Pow! Wow! Hawaii images by Rachel Halemanu, feature image by Anna Harmon
Sometimes, it takes an outsider to remind us about something we all know, but look past. With Egyptian artist Ganzeer, that has become his identity of sorts—the adult version of the boy who whispers, then shouts, that the emperor is, in fact, naked.
“This is my first time seeing the Pacific Ocean,” says Ganzeer. He pauses. “It’s pretty angry. I went down for a little dip in the beach next to Shangri La, and the current… this is not like the Mediterranean or the Red Sea at all.” He and I are sitting on a bench beside a newly paved basketball court in Kaka‘ako as a small cloud of preschool-aged kids floats by, guided by a couple adults. Across a chain-link fence are two artists standing on a scissor lift while a lady in a pink shirt serenades them with a guitar. Across the street, a graphic aloha print accompanies black and white portraits of Eddie Aikau and Duke Kahanamoku. Around Kaka‘ako, murals by local and visiting artists are being sprayed, painted, tweaked, admired.
On a small wall of an abandoned Friends of the Library building is Ganzeer’s piece. In solid, bright colors, a hand with finger and thumb pinched together pulls a high-rise building over a green background. “We have big buildings over here, big buildings over there. All these big, ugly buildings coming up around us,” he says.
In Hawai‘i, it took but a walk off the plane for Ganzeer to get a hint at the elephant in the room (the titles of his lectures at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and the Honolulu Museum of Art). Like most visitors, he expected a tropical paradise, and instead saw gleaming glass facades. “The pattern in the background is inspired by these aloha shirts,” he says, gesturing toward his mural. For Ganzeer, while the aloha print represents Hawai‘i, in reality, Honolulu can no longer claim this simplicity. “It’s actually not an aloha pattern,” he says. “It’s an aloha pattern with buildings coming in and covering a lot of that pattern.”
“Writers and poets were coming up with these amazing chants that were being used in these protests,” he says. “Doctors would volunteer. Guys on motorcycles, who just happened to have a motorcycle, would go and volunteer as civilian ambulances. And you know, the only thing I’m good at is drawing.”
Ganzeer, who spent much of his childhood in Cairo, became a successful graphic designer and then a provocative artist of many mediums (the reason he was invited to take part in an artist residency at Doris Dukeʻs Shangri La, which is what brought him to Honolulu from his current location in Brooklyn). His demeanor is open and eager; he is quick to share how happy he is to be wearing a tank top and escaping the brutal East Coast winter. But his visual criticisms are razor sharp, honed in 2011 with the Egyptian Revolution in Tahrir Square.
Several years before the revolution began, Ganzeer had come to realize that he was using his artistic talent to flatter businesses and promote messages, regardless of their nature. But it took the massive movement to make him completely jump ship. “Writers and poets were coming up with these amazing chants that were being used in these protests,” he says. “Doctors would volunteer. Guys on motorcycles, who just happened to have a motorcycle, would go and volunteer as civilian ambulances. And you know, the only thing I’m good at is drawing.” So he drew—pamphlets, posters, and art on walls.
As the revolution subsided after the overthrow of the government, an old acquaintance called to ask him to lead the charge for the branding of a brand new chicken wing spot. “He was going to ‘revolutionize’ chicken wings,” Ganzeer recalls with a laugh. “After going through all this turmoil, all this activism stuff, somehow I lost it. I lost the ability to be able to do that.”
In Kaka‘ako, where over 25 towers are expected to rise in the next 20 years, and where Pow! Wow! has been bringing artists from around the world for five years now, the convergence seems incredibly amicable. Street art has long been associated with disobedience and providing art to the broader public, but here, it seems to nearly glitter beneath towering cranes. Yet if you look close, there are messages in the midst.
Though Pow! Wow! is over, you can still check out the murals in the area. Here are two of Ganzeerʻs favorites:
1. The collaborative mural by Case and Smithe, a Mexican street artist, on the wall left of Cooke Street Diner. “His technique is kind of amazing, he does this very photorealistic kind of painting style with spray paint and watching him do it is kind of magical,” says Ganzeer.
2. Roa’s wall at Lana Lane of a black and white sea creatures (pictured below). “What’s really great about him is he works super fast, he’ll put up a mural in a day or two max. He does only in black and white paint, and it ends up having this almost kind of charcoal drawing effect.”