In the grey city of Cairo, residents of informal settlements fight to provide themselves with the minimal requirements for sustenance. Beautifying the areas that are at risk of collapsing is not an option.
One group, however, believed that if they cannot find beauty in the current reality, they could create a new create one; the Outsiders Krew decided to decorate informal settlement in their own way.
The Outsiders Krew is a French-based team of two artists; graffiti artist Seb Toussain, 27, and photographer and filmmaker Spag, 28.
While both friends were cycling around the world in 2012, they decided to present the public with words graffitied over their houses, upon their request. Seb and Spag asked people what words they would want to share with the world, and the two artists would graffiti them over their homes in outstanding bright colours.
“We realised on this cycling trip that people in [informal settlements] loved graffiti and were very cool letting us paint their houses,” Seb said. “That is when we thought that it would be very interesting to ask people from these communities what they want to say.” The team started their new project, “Share the Word”.
Since 2013, they have been travelling around many countries and choosing certain areas that need to be decorated, where they create graffiti murals upon their resident’s request.
They decided graffiti would be the best form, since they believe it is one of the strongest tools to present people’s ideas straightforwardly.
“Graffiti stands out in the urban environment and catches attention. We thought that it would be good idea to use the power of graffiti to bring the focus on communities that are marginalised and rarely talked about,” Seb said.
“We wanted people to choose words that they want to share with the outside world, words that are important to them. We don’t want to go to an [informal settlement] and impose our words, we want the people to speak. We just try to highlight their words and make them travel out of the [area]. We take photos, make videos, and have art show for as many people as possible about what the people want to say,” he said.
“We have brought Share the Word to seven different countries so far. The first episode was in Indonesia in August 2013. Since then, we have also worked in [informal settlements] in Kenya, Nepal, Colombia, Philippines, and Ethiopia. Of course, we will carry on with this project; many more destinations are to come,” he said.
Their most recent project was in Egypt, in which they decided to redecorate the Basateen Cemetery, in southern Cairo. The cemetery used to be the biggest Jewish cemetery in Egypt. However, it is currently abandoned, as most of the Jewish community left Egypt. It has then turned into an informal settlement called “Mazarita”, where people have been living for over 20 years.
In just over four weeks, both artists, with the help of a third friend, tried to communicate with people and explain the idea behind Spread the Word. They shot a video to document the changing process from beginning to end, admitting that the place was challenging for them.
“One of the [biggest] challenges we’re facing is that we don’t speak Arabic and none of them here speak English, so communication is a bit hard,” Spag said in the video.
At the end of the project, 15 murals were painted with words chosen by the inhabitants. All the murals were painted in freestyle. The chosen words were mostly religious in nature. “God fulfils our needs” and “the Forgiver” were some of the ideas people wanted to share with others on the walls of their homes.
Seb believed the reason behind people asking for religious words is due to their beliefs, while they are often marginalised by the rest of the society. “Only God is there to look after them,” he said. That was also the reason behind the violence they witnessed from people since the beginning of their project.
“The neighbourhood head asked me to write his name as a painting,” Seb said. “I tried telling him several times that I cannot do so because this is not the main target, but he insisted, so I did. But the next day I was walking by his house and I found someone who didn’t like his call, so they drew over just his name,” he said with a smile.
When the artists noticed that most of the children in the area do not go to school, they decided to use their help with drawing some walls and teaching them some art techniques. “The environment is tough to work in. The kids are bored and they just spend their days throwing stones at each, other sometimes at us,” Seb said in the video. “Even though the kids don’t read or write, and they’re not used to any form of authority, we try to use their energy.”
After taking sometime to understand the project’s concept, the people of all ages in the neighbourhood showed up to support and participate in the project themselves, even if it took them time and effort to learn how to graffiti.
“One family wanted to draw their own word with their own hands on their house,” Spag said, “and as an artist and a filmmaker, that gave me very positive image that I had to show.”
Seb remembers a well-known woman at the neighbourhood named Om Habiba, who wanted her house to be painted, instead of seeing the red bricks on the facade, but could not decide on any specific word to write. So the team, at the suggestions of the residents, decided to draw her smile instead.