Street Art & Social Change: Za’atari Art Project

As the Syrian Refugee Crisis continues on, the Za’atari refugee camp in Northern Jordan has become the second largest refugee camp in the world. Founded in July 2012, the camp grew rapidly and has since reached nearly 100,000 inhabitants. While the camp is often referred to as a ‘refugee metropolis,’ the site is unmistakably destitute for such a large community. Food and proper accommodation are just two of the many human needs that the refugees are struggling to fulfill; others include constructive and productive activities for the youth. As education is not and cannot be a priority during times of strife, the children in Za’atari are faced with a bleak existence.

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US artist Joel Bergners recognized this need for community building activities that would provide positive experiences in the lives of the Syrian youth, and began the Za’atari Art Project in collaboration with several Middle Eastern artists, including Yusra Ali and Ali Kiwan. In this initiative, children participate in workshops that teach them artistic techniques and social skills simultaneously as they create murals for the camp walls. Yusra Ali is a female Palestinian artist who lives in a nearby town, who combines her artistic talent with her affinity for working with children. Kiwan is a Za’atari resident who collaborated with Bergners on many murals, joining street art techniques, children art styles, and traditional arabesque patterns to reflect the unique perspectives of the camp’s youth.

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The mural project provides children in the camp with an outlet through which they can express themselves, while also building relationships and learning important skills for life and art alike. Mural themes have included what the children missed most about home, what they dream of for the future, as well as the uplifting reminder that the future is in their hands. One demographic of the camp youth includes the “wheelbarrow boys,” young boys who bring items across campgrounds and sell them on the black market, a very dangerous employment for children. The art initiative taught the boys to paint, and allowed them to paint their wheelbarrows in vibrant, joyous hues, and the boys responded very well.

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As a communal entity, the children and artists have created a vibrant, uplifting visual culture within the Za’atari camp, providing a source of life and energy against the dreary background of the Jordan deserts. Many of these refugees would appreciate this, as they were forced to flee their lush, green oasis of Daraa in the midst of the Syrian Civil War. The Za’atari project provides a voice to the refugee youth, who are often overlooked in the crisis. Without a decisive ceasefire in sight, and with so many struggles plaguing the refugees internationally, these murals function as a source of community and hope for the camp inhabitants.

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Street Art & Social Change: ±MAISMENOS±

Lisbon-based artist, Miguel Januário, has made a name for himself in the Lusophone world through his graffiti interventions in modern urban cities. This project is titled ±MAISMENOS±, which translates to ‘more or less’ in English, is a series of textual pieces spray-painted onto urban walls, each of which makes humorously witty statements that carry somber undertones. For the viewer who can see beneath Januário’s humor, there is a profound cynicism towards modern life in the cities.
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Januário’s work proves that the even smallest change in a common phrase can provoke thought. Often, the artist focuses on the capitalist conquest of society, and what society loses as a result of this. The main loss emphasized in ±MAISMENOS± is human rights and recognition for the lower classes; however, Januário also decries the impurity of the government as a capitalist tool, writing “Vende-se Portugal,” or, “Portugal For Sale.”

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What truly comes out of the project is a sense of polar opposites: the black of the paint and the white of the walls, the seen and the unseen, the privileged and the unprivileged. Januário’s work has been seen in Portugal, Brazil, and Angola, and has directly led to political change, including the dismissal of the district commander for the National Republican Guard of Portugal.

Street Art & Social Change: Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

On the streets of Brooklyn in 2012, local street artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh decided that she had had enough of catcalling. After a stranger on the street asked her to smile for him, she used this as the basis for an ongoing series of street art entitled, Stop Telling Women to Smile (STWTS). Late at night, armed with a roller brush and some posters, Fazlalizadeh began wheat-pasting graphite posters on the walls of public streets, the most common site of catcalling. These posters are all portraits of women, some of the artist herself, but mostly of various different women from all kinds of walks of life. Fazlalizadeh realized as her project went on that street harassment was not restricted to women like her, but that women of all skin colors, religions, sexualities and gender expression were targets as well. In the end, this inspired the diversity and multilinguality of STWTS.

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These portraits are strong, they are sources of power for women. Fazlalizadeh interviewed several women before she made portraits of them. She wanted to understand how experiences differed from and paralleled each other, so that each figure took on her own identity and backstory. These women are direct, they do not allow themselves to be looked upon. They instead look back at their audience, authoritative and powerful. The power of the male gaze is impotent for these women, the only gaze they allow is their own.
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Each figure is accompanied by text, some in English, but also in Spanish, French, and other languages. The text is usually different for each figure, but the tone is the same: there is no debt women owe to men, no reason to be harassed, no place for catcalling. STWTS expands as Fazlalizadeh travels to new places with new cultures, and stands as a visual protest to a patriarchal society that has not learned the true power of the female.

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