize with him because we see his arrest as an encroachment on freedom of speech. He has every right to express whatever topic his mind touches upon.
Art is our language and the language of everyone who expresses those things which surpass words. Since his arrest we have exerted our efforts in every way possible in order to try and release him, including by way of our art. Many of us have drawn new cartoons on his behalf in order to raise awareness and to expedite his release to freedom, God willing.

Artists and journalists also organized a number of peaceful sit-ins and solidarity demonstrations in front of the various human rights organizations in the occupied territories.

 

Islam 2

(A Palestinian woman voices her rage and frustration at the seizure of her lands for illegal settlements by Israeli Defense Forces)

 

ML:  What has your personal experience with the occupation and the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) been like?

IA:  My own experiences are like those of any Palestinian citizen living in Gaza. We suffer through the sieges by the IDF. Electricity is often cut off, sometimes lasting for hours. I can’t really summarize all the things that have happened, nor do I like to talk about them. In 1987 the occupation forces arrested my oldest brother. He was imprisoned for 5 years. In 1990 the occupation forces violently entered my aunt’s home and arrested all of her children. All of this is in addition to the 2009 war in Gaza. During that incursion the IDF completely devastated Tel al Hawa, the region where I live. They brought wave upon wave of destruction on Gaza. They demolished the home of my wife’s family in the Karameh neighborhood in the northern part of GazaCity. The 2012 war on Gaza took huge psychological toll on me and my family. We expected death at any moment; we waited for the fall of a rocket. Those were very difficult days. I’m still uncomfortable recalling them.

 

Ashour 2

 

ML:  Do you have hope for a free Palestine?

IA: Yes, I do. It is our hope and aim to liberate our country through the efforts of all Palestinians. We intend to do this through a peaceful, popular resistance that will lead to the recognition of our legitimate rights.

ML:  Thank you, Islam, for your time and patience in talking with us and answering our questions.

IA:  I’m pleased and grateful for your help in sharing my cartoons and drawings. Art is for me a hobby. I’m not a professional artist, but I believe art has a part to play in the liberation of my country. Thank you for supporting and standing alongside the Palestinian people.

 

The Images (Translations and contextual assistance by Jess Martin)

 

Islam 1

Jess Martin:

The two panels in this image are contrasting the relatively economically privileged situation in the West Bank with the dire poverty in the Gaza Strip, and the politically ridiculous demands in the West Bank while people in Gaza don’t have fuel to cook with or heat their homes. 

The right panel references Salam Fayyad, the Prime Minister and Finance Minister of the Palestinian Authority. Like most key PA figures, he is known for passing out bribes for political support. He is also closely aligned with the U.S. and has major policy disagreements with Hamas. 

It is at the same time criticizing U.S. capital influence in the West Bank as well as Hamas. “Ana mish Kafir” is a popular song by Ziyad Rahbani throughout the Arab world. It’s a leftist response to Islamist accusations of traitorous behaviour by Islamists. The basic argument is that secularism isn’t the problem; The problem is western consumerism and capital. 

In the left panel, the people are protesting high gas prices, poverty and their separation from family and friends in the West Bank as well as the internal political divisions between Hamas, Fatah and other secular Palestinian groups. Elements of Hamas are calling the people traitors and collaborators for protesting the economic situation instead of maintaining a loyal silence in support of Hamas. The weapons pointed at the people demonstrate that Hamas and secular groups within the Palestinian Authority are operating against the interests of the people.

 

Islam 3

(Translation: “How many times will you have to travel? And to what exile will you return?”)

Jess Martin: 

This image refers to the Yarmouk refuguee camp. Yarmouk camp is a major refugee camp for Palestinians in Damascus, Syria. The situation for Palestinian refugees there has become dire since the outbreak of hostilities in Syria. The image reflects on the fact that Palestinians are not only refugees in Syria but also exiles in their own country.

 

Islam 6

Jess Martin: 

In this image the red, green and yellow clothing of the people in the front represent the colors of Palestine. The people in the background represent the revolutionary crowds in Egypt and Syria. Represented here is a critique of Palestinian leftist youth. Despite their politics they are paid off by the Palestinian Authority to keep their demands small and not directly challenge the power structure, while, in contrast, Syrians and Egyptians are calling for the ends of their governments.

 

Islam Ashour is an artist living and working in the Gaza Strip.

Mike Linaweaver is one of the founders of Strike Magazine and serves currently as an editor.

Jess Martin is an Arabic translator and Palestinian solidarity activist