Bringing the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 to the streets of North Adams, painter Alaa Alaa will finish up his month-long stay in the Berkshires with an art show of oils and watercolors at MCLA Gallery 51 and a sprawling new mural on Center St. that furthers the message of justice for all.
“Everyone has to take his right without any problems, without fighting, without killing,” Alaa said. “ Our message here with MCLA is peace and justice everywhere, and we hope this for everyone.”
Alaa’s mural pulls in symbolism from Egyptian culture and mythology, referencing Isis, the symbol of motherhood, and Nut, the sky goddess, as it portrays the need for a balance of power to create fairness. Though Alaa focuses in on the mythological symbols that still speak to the modern culture in Egypt, he sees the message as universal regardless of country.
“This symbolism sometime changed from old cultures, from Arab culture, from foreign culture,” he said. “Justice is an important thing in our life, in the human life.”
Show curator Julia Morgan-Leamon first became aware of Alaa just prior to the revolution, while in Cairo teaching at the Luxor College of Art.
“The last day the students were supposed to be there was the first day of the revolution,” she said. “Nobody really knew that was the revolution yet, even though now we say that the beginning of the revolution was the 25th. The students left and it was pretty incredible to see the whole thing transpire.”
Morgan-Leamon heard about Alaa through the school and on her next trip to Egypt, requested a gallery visit for her students. During the revolution, Alaa had worked on sketches at his home in Luxor, but strong feelings drove him to the center of the revolution in Cairo, where he joined the street art movement.
“At the time everyone was doing the stencil art and words,” said Morgan-Leamon. “There wasn’t as much painting directly on the walls, and he just started doing that. It started to change the nature of the way graffiti was seen. It turned from graffiti into street painting and he was a big reason that happened.”
Alaa and other street painters in Cairo work with the understanding that their images could be wiped out at any time. People might paint over it or the army might wash the wall, and the painters resign themselves to returning to the defaced site and putting new work up, keeping the imagery of the revolution in plain sight.
“It seemed like a lot of the street painters started to work on the idea of memorializing people that were giving their lives to causes,” Morgan-Leamon said. “It became less about politics. Alaa did this one about these grieving women that has lasted. No one’s painted over that one.”
Painting in North Adams involves less duress than in Cairo, but Alaa says he brings the same passion and the same message to the Northern Berkshires as he did at home.
“Me, I’m the same person who painted in Egypt and paints here. My experience is the same, even though it changes a little bit. When I started to paint in Egypt, my message was about the history and the culture and the heritage, and if we understand our heritage, and if we understand our history, we will focus on our present, and we will understand how to solve these problems and look forward to a good future.”
For Alaa, street art is integral to the message he and others send, which could not be relayed effectively in a gallery setting.
“Street art, for me, is very interesting, because it relates directly to the public, and with art, without any limited space,” he said. “It’s out of the gallery, for the public, without any appointment or without any time you must go or have this exhibition. Sometimes we have to contact people directly without limits.”
Alaa says that the size of a street painting offers creative liberty, bursting out of the confines of a canvas and absorbing bigger and bigger ideas to present to the world. The audience for a street painting is also larger than anything a gallery show could achieve, and that’s what makes it integral to a revolution, creating a direct line of communication between the artist and the people who need the message.
“If you make an exhibition, you may have hundreds of people come to your exhibition, but in the streets, it’s hundreds every day, walking and traveling,” Alaa said. “You put it in the space as a gift for the people. Many people can’t buy art and take it home, so you give it to them in the streets. They can look at it anytime, every day. We do it not for ourselves, but for people, as a gift.”