U.R.BANKSY – doing graffiti in Rustavi, Georgia

Who would have thought that joining this inspiring project would expose one of Georgia’s most problematic and debated issue regarding human rights?

Our participant Raya Massoud shares her experience of participating in U.R.BANKSY, a youth exchange held in Rustavi, Georgia, 7.- 15. Oktober 2017. We were 42 participants, from 7 countries gathered in nine days, to raise awareness about human rights issues and promote equality and democracy through creative expression, such as graffiti and street art. Our vision was to create social change through non-violent activism. Read Raya’s story and hear how it went…

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I got a phone call from a friend of mine in Norway asking me if I was interested in joining an art workshop in Georgia as an artist living in Norway. I was surprised and happy, and I was like, hell ya I am interested! An opportunity to learn on arts and to travel to a new country was surely something that I was looking for. That is when I got in contact with Shokkin Group Norge that is a part of the arrangement for this art workshop that is titled: U.R.BANKSY.  The project was on Street art and human rights and the Norwegian group that I was to be part of consisted of a Norwegian, two Syrians, one Iraqi, and one mix of both Syria and Iraq (me). Perfect! I am in. It went smooth and friendly with all the preparation and I was set with the rest of the Norwegian “delegation” of Shokkin Group Norge to fly to Georgia in couple days’ time from Oslo.

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Me and three of the other Norwegian participants. From the left: Marit, Omar, me and Amr.

I arrived in sunny Tbilisi, and after a forty minutes ride I reached my destination in the town of Rustavi- once a vibrant industrial hub during the soviet area. The project gathered 42 young people from Estonia, Romania, Ukraine, Armenia, Finland, Georgia and of course Norway. It was a wonderful mix of cultures and talents and it did bring us to share ideas, experiences and skills on arts and life in these different countries. We spent the days learning on different issues on human rights, on critical issues and on street art and graffiti in the participant countries.

On the last three days of the project, we were set to prepare and plan for a street art installation that we present as a gift to our generous host community of the town of Rustavi. So, we decided on certain themes that reflect the human rights and the situation of this town. And the decision was to cover themes like the need for jobs in the town, the pollution issue seen and the need for development and revival.

I was a part of the economy team and together we agreed to a wall piece that echoes the issue of unemployment and it reads: Rustavi Matters! Jobs for all.

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Me and Amr, another Norwegian participant working on our piece

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Our Rustavi Matters graffiti in process, and you can also see the other groups working on their pieces.

However, in a last-minute suggestion, my team agrees on adding a little colorful background to our piece to include another layer to the piece. Without knowing, this little adding ended up creating an unexpected drama that was threatening the stop of the workshop. The next day was the long-awaited day to start spraying and creating the street art mural. We were to cover a wall of the stadium in Rustavi center with 55 meters length and 3 meters height. We reach the place and we start the work to spray our art pieces on the wall with maximum excitement. And so, my team and I start spraying and spraying and it goes on for many euphoric hours where pedestrian people would stop and look at us or talk to us, some even helped us with the spraying. It was an atmosphere of pure joy.

In the late afternoon, couple of cars parked in the street in front of us and several formal-looking men walked out of them to us asking about what we were doing and what was the purpose of the project. The group leaders and the Georgian participants talked to them and answered their questions to then know that they were local authorities. In the beginning it was a nice and friendly chat, but it somehow escalated to that we were stopped from spraying and stranded in the street to wait for their orders. The situation started to take a serious turn and we got worried. Worse that it was getting cold sitting outdoor for more than two hours without being allowed to move around. However, the whole group didn’t let that ruin the good spirit, so we played some games quietly and kept each other warm and happy. We were then later let go to go back to the Scout Center and get some good night sleep waiting for an order from them if it would be possible to continue the work the next day or not.

Later that night, my Norwegian group leader revealed to me that it was my team’s piece that had created all the fuss earlier. It was that we sprayed a rainbow flag to the background that bothered the authorities of the town. We were simply not allowed to have the rainbow flag shown in our piece in the main street of Rustavi like that. it was a disappointment moment for the entire group. Although we all know that Queer rights are a big and controversial issue in many countries but experiencing its censorship on skin was a sad reminder of its reality. Human rights activists in Georgia are working hard to get the rights for the LGBTQ+ recognized in the country facing the strong opposition of the main stream conservativism and traditionalists.

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My team and our graffiti, with the the rainbow colors, a symbol of the LGBTQ+ and queer community, 

So by midnight, we had orders to spray over the rainbow flag in my team’s piece. It was to be done before the next morning when a religious celebration was going to take place in the streets of Rustavi. And we did.

Despite the hassle of this all, it became a perfect example of a human rights issue in our time during the workshop. Perhaps it was as necessary as random it was of an experience during our workshop. An eye-opening experience for some of us, and for others it was perhaps a normality of life under social control. That was a tiny example of how it eventually feels to be restrained, censored and unaccepted by a society that reject your identity as a queer. Every country has its own battles and demons that its people have to stand up against and deal with, but it isn’t every country that allows you to see that. I guess we are at the end lucky somehow to come to see the harsh truth of human rights struggle in Georgia and got to stare one of Georgia’s demons in the eye.

I am however very thankful for the nice welcome by the beautiful Georgian group to their vivid and generous country. I felt like I was home. All my respect and love to all my mates in the workshop and the Norwegian group that included me in this wonderful workshop and finally to all the Georgian activists that are fighting for human rights and dignity.

Thank you,

Raya Maki Massoud

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The final result of our graffiti-piece

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One of the other groups working on their graffiti, symbolizing that we should all cooperate and that we are stronger together 

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One of the graffiti-pieces made by another group, including the Norwegian participants Marit and Omar