"In Egypt, no one would buy a drama where the cop was a hero," Ganzeer told me. "The story people buy is one where an unjust cop does evil things to the protagonist."
Ganzeer is the pseudonym of a 32-year-old Egyptian artist who became famous during the revolution. He's also a friend with whom I like to drink. Earlier this month, few days after his first US solo show opened at New York's Leila Heller Gallery, we sat in the cement cave in the back of Interferance Archive that serves as his studio and talked.
He conceived of the concept for his show, titled All American, only a few months after his May 2014 move from Cairo to New York. NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo had just choked Eric Garner to death. Anti-police protests were blossoming across America. Murder by cop became an inescapable subject, and one he wanted to confront on its home turf.
Ganzeer made over 70 pieces for All American . Inside the gallery, silkscreens hang floor to ceiling, forming a maze. On opening night, crowds of gallery-goers banged into these walls, dislodging the prints. The prints themselves were ice cream–bright, screened in double, triple, quadruple layers at Bushwick Print Lab. Beneath New York–style graffiti, Marilyn Monroe smiled next to Micky Mouse, Mister Potato Head, Aunt Jemima, and SpongeBob SquarePants. A ball-gagged Captain America hung alongside a drawing of a backpack overprinted with the Fourth Amendment. In one piece, Pantaleo glowered in yellow and blue, choking Garner inside a parody of an ad for the NYPD.
Ganzeer told me the visual chaos is a nod to supermarket aisles. For him, those colorful displays embody America: fractal cheer concealing the truth. As I walked the maze, bits of that truth came into focus. In letterpress, Ganzeer had created his own money. Each bill showed a crime committed by America. A beheaded Native American. Slaves, shackled, about to board a ship. The currency was convincing enough that he had to mark it with, "This note is not intended to serve as legal tender, though its value exceeds five dollars."
Ganzeer complains he has no style. He's wrong. His background as a designer shows through in everything he makes. He draws type with graceful geometry, whether it's swirling, scrawled, tagged, or stenciled. His compositionscrackle and flash.But to me, that's not what makes a piece his. I can tell a Ganzeer by its lines. His ink is tense with amphetamine precision. Mockery, exhaustion and rage, battling it out on a micron tip.
Though Ganzeer been making art professionally since 2007, he became famous during the Egyptian Revolution, when he covered the Cairo's walls with skulls, tanks, and masked army officers. He was briefly arrested in May 2011. During the Mohammed Morsi presidency, he painted a nude woman in a hijab who was praying for her husband's tongue in her pussy. Some viewers called for his arrest again.
Ganzeer was no more popular with Abdel Fattah Sisi's military dictatorship. After he started the collaborative social media art series #SisiWarCrimes, TV presenter Osama Kamal claimed on air that Ganzeer had been recruited by the Muslim Brotherhood, which the regime had designated as a banned terrorist organization. Calling Ganzeer an Islamist might seem ludicrous, especially considering that snarky naked lady painting, but media slander like that is often a prelude to jail. The artist left for the US.
In America, where the fetish for foreign dissidents runs deep, Ganzeer could have dined out for years on his revolutionary cred, making do-gooders feel brave by proxy just for buying his paintings. But it was a role he rejected as Orientalism; he was sick of how the Western press reduced him to nothing but an avatar for the Egyptian Revolution and ignored his critique of their own countries.
"When you see injustice somewhere you want to call bullshit on it," he told me. "There's just so much injustice in the United States."
Ganzeer's studio was bisected by a massive collaborative painting by him, Tunisian street calligrapher el-Seed, and the German graffiti artist Case. Originally exhibited in Frankfurt, it showed an African child soldier holding the outline of a gun. Ganzeer told me that it had originally been filled in with euros—a swipe at the German banks funding foreign wars. This offended some viewers, and by the end of the show, all the euros had been torn off. No one wants to confront their own sins.
Ganzeer's friends back in Egypt were proud of him, both for showing in New York, and for "taking his dick out," for having the audacity to call out America from the inside.
To this day, the US government provides generous military aid to Egypt's dictatorship, which has has sentenced thousands of dissidents to death, jailed three Al-Jazeera journalists, and gunned down protesters in the street. Yet no matter how many dictatorships they fund, US politicians always pay lip service to "freedom," and many Americans still see their country as a basically benevolent superpower.
"It's questionable that Americans will be able to look at the American flag the way the rest of the world does," Ganzeer said.
Because he's done illegal murals, many critics have called Ganzeer a street artist, a label he rejects. He prefers a phrase coined for him by Bidoun magazine: "contingency artist" —one who uses whatever means are necessary.
Ganzeer calls his artistic genre "concept pop," which takes the pretty vapidity of pop art and puts some substance behind it,and executes conceptual art so beautifully that people are forced to care about the concepts. He doesn't think much of art done as therapeutic self-expression—for him, that's something to keep in your drawer, not display in a gallery.
"There's a good quote by some old Greek guy who said, 'True glory exists in doing what deserves to be written, and in writing what deserves to be read.'" Ganzeer said. "Just think about that question before you put your stuff out there."
Ganzeer told me that after every show, he never wants to do another one. They burn him out too much, he gets bored too easily, and is too hungry to try new things. Then he showed me his next project: a graphic novel about a young girl who is kidnapped by a pedophile during the Egyptian Revoltion.
Like Scheherazade, she protects herself by telling stories. On one panel, the girl sits with her imaginary friend, who is crocodile-headed like the Egyptian god Sobek, with a penis and dangling breasts. Ganzeer had done a page of studies of different-sized Sobek dicks, trying to find one discreet enough for American comics distributors.
Ganzeer is a longtime comics fan, and his bookshelf is dominated by a battered set of Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan, a series about Spider Jerusalem, a Hunter S. Thompson–esque figure who believes that "Journalism is just a gun. It's only got one bullet in it, but if you aim right, that's all you need. Aim it right, and you can blow a kneecap off the world." Transmetropolitan is a bit of an international token among weird kids. You see references to it inked on the forearm of a Kurdish futurist here, shouted out by a Greek journalist there.
When Ganzeer was still a student, he emailed Ellis to ask him if he should try to make his name doing superhero comics. "Fuck no," Ellis responded. "Do your own thing." So he did.
Art, like journalism, is a compromised field full of people who posture rebelliously while furiously currying favor behind the scenes. But, like journalism, art can still be dangerous. If you doubt this, come see Ganzeer's All American. It is both a powerful affirmation of the importance of art, and a sort of recipe: Keep dodging, keep punching, keep moving. Then, maybe, you can avoid being consumed.
Follow Molly Crabapple on Twitter, and find more information on Ganzeer's New York show here.