Ganzeer, Macabre by Design. 2022. Acrylic on Canvas. Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. Photo credit: author.

Ganzeer (Egyptian, b. 1982)

Paradoxically, then, part of what makes such dehumanized people so loathsome and menacing is their seeming humanity.

–David Livingstone Smith1

In 1980, following Independence, Zimbabwe Rhodesia fully renounced their colonial moniker to become the Republic of Zimbabwe. “Zimbabwe,” derived from the Bantu for “houses of stone,” was adopted by both nationalists and colonialists to make a case for their form of rule. Great Zimbabwe, a city of the Bantu/Shona civilization, flourished in the fourteenth century as a trading post connecting inland Africa with the Swahili Coast to the east, making gold accessible to the entire Indian Ocean trade network. Five centuries later, Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company invested heavily in the excavation of Great Zimbabwe with the intention of using a narrative constructed by geologist and explorer Karl Mauch in 1871, which suggested the Phoenicians had built the zimbabwes, giving the region Biblical origins that justified Rhodes’s expansion throughout the northern part of Mashonaland. Alternatively, Robert Mugabe, the revolutionary turned first prime minister and president turned dictator of the Republic of Zimbabwe, capitalized on Great Zimbabwe to assert Shona authority and instill a sense of national pride in its people. Emblazoned on the flag and currency in 2021 is the image of the Great Zimbabwe bird, one of eight soapstone finials of abstracted birds that were discovered at the site. Mugabe’s goal was to develop a shared mythology using a visual language that could be crafted into an idealized narrative to support the legitimacy of Shona rule, and his own leadership. Both nationalists and colonialists, who stood on opposite sides of government, used the same image to construct unique narratives about why they should be in power. Disenfranchised in both examples are the people who call Zimbabwe home.

A similar visual and ideological propaganda was used by Egyptian presidents beginning with Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s, and notoriously by Hosni Mubarak to ensure his hold on power for three decades beginning in 1981. Mubarak linked himself visually to the thirteenth-century BCE king Ramses II on billboards throughout the country, and he engaged a rhetoric that conceptually paralleled that of the ancient Egyptian leaders, who promoted themselves as “strong enough to lead the people into battle and smart enough to govern them.”2 This appropriation demonstrates a robust understanding of ancient Egyptian propaganda: for millennia the kings of Egypt directly referenced the visual vernacular of their predecessors to subdue chaos in order to legitimize their own reigns, constructing an illusion of 3,000 years of continuous pharaonic power.3

By early 2011, after nearly thirty years and a record of governance that included corruption, media censorship, human rights violations, and displacement, the veneer Mubarak’s control constructed through propaganda cracked. The Arab Spring, described in the previous chapter, began just one month prior in Tunisia and spread across the Maghreb, stirring an uprising centralized in Tahrir Square in Cairo. In less than three weeks the protests in Egypt sparked Mubarak’s resignation and arrest. As a highly visual and democratic form, the work of street artists, especially images of protest, gained notoriety during the revolution for capturing the national mood; Ganzeer became one of the most prominent among them, gaining international recognition after he painted the mural Tank vs. Bread-Biker on the 6th October Bridge during Mad Graffiti Weekend in 2011. His work in design, street art, fine art, and graphic novels has since scrutinized governmental corruption that oozes into other streams of control such as the media, human rights violations, climate change, and displacement. Ganzeer’s site-specific mural Macabre By Design juxtaposes a toddler’s skull containing both juvenile and adult sets of teeth with the angelic face of his toddler. On the lintel above the doorway is a portrait of a young Egyptian man, Khaled Saeed. His face, painted in yellow, is obscured by a contorted contour drawing, capturing his brutalized face after he was fatally beaten by police in Alexandria. His brother, called to identify the body, smuggled and posted images of Saeed’s unrecognizable face, which became emblematic for the resistance. Though children are born with everything they need to become an adult, Ganzeer asks if they are born ready to face the inhuman violence that Saeed was subjected to.

The artist’s outspoken stance on Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who had succeeded Mohamed Morsi as president following a power grab in 2013, exposed him to political backlash. Ganzeer translates to “bicycle chain,” an alias that represents an artist who views himself as the apparatus that propels change. Ganzeer acknowledges that artists “are not the driving force…We are not the people pedaling, but we can connect ideas and by doing this we allow the thing to move.”4 Unfortunately, this means that artists can also threaten a regime’s control. Three years after the start of the revolution, Ganzeer was identified on a popular nightly news program, anchored at the time by Osama Kamal, who accused him of being “a recruit of the Muslim Brotherhood,” which had been declared a terrorist organization after Morsi’s ouster, “and demanded that the government take action against him.” 5 In Egypt, this type of false indictment is often used to slander and arrest artists, a circumvention of article 67 of the Egyptian constitution, which protects artistic and literary creation. 6 It was under these threats that Ganzeer moved to the United States in 2014. His principle was evident: any regime that uses visual language to bolster itself, whether it’s Egypt, Zimbabwe, Russia, or the United States, is vulnerable to critique in the form of visual language.

