“Nefertiti’s Daughters”: Using Street Art to Foment Revolution

By Nada Ramadan Elnahla

“Nefertiti’s Daughters”
Directed by Mark Nickolas and Racha Najdi
Icarus Films, 2015

The documentary, “Nefertiti’s Daughters,” chronicles women’s endeavors during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 and how street art reflected their unprecedented revolutionary efforts. Street art, a powerful tool in itself, proved especially adept at highlighting the ongoing battles of these women against social, political and religious oppression, battles where “The voice of women is a revolution.”

Artist Bahia Shahab opens the documentary describing how contemporary Egyptian street artists “relate to the wall.” The streets become their canvasses, free spaces for expression that come under the spotlights after the January 25 uprising topples President Hosni Mubarak. During those 18 days, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, one of the roads leading to the iconic Tahrir Square, becomes an open exhibition for massive street drawings.

“Nefertiti’s Daughters” introduces three prominent Egyptian street artists representing three different generations: Bahia Shehab, Mira Shihadeh, and Salma Samy. Journalist Shaira Amin and historian Christine Gruber also add valuable comments and input. Mira Shihada leaves the comfort of commercial art and yoga teaching to search for a meaningful form of art and to vent her frustrations as a human being. As for Salma Samy, she describes moving from scribbling in her own notebooks to drawing on walls that she does not own. She debuts drawing graffiti of skulls with flowers that represent different public figures.

After months of consuming images of brutality, Shehab employs Arabic calligraphy to say “no,” discovering the empowering nature of such a word against violence and brutality. She sprays the word on street walls and adds her own messages, which include protests against viciousness, inhumanity, dictatorship, blinding the revolutionaries, and killing men of religion. The documentary becomes a journey in this open-air exhibition composed of an endless display of street art. By forsaking complex scenery techniques, the directors of “Nefertiti’s Daughters” successfully manage to capture viewer attention with the well-chosen street paintings carrying highly charged political messages against political regimes, and infused with photos reminiscent of the Egyptian revolution. Carefully selected photos of women protestors and street art chronicle the revolt against Mubarak, the 16-month rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and the deadly clashes that ensue. It also mirrors women from all walks of Egyptian life, highlighting the key role they play in Tahrir Square and how their later exclusion from pivotal political roles dashes their hopes and leaves them defenseless against attempts to intimidate them through organized mob sexual harassment.

More importantly, the documentary shows how street art resurrects Queen Nefertiti, this time with a gas mask, to call for a rebellion against social and political oppression, sexual intimidation, fanatic Islamists, and patriarchy; “It is time now for the feminine to rise. It is time for the voice of the women to be heard.” To those artists, street art constitutes a poetic form of dissent that has the power to change lives, a change that can only come by adding color to the grey walls that surround them. 

Artist Ammar Abo Bakr comments on his street art saying, “I want to reflect the voice of the real people. Not the activists. Not the Politicians. Not the Media. [I want] to write it on the wall.” “Nefertiti’s Daughters” closes with another act that challenges religious dogma: a call for prayer sung by the mezzo-soprano Mai Kamal.

(Still is from the film, a courtesy of Icarus Films)


This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 20, no. 70 (2016)


Copyright (c) 2016, 2017 by Al Jadid

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