Mohamed Fahmy, aka Ganzeer, is an Egyptian artist from Cairo who created work in the street both during and after the January 25th Revolution. In 2011, he was briefly detained by Egypt’s Central Security Forces during a crackdown on political dissidence. He was not deterred. And yet, he doesn’t like to be referred to as street artist. “I’m not as good as those guys man,” said Ganzeer to ANIMAL as he was prepping the opening of his “All American” exhibit at the Leila Heller gallery in Chelsea, his first solo show in the United States. “I can’t do the really wicked stuff with spray paint, and control like thin lines to thick lines and all that stuff.”

Street art is just one of many mediums that Ganzeer has deployed to express himself and so the typical labels used by the media to define him are both limiting and not necessarily accurate. However, there are exceptions: Bidoun magazine once described him as a “contingency artist,” and as someone who systematically alters his creative output based on where he is and the situation on the ground, it’s a term he’s most comfortable with. “I can’t stick to one thing at all,” he said. “Right after this [exhibit], I will probably jump to do something entirely has nothing at all to do with screen printing or making images or whatever.”

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The exhibit is comprised entirely of one-off prints that were hand embellished, making each piece unique and an original. Printmaking is a process that Ganzeer had never experimented with before. While he routinely eschews the jargon thrown around by the art world, “Concept Pop” is a descriptor he uses when referring to his body of work. He explains:

Concept Pop is a magical world that exists between conception art and pop art, which is fun, but empty. So you have these two worlds, one is visually compelling in an amazing way but that’s it, which is pop art. And the other thing has so much content embedded in it and so much to say but then it isn’t nearly as stimulating. It’s just about delivering the concept in a stale and boring way. So concept pop is basically merging those two worlds together, having meaningful subject matter but delivered in a very digestible, kind of pop aesthetic.

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Since May of last year, Ganzeer has been in “New York, Las Vegas and a handful of places,” soaking up the culture. His stay has inspired him to create a whole new body of work, a highly critical take of American culture that explores racism, propaganda, and the security state. Ganzeer says that one of his biggest misconceptions he had about the U.S. was that it celebrated freedom. Noting the MTA’s very Big Brother-like warning that “all bags are subject to search,” he says that such conditions set the stage for a revolution in Egypt. “That’s the reason Egyptians revolted against Mubarak and wanted to take him down is because cops were harassing them in the street,” explained Ganzeer while standing next to an MTA-inspired print. “So we decided alright, we gotta take this motherfucker down. This is the reason people revolt in other countries.”

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Another standout piece was his depiction of Martin Luther King, Jr. as Captain America. When I asked him why he chose to rebrand famed civil rights leader with a Marvel overlay, he replied with a question: “Would you say he is not worthy of being Captain America more than Rogers, whatever his name is? A white blonde guy who took drugs just to get buff?”

As part of his critical exploration into American culture, Ganzeer completely redesigned U.S. currency. His “honest money” bills are not populated by dead presidents, but images of Native Americans, African slaves, and Chinese laborers. On his version of the $20 bill, you’ll find extinct animals that were indigenous to America before European settlers arrived.

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True to form, Ganzeer’s critique of street art and graffiti made its way to the show as well. For one print, he repeatedly tagged “me, me, me” all over it in English accompanied by a solo “Inta” in Arabic, which translates to “You” to highlight what he says are the “different approaches” to public art in the U.S. and in Egypt. If you’re going to risk your freedom to broadcast your art to the masses, as he did in Egypt, Ganzeer thinks the motivation should be more than self-promotion.

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“Street art in the US is too cute and ego driven,” said Ganzeer. “Where I come from, it’s very frowned upon to go out into the street and write your name. It’s just not cool. If you’re gonna go ahead and take a risk, put yourself in danger, and then you end up writing your name, seriously that’s what you had to tell the world?”

“All American by Ganzeer,” Ganzeer, Jan 16 – Feb 21, Leila Heller, NYC

(Video/Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)