"The Banksy of Egypt" Moved to L.A. and Just Wants to Make Comic Books
The year is 949 A.F. at the opening of The Solar Grid, a comic book series from multidisciplinary artist Ganzeer. A.F. stands for "after the flood" and two young people are digging through an abundance of trash. They work under the glare of the sun, searching for items that can be sold to big spenders, using a shopping cart as both a carry-all and a mode of transportation.
Ganzeer was inspired while in the midst of moving to Los Angeles about two years ago. Some bits and pieces of what would become The Solar Grid came to him during a brief stint living in New York, but the visual of the kids and the shopping carts hit him as he looked for a downtown apartment. "You pass through Skid Row and you see the contrast is insane. I haven't seen anything like that anywhere. Ever," he says over coffee in Silver Lake, the L.A. neighborhood where he settled after a little more than a year of downtown life. "I've been to a lot of places. I've never seen anything like that, where you have that level of severe poverty exactly right in front of a place where people are going clubbing and partying and spending money very nonchalantly."
When Ganzeer began work on The Solar Grid, he thought it would be a four-issue story with a fast-paced plot. Instead, the dystopian world he built kept growing. He released the first issue in April 2016 and, to date, three installments are available online. Altogether, this will be a nine-volume story, with each piece of the epic ranging in length from 30 to 50 pages. Ganzeer is currently in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to fund the rest of the series and, ultimately, release it as a hardcover book.
There are a lot of issues packed into just that first chapter of The Solar Grid, from destruction of the environment to racism and sexism to security leaks. It's certainly reflective of the times, but there's also inspiration coming from the artist's personal story. Ganzeer started thinking about what would become The Solar Grid as the refugee crisis became bigger news. At the same time, though, he had just uprooted himself from Egypt, where he was raised and where he began his career as an artist, to head to the United States.
"When you're in Cairo, you feel like that's the world, like you're enveloped in everything that's happening there," he says. "Then you go to a place like New York and everything revolves around New York. There is a complete detachment from everything else happening outside in the world."
Ganzeer arrived in the United States as a celebrated artist. In fact, it wasn't too long after his move that he was profiled by The New York Times. NYC culture website Animal referred to him as the "Banksy of Egypt." During the Egyptian Revolution, Ganzeer took his art to the streets. He had already been showing at galleries internationally, but this was the moment when his profile soared. In fact, Ganzeer's arrest in connection to his art made news. As Ganzeer became better known, he fell into a situation similar to bands that are expected to play that one big hit at every show. The difference, though, is that Ganzeer's big hit was tied to a major political moment in his home country.
"The point of doing Egyptian Revolution stuff was it being part of the revolution and that was it," he says. "If I'm doing something in an art gallery, I'm going to do something that I think is appropriate for the audience of this art gallery and the place and the time and so on. It's not about rehashing this old thing that you think is popular and exotic and is going to sell or whatever."
Ganzeer eventually had his fill of the gallery world — "I don't really want people to say what I should or shouldn't be doing," he says — and comics gave him a way to express the ideas that were filling his head. He still shows his art; in fact, Ganzeer is part of a street-art exhibition going on in Munich. Right now, though, The Solar Grid is his focus.
"I don't really want to do that very ephemeral, in-the-moment sort of art," he explains. "I want to do something that could last for decades or years after it's done, because that's what comics did for me." He name-checks V for Vendetta and The Watchmen as books that have greatly influenced him over the years — "more than any singular work of art," he adds.
Despite growing up as a comic book reader, Ganzeer didn't think that this would be the right art outlet for him. "It is one of those things where I felt like I was never, probably never good enough to do," he says. "I was reading superhero comics, mainstream comics and then there's a particular house style, there's a school of how you're supposed to do that."
Indie comics, though, showed Ganzeer that there wasn't one way to draw stories, and The Solar Grid certainly falls under that category. Ganzeer has been releasing the work on his own, online, to a small following of readers. The drawback is that he is starting over to build a readership. "I have people who are more interested in 'I want the original drawing of a thing,'" he says.
Still, comics have been good for him creatively, as he has more freedom in what he can do. Plus, he can explore the themes of this project for a longer time than he would with an art show. The politics of Ganzeer's work are still there — they're just changing with the times and the medium.
Ultimately, Ganzeer wants to make work that is more than an image. "And if it's going to mean something, there has to be some kind of social or political context," he says. "There's no such thing as art that means something without it being that. It's impossible."
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