Editor’s Note: Heba Amin is an Egyptian visual artist and researcher who is currently visiting assistant professor in visual arts at the American University in Cairo. Caram Kapp is a graphic designer and cultural producer based in Berlin. Don Karl, aka “Stone,” is a graffiti artist, author and publisher who has been writing graffiti since 1983. The views expressed are their own.
Three graffiti artists "hacked" TV series by painting subversive messages on set
Their messages critiqued depictions of the Middle East in hit U.S. show "Homeland"
The artists say they feel vindicated by the public response to their act of "laughtivism"
Since recently publishing our statement on how we painted subversive graffiti on the set of the popular U.S. TV show “Homeland,” we have been overwhelmed by interview requests and an outpouring of support from individuals all over the world.
Clearly something has struck a chord, and not just in the Middle East and South Asia.
Hired as graffiti artists to decorate street scenes of a Syrian refugee camp, we “hacked” the show’s set by painting subversive messages in Arabic to critique the show’s politics. With great interest in how we managed to pull off a heist on one of America’s most popular TV shows, people seem to have responded to the irony of a show unknowingly critiquing itself.
We used one of the oldest and most effective subversive tools there is, one that’s at the disposal of anybody. It’s called “laughtivism.” And it works.
‘Fact mixed with fiction’
A show like “Homeland” plays a role in laying the groundwork for stereotyping. It frames current political issues with egregious mistakes by sloppily mixing fact with fiction in ways that rewrite contemporary narratives.
It doesn’t matter if viewers know the show is fiction. While “Homeland” does not single-handedly alter the perception of the Middle East and South Asia, it fits within a context of an entire entertainment industry that does.
What makes the show dangerous is that it purports to be critical in questioning the motives of American foreign policy, while at the same time perverting the image of other cultures to one perpetuated by the military-industrial complex.
Ultimately, “Homeland” is not the only issue at hand. Rather, it highlights a broader issue in need of discussion. In Marina Hyde’s recent article in the Guardian, she quotes the spokesman for the American Translator’s Association: “It’s easier to train someone to fly an F14 than it is to speak Arabic.” The article goes on to highlight a startling lack of Arabic proficiency among foreign service officers in the U.S. State Department.
Subversion went undetected
Our ability to achieve what we did could not have accentuated our point more beautifully. The fact we were able to smuggle our message into the show without it being picked up by a single regional or language consultant on their team speaks volumes about how serious “Homeland” producers are about “striving to be subversive” and presenting the show as “a stimulus for conversation” (as showrunner Alex Gansa claimed in response to our graffiti).
Subversion takes research.
If we have succeeded in anything, it is that through a collective humorous moment we managed to give new impetus to a dialogue on imbalances in media representation.
Articles such as Rachel Shabi’s on the perception that Muslim women need saving, Michael Karam’s article on entertainment’s impact on the Lebanese tourism industry and James Poniewozik’s article on Orientalism and culture as “set decoration” have appeared in the media.
And more importantly, people have started talking about these issues.
‘Fiction is not harmless’
The message is clear: fiction is not harmless. Repeated enough, it becomes accepted as fact. If it is unclear why “Homeland” was critiqued in the first place, then there is more reason to have this conversation.
We never could have imagined that this would have played out as it did, that it would resonate on such an incredibly wide scale. It vindicates our instinct to take action.
Many, including us, are standing up to reclaim our image.
One of the more absurd graffiti tags we painted on the set walls was the phrase “Homeland is watermelon,” which spawned the popular #homelandiswatermelon.
“Watermelon”, a vernacular term for “nonsense” in parts of the Arab world, has caused both curiosity and amusement, proving that laughter as a tactic of resistance brings people together.