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Egypt’s young muralists put cultural icons on walls

A group of Egyptian activists and artists have launched an initiative to bring color to Cairo’s metro stations, starting with Opera House metro station.

CAIRO — A group of Egyptian young men and women between the ages 18 and 28 have launched an initiative to bring color to Cairo’s metro stations through murals.

The initiative, called “Let’s Color It” aims to create a splash for the commuters by metro, the most popular and least expensive means of transportation in Egypt, used by millions of citizens every day.

The idea dates back from 2015, when Moubdioun [Arabic for Innovators], a youth association, and then implemented the first project in 2016 on the walls of Hikma square in Heliopolis, Cairo. In January, Moubdioun contacted the Cairo Metro administration asking for permission to launch this initiative in metro stations. Cairo Metro agreed and provided the necessary materials, paint and brushes, as well as it assigned a team to assist.

Late January, 11 young men and women from different artistic backgrounds volunteered and began working on the walls in Opera metro station by painting galaxy murals with planets. They also painted the portraits of great Egyptian artists and writers such as writer Nagib Mahfouz, singer Umm Kulthum, singer Mohamed Abdel Wahab and playwright Najib El Rihani.

Opera metro station is located on the second line of the metro network, which consists of three main lines with a total of 64 stations. The third line is currently being completed and a fourth, fifth and sixth line will soon be built to cover most of Greater Cairo at a cost of 200 billion Egyptian pounds. The station is named based on the nearby Cairo Opera House, one of the most important cultural platforms opened in 1988 in Opera Land, El Gezirah, Cairo. This area is known as Cairo’s national cultural center and the hub of plays, musical performances and exhibitions.

Zainab Mohammad, 30, a graduate of the School of Commerce and founder of Moubdioun, told Al-Monitor, “We wanted to go with non-traditional designs, reflecting the cultural identity of the Opera House, so we embodied the symbols of art, culture and literature as planets.” She added that the purpose of this initiative was to give the new generation of creative artists an opportunity to showcase their artistic creations.

Moubdioun first contacted Yara Ali al-Din, 18, a first-year student in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Helwan University, in 2016 after seeing her impressive artwork on her Facebook page. She participated in the association’s first work in Heliopolis as well as this year’s initiative.

Ali al-Din told Al-Monitor that the galaxy theme was chosen because all society is familiar with it, “We want art to reach the largest number of people and metro stations are the best place for us to achieve our goal.”

“We drew the portraits of artists, singers and writers who represent great intellectual and artistic pillars in Egypt since they are associated with this location in particular,” Ali al-Din noted.

For her part, Zainab explained that she wants to take art outside of exhibitions and onto the streets and public places. “We want to revive the so-called street art, through thoughtful designs by young artists, and turn the streets into showrooms,” she said, adding, “We wanted to replace worn-out walls with beautiful murals. Our goal is simply to spread art and culture, away from all political aspects.”

Work in Opera station took three weeks, during which the participants worked from 9 am to 7 pm every day, encouraged by passersby and social media users.

On Feb. 26, Cairo Metro honored the members of the initiative with symbolic certificates and rewards, stressing its intention to support similar projects in all other 63 stations.

Meanwhile, Cairo Metro spokesman Ahmed Abdel Hadi told Al-Monitor that Moubdioun was not alone to suggest such a project, adding, “We have received other youth initiatives from the Higher Institute of Applied Arts in the Fifth District of Cairo and from both faculties of applied arts and fine arts at Helwan University to paint murals in other stations.” He said that Cairo Metro will see in which stations youth groups can start painting and provide all the necessary support and raw materials, expressing hope that by the end of 2018, all 64 stations in Greater Cairo can have painted murals.

Saleh al-Anbari, 28, a graduate of the Faculty of Art Education at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and artistic director of the Opera station project, told Al-Monitor, “The initiative aims to fight ugliness with aesthetics.”

He added, “We want to spread the culture of beauty in our community. I was personally annoyed by the handwritings on the streets or in metro stations. It was this visual pollution that motivated us to make a change by drawing beautiful artistic designs consistent with the culture and principles of Egyptian society.”

Anbari, who helped create the design for the murals, explained that Cairo Metro officials had approved the designs before volunteers started painting. “The new designs will have to go in line with the cultural of each station,” he said, speaking about future designs in other stations.

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