How an artistic campaign turned into a political action
by Elettra Stamboulis, March 12, 2021
Translations by Sarah Tuggey
Gianluca Costantini’s line protects those who are hidden from view: his drawing is a shield.
This was also the case for Patrick Zaky, a brilliant Egyptian student who had been admitted to the GEMMA Master’s Degree at the University of Bologna, an international and highly prestigious university course. Patrick lives his life of research and community in the city of Bologna, and returns home for the holidays to see his family again. On 7 February 2020, he is arrested.
An activist, he is not a member of a political party, he is not an artist. There are no public images of this unknown detainee, arrested for crimes of opinion and held in prison pending trial for more than a year. So, Gianluca does what he does best: on 7 February, he draws a picture of him on his Facebook and Twitter profiles and shared the image. The image is concise: the imprisoned student with a beard and glasses, wrapped in barbed wire and the words “Freedom for Patrick Zaky”. Still, what happens with this image is partly unexpected.
As Tania Bruguera says, “Things only happen in society when people intervene and participate.” The engaging power of the story in this image tells us what can happen when art activates cooperation that goes beyond the museum and the gallery.
A few days after Gianluca’s tweet and post, Amnesty Italia used the drawing to launch a campaign for his release with the subtitle “Arrested for being an activist”. However, the drawing immediately became a sign used by individual activists, hung up on the streets, left on stalls, printed and pasted on improvised cardboard as posters. In the meantime, the lockdown arrived and it seemed that the journey of Zaky’s image and the campaign connected to it was destined to remain digital only.
On 6 May, Costantini creatively used the possibility of imaginary interventions and pasted the drawing for Zaky on the huge advertising space, empty at that moment, in Piazza Maggiore, using Photoshop. He also tagged the Mayor of Bologna, Mr. Merola, suggesting he could use this commercial void to give an institutional sign of support for the campaign. So, the next day the Mayor called him and within a few days the 30-metre-long poster was placed in the historic square of the capital city. The citizens, who had recently returned to have a walk in their own city, ideally embraced the initiative. They take pictures of themselves with this background, send hundreds of enthusiastic messages about this presence, that applies to everyone and that perhaps the forced lockdown due to the virus has made more empathetic. It is a public work that in a certain sense mediates and reunites a sometimes-conflicting history between Street Art and the city’s institutions.
The initiative was so successful (TV, press and the social media reported on it) that a few days later the companies realised that the space was valuable… then, the poster was removed to make room for advertising. The ephemeral work, created virtually, transformed into an object and then removed for economic reasons, placed in Piazza Maggiore – surely the place where all the city’s powers converge, the City Hall, the San Petronio Basilica, the Archiginnasio Library – constitutes a summary of the practices, limits and intrinsic conflictual spirit of many operations on the city walls.
But the reaction was not long in coming: now, the image is the thing, its public display is perceived as a collective issue, of the city. On 13 June, Labas’ activists brought back the recomposed image in a mosaic made from 1,500 photocopies of the original, parcelled out and reassembled in a 10 x 15 m format. This time, however, there is an important semantic variation. Patrick’s portrait is symbolically held in the hands, as if at a demonstration, of Giulio Regeni, the young Italian researcher killed and tortured by the Egyptian police. This action is accompanied by the many messages sent on social networks to the Municipality of Bologna by citizens asking for the presence of Patrick’s image as evidence of their commitment to the demand for his release.
In the meantime, the University of Bologna, the oldest university in Europe, decided to mobilise itself to demand the release of its student, interpreting its own engagement in a very interesting way: the idea of an academic, research citizenship, which should protect students and researchers, in fact comes from afar. The historical characteristic of Bologna, compared for example to the equally ancient Paris, is to be a Universitas Scholarium, a corporation of students who defend their rights by electing their rectores. And the students who organised themselves in this type of guild were essentially the non-Bolognese students, the foreigners, who wanted to defend themselves against the abuses of power, particularly of the innkeepers, in Bologna. So, it is the foreign students who are the founders of the Bologna University’s identity, and the Dean, Lecturers and Students pick up again this international identity, activating not only the installation of Zaky’s silhouettes in the Archiginnasio Library in July, but also placing them in all the study halls, at last inhabited again but with social distancing in place, located in the city. Patrick is said to be one of us, he is among us, he must return.
At the same time, the City’s Mayor was looking for an equally symbolic place to use to make the city’s support for the campaign public again, explicit and in the street: on 28 July, the poster with the drawing was put up under the two towers, an iconic symbol of the city of Bologna.
But the road is long and wide, and the awareness of two institutions such as the University and the Municipality activate other driving forces, other voices that join the chorus of requests: during concerts and festivals the silhouettes are inserted in the stalls, they are used in open-air cinemas, in squares and libraries in various places in Italy.
In September, during the traditional Cervia Kite Festival, volunteers build a kite with Zaky’s image. This has an added symbolic value, given that kites have recently been banned in Egypt as “possible threats to national security”. In fact, Al Sisi has included the sale and use of this very old object among his countless bans, resulting in hundreds of arrests and fines, including those of very young people. It should be kept in mind that, during the lockdown, the use of this simple object on the terraces of the concrete towers of Cairo and Alexandria had increased dramatically, as a way to breathe some fresh air and travel, at least metaphorically.
“There’s something new in the sun today – but no,This was Pascoli’s poem “L’aquilone” (The Kite)
More like something old: at this distance even,
I sense the violets starting to peep through”
And in this whole affair, which at the moment is still receiving fortunately warm and sympathetic attention, involving activists, associations and institutions that use this image as a symbol, there is something old, but also something new.
We live at a distance, but the empathic connection that can be activated thanks to the power of a synthetic image is something that is achieved using new tools, but which operates on old psychic processes linked to the evolution of our species. Individuals, as Freud intuited in “Delusion and Dream in Jensen’s Gradiva”, move when they encounter an image that intercepts something they are looking for in themselves, even if they are not aware of it. The image is representation, in the absence of representability: thus, Zaky’s imprisoned body, impossible to be represented as he’s been removed from view and relation, becomes representable again in this action, which goes beyond the lines composing it, weaving relationships and bringing out submerged cultural and social identities. An old story, the unjustified deprivation of freedom, becomes new and present, involving and activating subjects. Of course, we still do not know how it will end. However, these actions have been there, and are still there to protect all the Zakys of today and the future, they show an emperor who has no clothes. No one can say what a beautiful dress he has.