Valentina Primo walks the streets of Cairo with enigmatic graffiti artist Keizer, as he discovers what survived of his revolutionary stencils, and crafts an exclusive new piece for CairoScene, while exploring what there is left to say once the revolution's spirit has faded away.
Keizer is alert, a sense of caution guiding his every tread. No other period in Egyptian history has been as dangerous as the current one for Cairo’s street artists, he says, but no peril will ever drive him away from the streets. As we submerge below a bridge in Zamalek, once a canvas for the majority of his anti-establishment stencils, he rediscovers the pieces that sparked thoughts and outrage in the days following the 2011 uprising.
Pointing to a black panel once filled with his stencils, he recalls the first time he went out to spray the wall. “It was two months before the revolution, in 2011. I was in Dokki and I had the first motif, the symbol I would use for my stencils: an ant. I had to sample it on a wall and found this abandoned old kiosk. It looked perfect; I still have that picture,” he says with a smile.
His iconic pieces are now stored in the collective memory as gems that crystallised the vibrant spirit guiding the historical revolt. But that first ant, created in the boiling months prior to the uprising, was not a mere coincidence. “I was anti-establishment and had a bad relationship with authority in general. My motive is to strip and rip everything that is deemed special or for a certain class of elites that supposedly understand art. But my fire and passion really stems from the victimised and marginalised, the faceless, the nameless, the forgotten by time; those who die and continue to die in a meaningless wasteful sense,” he says. Those, he adds, are as invisible as the ant.
Having worked in a myriad of different fields as he travelled across Southeast Asia, Australia, the US, Europe, and South America, Keizer had come back to Egypt to capture the revolution’s social demands in his enigmatic, thought-provoking stencils. “Graffiti is the most powerful visual media ever. There is nothing that can have that kind of impact on people, to make them question reality and the environment they live in,” he says. “Street artists have a deep sense of being robbed from our public space. We don’t take permission to take that space and give it back to people to put something authentic for them. To begin with, all these advertising agencies never took our permission to litter our skylines with billboards. I remember that at one point I was able to see the sunrise and sunset in my country; now it’s all covered by these huge signs.”
There is an isolated nature to Keizer’s work, a solitary mode that he rarely breaks in his commitment to authenticity. “Because when you work alone, you are on survival mode,” he says, recalling his “hit and run” pieces, or the numerous times he had to befriend the chief of a local popular district in order to get his protection when spraying on walls.
His enigmatic name, a synonym of revolutionary street art, is one more thread in this tapestry of his, woven by symbolism and a relentless cry for social justice. “In Egypt, there are three types of bread: Fransawi, Shami, and Keizer. Many people thought I was going for the concept of the emperor, the German word. But I actually meant it to be the bread, making the point that I want to make art accessible, like bread is accessible to the masses,” he explains.
As we walk through the streets of Zamalek, the island-turned-memorial where most of his work has survived, we stop at El Ahly club, whose walls host some of his most powerful pieces, such as Snow White Carrying A Gun and Who’s Watching The Watchers; pieces consumed by dust, ripped by the claws of time, and tamed by wind - the silent witnesses to a time when everything spoken found an echo that would surpass its initial message.
“There is never any control on how people will react to your piece. I once made a piece during the revolution that said 'you are beautiful'. For me, it was very simple and basic, but when I asked a cab driver what he thinks of it, he gave me an interpretation about how Egypt is going through a hard time. He had personified Egypt into this woman whom I am telling is beautiful, and who should continue her mission and struggle until she achieves freedom. There is a lot of liberty in interpreting the art, and only through making indirect art can you make people think and decide for themselves,” he considers, as he continues to go over the rest of his pieces, which include stencils of characters embedded in Egyptian tradition such as El Kebir, Um Kulthum, and Ahmed Zaki. “I was trying to remind people of the Egyptian greats, bringing them back to the collective memory.”
Anonymous to his core, Keizer does not afford to reveal his real name, his age, or even his real phone number. He walks with a scarf wrapped around this mouth, his eyes covered by sunglasses, while bystanders stare suspiciously at us, stop him, and attempt to stop the interview, revealing the collective paranoia that reigns over a country once filled with hope for change.
“I am not sure a lot of street art is being made these days. Most of what I see now are Egyptian artists doing things abroad, presenting in galleries,” he says. But being labelled a revolutionary street artist, he explains, implies the danger of being cast into a package. “A lot of them started grouping and clustering themselves so much that the European scene discovered that all of the street artists here are a closed unit and started taking them in a basket. That's a huge shame because I believe every artist has their own authentic voice and should not need to hide behind this revolutionary graffiti thing; because as they got taken as a basket, they will be spit out again the same way.”
Erased, maimed, or covered by new street art, Keizer’s few surviving stencils voice a muted reality; but he doesn't take it personally. “The fact that you do something for the people and give them that right to either destroy it or leave it, is what democracy is all about. Sometimes I get really proud and happy when I know that a piece was destroyed after a day, because I know that I have moved someone to a point where I made them angry, or aggressive, or I made them think about something,” he says.
Now back in Egypt from a tour across Germany, the artist considers there is a worldwide lack of critical messages in street art, be it in Egypt or Spain. “During the revolution, I had been approached by German institutions about 30 times, but I refused them because I felt it was essential to be in Egypt to cover these issues,” he says. As he took part in exhibitions in the city gala, the Egyptian artist was featured across magazines and newspapers. "I am planning to go on another tour to Belgium next January, but there is no clear plan," he tells.
“Me? One of the highest paid artists in Egypt?" he asks, puzzled by our question. "That’s a fallacy. Only now am I starting to enter the commercial world of galleries and selling my art, and I feel I deserve it, because all that time spent just working for the cause and getting nothing for it, for the sake of my country and my people, is martyrdom enough. And at this stage in Egypt's politics and the direction we are taking, I have done enough work to be established. If I want to make a living out of it, just like everyone needs to make a living, then it is ok. People tend to forget that artists need to pay bills too and pay for gas just like everyone else, so I don't feel bad about selling my art. I never feel guilty taking a lot of money from a banker, and I do make considerations for people with low budgets, and I have created canvases for free for a bawab, for example, who approached me once because he wanted a piece for his deceased father.”
Night is falling as we approach our selected spot for the graffiti he has designed exclusively for us. We go around the corner several times, but Keizer prefers to find a more secluded spot. At the turn of a street, we find it. It's perfect. He stops the car, rolls out the plastic where his stencil is carefully engraved, and takes out a couple of spray paint cans. He tests them. The poster is now glued to the wall as we anxiously wait to see the design. A few cars pass by, some of them slowing down. We are nervous. Suddenly, he unveils the piece. "Poverty has erased us," it reads.
Uncompromising, relentlessly anti-establishment, and ironically deeply optimistic, Keizer believes street art has still got a lot to say. “I’ve always been accused of being an optimist, even when I was supposed to give up or get realistic. But I believe it doesn’t get worse than this: if we were a police state before, now we are a militarised state. At this stage I start looking around and saying, a revolution doesn’t come around every 10 years, so if you take the opportunity, you can create constructive change, but if you put your faith in the same people that screw up the country, what do you expect, a miracle?” he asks.
“Some people want to be told how to think and how to feel, but I’m going to keep fighting for the cause, because it is not an Egyptian one, it’s a human one,” he declares. Less than a week later, before this article was published, Keizer's new piece was completely erased.
Videography and photos by Adham Yassin.