The Revolutionary Art of the Arab Spring

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Stella D’Acquisto

When you read the phrase, the Arab Spring, what do you think of? Maybe an image of a large crowd of people chanting in the streets comes to mind. Perhaps you think of the myriad of dictatorships that were toppled during the early-2010s protests, or of the dictatorships that came to power in the same period. One aspect of the Arab Spring that is often forgotten, however, is the vast proliferation of the arts that occurred in the Arab world. While nonviolent protest is traditionally what characterizes the Arab Spring era, the art that came out of it is perhaps even more impactful.

As we look back on the Arab Spring more than a decade later, it’s easy to feel that their impact is not as great as it once seemed. Even Tunisia, once considered the Arab Spring success story, is now facing an increasingly authoritarian government.[1] This may or may not be true in terms of regime change, but the developments in the arts in the Arab world that the Arab Spring spurred have found much greater longevity.

Colorful art of the face of a young man on a wall.
Mural of Islam Rafat Zinhoum. The writing describes him as a “shahid,” or martyr, and lists his name and age.[2]

Street art has formed a major component of the art of the Arab Spring. Murals and graffiti can express a variety of messages, from political caricatures to expressions of anger. Many memorialize those who were killed in protests, such as the photo shown above, which depicts Islam Rafat Zinhoum, an 18-year-old who was killed by a security truck in 2011.[3] That mural is in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the site of many protests and thus many murals as well. The street art shown below depicts stencils created by Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab that she tagged in various places around Cairo. The “blue bra” is an iconic symbol of the Arab Spring that originated in the viral image of a woman who was brutally beaten and dragged by Egyptian soldiers in Tahrir Square, exposing her blue bra.[4] These images serve to preserve these collective memories beyond their time in the news cycle, serving as both memorials and rallying cries as other artists like musicians and poets created the sound and language of the movement.

Grafitti of bras on a wall
Bahia Shehab’s blue bra stencils.[5]

Creative expression certainly has a long history as a form of nonviolent protest or radical political ideas, but there are a few factors that influenced this particular wave of artists. First, as the Arab Spring era states began to realize the scope of the uprisings they faced, they cracked down on physical demonstrations and censored the voices of the opposition in news and media. This led many protestors to seek out different means of protest, and the arts provided a way to express dissent without explicitly criticizing the regime.[6] In the face of abuse by the police and military, photography, film, and other visual media also provided evidence of the abuse taking place.[7]

Another factor in this explosion in the arts is that a mass movement, in some ways, requires artistic expression. There are some aspects of revolution that cannot be expressed through political writing or speeches alone, particularly when those avenues are restricted by censorship. Emotion is a powerful motivator to call people to action, and the arts can express intangible emotional concepts from a sense of national identity to simple outrage. Art is a way to develop a shared community of revolution, creating almost a culture for the movement complete with traditions, imagery, and music. This “alternative aesthetic of resistance” is what brings people together and encourages them to commit themselves to the movement.[8]

Art of four people on each others shoulders playing hopscotch.
Street art in Tunis, August 2011.[9]

Art did not solely serve as a reaction to Arab Spring protests, however. In some ways, it was the work of artists that inspired the start of the uprisings. Critique of Arab regimes began to pick up steam in the early 2000s as the discontent with the current system eventually coalesced into the Arab Spring, and artists were a part of this charge.[10] For example, the 2003 poetry anthology, Angry Voices: An Anthology of Off-Beat Poets, brought together young Egyptian poets to challenge “the notion of order” and explore what they wanted their government to look like.[11] This kind of revolutionary art is less about expressing the events and martyrs of the movement and more about figuring out its message and its ideology. In the same way that mid-revolution art can express intangible ideas, pre-revolution art can put into words or pictures what has never been expressed before, spurring its audience to action on those ideas.

Creative expression goes hand-in-hand with nonviolent protest, and it can even be considered a form of nonviolent action in itself. From protest songs to civil disobedience through graffiti and other guerilla art, artists convey the emotional dimensions of revolution that only they can express. The arts played a key role in the Arab Spring from beginning to end (if there was an end), and like the paintings that remain at sites of protest, art allows the spirit of the Arab Spring to live on.

[1] Patrick Cockburn, “The last survivor of the Arab Spring has fallen – as the Middle East returns to a dark past,” The Independent, July 30, 2021, sec. Voices.

[2] Aimee Dawson, Gareth Harris, “Street art, social media, visibility: how the Arab Spring has changed art and culture, a decade on,” The Art Newspaper, January 29, 2021.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nama Khalil, “Blue Bra Graffiti (Bahia Shehab),” The Museum of Modern Art, September 3, 2014, sec. Design and Violence.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Oana Parvan, “Beyond the ‘Arab Spring.’ New Media, Art and Counter-Information in Post-Revolutionary North Africa,” Anglistica 18, no. 2 (2014): 142

[7] Mark LeVine, “When Art Is the Weapon: Culture and Resistance Confronting Violence in the Post-Uprisings Arab World,” Religions, 5 November 2015.

[8] Siobhán Shilton, “Art and the ‘Arab Spring’: Aesthetics of revolution in contemporary Tunisia,” French Cultural Studies 24, no. 1 (2013): 129.

[9] Dawson and Harris, “Street art, social media, visibility.”

[10] Sean Foley, “When Life Imitates Art: The Arab Spring, the Middle East, and the Modern World,” Alternatives: Turkish Journal of International Relations 12, no. 3 (2013).

[11] Ibid.