Pushes for control of public narrative and national resources do not just affect the lives of ordinary people, but extend into efforts to control the environment for monetary gain. Ganzeer describes the way the construction of the Aswan Dam in southern Egypt in the 1960s, which changed the course of the country’s economy, had harmful environmental effects. For example, instead of relying on the nutrient-rich silt left behind after the flooding of the Nile, farmers must now employ artificial fertilizer to compensate for the decrease in arability of the agricultural land. Trying to control nature is the work of tyrants and the construction of the dam was both a proxy for, and the pinnacle of, a millennia-long international struggle over Egypt’s geography. Its ancient history was marked by the threat of and intermittent occupations by foreign powers, which produced the visual posturing employed by Ramses and other rulers, and its situation at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia found it caught between colonial powers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the postwar period, Egypt was stuck in a cycle of nationalist and internationalist objectives, as Nasser contended with whether to partner with the United States or the USSR to fund and design the dam project. In that geopolitical context, the ecological impact of the dam was deprioritized in favor of its potential energy production and modernization of independent Egypt’s economy. 7

Ganzeer reflected on a trip to the Aswan high dam as a teenager. “It was so breathtaking, being on top of this huge machine. But as I’ve grown older and become more concerned for the environment, it feels like if humanity ever had a warning sign in regards to the impending doom of the earth, that Egypt is probably it. All this lush nature is referenced in the ancient texts, tombs and temples, scenes of hunting gazelles and lions – and you look at the country today and it’s really devastated.”8 The effort to control nature shifted the mythology of Egypt; ancient Egypt had been defined by the Nile, a fact that dominates historiographies of it to this day. The kingdom existed along the river banks, benefitting from or succumbing to annual floods that ideally brought with them fertile sediment that provided the sustenance, along with a sense of cultural and political identity. When these flooding cycles ceased with the Aswan Dam, Egyptian cultural and political identity began to shift.

Ganzeer’s mural for And I Must Scream layers historical and contemporary imagery with new symbols to recontextualize an accepted national mythology to give voice to those dehumanized by corrupt governments. As in the case of Rhodes, Mugabe, Mubarak, and every dictator that has seized control, they will have to reckon with the fact that there is a point at which a national myth just cannot overcome reality. This is true, but, as exemplified by the Pharaohs' Golden Parade in which twenty-two ancient royal mummies were processed through the streets of Cairo in spring 2021, the cycle of national mythology continues.9


  1. David Livingstone Smith, “Paradoxes of Dehumanization,” Social Theory and Practice 42, no. 2 (April 2016): 434-5. ↩︎

  2. Annie Shanley, personal communication with author, October 4, 2021. ↩︎

  3. See Ronald J. Leprohon, “Ideology and Propaganda,” in A Companion to Ancient Egyptian Art, ed. Melinda Hartwig (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2015), 312. ↩︎

  4. Barbara Pollack, “Hieroglyphs That Won’t Be Silenced,” The New York Times, July 10, 2014. ↩︎

  5. Barbara Pollack, “Hieroglyphs That Won’t Be Silenced.” ↩︎

  6. See for example the case of author Ahmed Naji in 2015. Article 67 states: “Freedom of artistic and literary creation is guaranteed. The state shall undertake to promote art and literature, sponsor creators and protect their creations, and provide the necessary means of encouragement to achieve this end. … No lawsuits may be initiated or filed to suspend or confiscate any artistic, literary, or intellectual work, or against their creators except through the public prosecution. No punishments of custodial sanction may be imposed for crimes committed because of the public nature of the artistic, literal or intellectual product.” Egyptian Const. art. 67, ↩︎

  7. There are numerous historical stories about how controlling nature is the work of tyrants. For example, in Herodotus’s The Histories, Xerxes’s bridging over the Hellespont is destroyed by a storm. See Herodotus and Carolyn Dewald, The Histories, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 419-420; or Alexander the Great refusing a statue of himself diverting spring water carved on Mt. Athos by Dinocrates. See Vitruvius, On Architecture, Volume I: Book 2, trans. Frank Granger, Loeb Classical Library 251 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931), 73-75. ↩︎

  8. The effort to control nature shifted the mythology of Egypt; ancient Egypt had been defined by the Nile, a fact that dominates historiographies of it to this day. The kingdom existed along the river banks, benefitting from or succumbing to annual floods that ideally brought with them fertile sediment that provided the sustenance, along with a sense of cultural and political identity. When these flooding cycles ceased with the Aswan Dam, Egyptian cultural and political identity began to shift. David Batty, “From revolutionary art to dystopian comics: Ganzeer on Snowden, censorship and global warming,” The Guardian, July 20, 2016, [] ( ↩︎

  9. Wael Hussein, “Egypt mummies pass through Cairo in ancient rulers’ parade,” BBC News, April 3, 2021, ↩︎