From dissidents to decoration: how street art sold out and gentrified our cities

Some street art in Mumbai. Image: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty.

Street art – as well as its artistic forebear, graffiti – are often thought of as radical, rebellious aesthetic practices. Both the artists and their works are portrayed as the very definition of “edgy”; dangerous and dissident, but also creative and avant-garde.

Yet within the last five years or so, street art (and I use this term here in distinction to graffiti) has been commandeered by the corporate interests of the “creative city”.

The creative city doctrine is one in which public space is privatised and monetised – used as a simple means to an end. As imagined by superstar urban theorists such as Richard Florida, it is the role of city authorities to draw the emerging creative class to their sites. They must mark themselves out visually and recreationally, to entice the key demographic of well-educated professionals and “bohemians” (the coders, the designers, the “knowledge-based” professionals) who form the basis for a post-industrial economy.

So edge. Much create. Image: fred.bigio/Flickr, CC BY.

From this perspective, the arts exist merely as a cog in the regenerative wheel, aimed at attracting and retaining these individuals so as to build wealth and develop cities. The movements and developments of contemporary art practice are here subordinated to the desires and objectives of urban planning policy: the development of the private sector takes priority over the development of the aesthetic or the social.

Rather than simply seeping into the mainstream art market (as the case with nearly all once-radical art), street art has been re-purposed to reel the creative class into particular urban spaces. Street art and street artists are today employed – quite literally  to accelerate the process of gentrification and mainline a sense of “authenticity” into a site.


Edgy enough

This transformation is due, in part, to the steady rise of the street art festival. From Miami to Manilla, these festivals have given institutions a way to establish the ultimate delivery system for creative city policies. They make and market “place”, turning physical space into a branded commodity. The “edgy authenticity” of street art makes it the ideal fit for this task: it is just perfectly, marvellously edgy enough.

Much of the street art pumped out through the festival apparatus provides an aesthetic of transgression, while remaining perfectly numb to the social realities of its setting, treating public space like a blank canvas, rather than a site already loaded with cultural, historical and personal significance.

It appears political while in fact being perfectly non-partisan. It performs a charade of rebellion and insurgence, while being officially sanctioned by commission and invitation. It constructs the perfect “cool” conditions for the “bohemian” hubs that the creative city requires. Yet it has severed itself from its radical roots, not simply by selling itself, but (even worse) by selling a false notion of place.

The new colonialism

Of course, I can gather that this may all sound a tad hyperbolic. After all, how offended can you really be by some intentionally inoffensive street art? Yet I argue that these festivals are not just a distribution point for innocuous, bland art: in fact, they are actively creating inequality within modern cities.

Tack-tastic street art at Wynwood Walls. Image: VISIT FLORIDA/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.

Take, as a prime example, the Wynwood Walls project in Miami – probably the most famous and widely-imitated of the thousands of street art festivals that exist today. Established in 2009 by the property tycoon Tony Goldman, Wynwood Walls is widely held to have turned a run-down neighbourhood into a location now famed as much for its nightlife as its art: an area where factories have been converted into galleries, and warehouses into clubs and bars.

But this success has come at the cost of the lives and homes of the local Puerto Rican community. What Goldman famously called “gentlefication” is, of course, nothing of the sort. The art of Wynwood is not only superficial – it is a practice of colonisation. Artists arrive (responding to the call of capital), ignorant of local circumstances (and too apathetic to enquire), and create a vibrant veneer which removes any trace of the existing communities.

Telling the ugly truth

Yet amid this fresh, brightly-coloured hell of kitsch critters and “erotic” female figures, all is not lost. I believe we can still find our way to a critical street art, which calls to attention the inequalities, counter-cultures and diversity embodied by the contemporary city.

Mural by Spanish artist Escif. Image: duncan/Flickr, CC BY-ND.

Talented contemporary artists such as E. B. Itso, Eltono and Escif are leading the way. Along with names such as Akay, Brad Downey and Timo Radya, they are finding creative ways to question and critique our environments, delve into the nature of our surroundings and reorder our streets and cities.


The festivals, the institutions supporting street art can still have role here – but only through supporting work which might not be liked: not everything needs to be pretty, and not everyone has to agree. There is beauty in witnessing different ways of being, in questioning your own morals and mores and in being exposed to people and practices which are radically different to oneself. Those who have the power to affect the appearance of our urban environments must embrace this beauty. It’s no easy task – but better an ugly truth than a beautiful lie. The Conversation

Rafael Schacter is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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