CAIRO — Mohamed Abla's studio in downtown Cairo is strewn with oil paintings that show frenetic scenes of Egyptian crowds, riot police, headlines about demonstrations and a classified ad that reads: "President Wanted."
Abla, one of Egypt's most esteemed contemporary artists, painted all of those works years before the popular revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February. Under the old regime, the paintings were banned from exhibition, so Abla found it was especially satisfying to see the scenes come to life just a few blocks away in the protest camp of Tahrir Square.
"I've been working on the revolution for the past 10 years, waiting to see the streets full of people like this," Abla said, gesturing toward a billboard-sized painting of a crowd in Cairo from 2008. "The first day I entered Tahrir Square, it was like walking through my work."
"I even imagined the camels," Abla added with a laugh, pointing to another painting that foretold of the day Mubarak-allied thugs would gallop into the square on camels to attack protesters.
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Artists such as Abla played an important — if largely unheralded — role in the Egyptian revolution. They drew signs and caricatures for protesters to brandish before the TV cameras to win international support. They staged performance art to illustrate police brutality. They kept children busy and safe with art classes in Tahrir Square. And, alongside thousands of other protesters, they fought back when government-allied mobs attacked them.
An acclaimed multimedia artist, Ahmed Basiouny, 31, died after receiving a bullet to the head on the particularly bloody day of Jan. 28. Raw footage from his camera will be on display at the prestigious Venice Biennale art festival. His final Facebook status update, according to local news reports, read: "If they want war, we want peace. We are better: I'll practice restraint till the end."
Works inspired by the revolution now hang in several local galleries. At the Cairo Atelier downtown, paintings depicting the 18-day uprising fill the two-story exhibition space. In one, nervous military commanders hover around an empty throne. Others show the capital in flames, waving flags, and police batons — oil and watercolor renderings of those heady, dramatic days.
Abla's work is featured prominently, though he no longer relies on imagination to paint his trademark crowd scenes. He now adds splashes of paint — "for feeling" — to photos he took of the throngs of protesters in Tahrir Square.
"Reality now is stronger than anything I could imagine," Abla said. "So what can an artist do?"
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