Stencil graffiti by Arofish often succeeds in transcending formula and cliché, according to Tom Jennings.
Aerosoul, by Tom Jennings
Arofish is a London-based stencil graffiti artist whose output ranges from slogans and cartoons to more abstract and opaque designs and imagery.1 Diverse traditions of political art are referenced – from satire, surrealism and the modern tweaking of mainstream or commercial discourse and iconography (Adbusters, Banksy) – whereas more tentative, existential subject matter (akin to the Paris work of Blek le Rat) is reminiscent of the Situationist critique of everyday life. Throughout, the limits are tested of the political and visual subtlety which can be achieved using this artform, given the constraints on its clandestine, unofficial decoration of public space.
The London graffiti includes anti-war and Palestine solidarity graphics, plus ‘Alien Contact’ – masquerading as a cashpoint machine (i.e. of the Fortress Europe people-bank) with instructions to asylum seekers highlighting the intrusive surveillance spreading through our carceral society (the “liberty zone”). ‘Waves of Terror’ retreats from literal clarity to evoke the menace of colonial adventure, and various other examples are even more indirect and suggestive. Impressionistic flashes of mournful figures appear in limbo, enduring the meaninglessness of life waiting to happen. Some of the website texts echo these themes, but far more angrily – denouncing the drudgery and misery visited on so many (insult seen as added to injury by, for example, crap TV and pop music). Rage thus provides creative energy, but the painstaking stencil process and precarious realisation seem to drain the excess. Vaguely sinister, ghostly renderings remain, bleeding out of the solemn surfaces and rough edges of city landscapes. The specificity of place imbues each scene with a sense of the weight that has to be borne – both by the dead physical infrastructure of mass society, and by the living souls of those flattened into conformity with it. The ephemeral nature of the original brick and concrete canvases (more so than their reproductions in gallery shows or on the website) only intensifies the pathos.
The device of portraying single or small groups of figures in subdued intimate relationships with neighbourhoods proved especially fruitful in the winter of 2003/4 when the artist joined International Solidarity Movement direct action activities in Palestine and Baghdad. The straightforward agitprop images mobilising elements of local customs (and their Western connotations) would work equally well as posters or cartoons, with punchlines stressing the venality of Israeli/US imperialism. So ‘Ali Baba’ (Iraqi slang for thief) deploys enjoyable irony in the Arabic caption, “Hey American, take your oil!” (in the story the oil was used to kill the forty thieves and save Ali). All well and good. But there are much more moving pieces combining personal empathy (concerning the calculated horror and madness of military occupation) with a precision of location – each effectively conveying the predicament of that place, and the anguished experience of being in it.
Arofish starts from his own responses to particular sites and situations. If the images awaken their curiosity, passersby may then connect with the more or less submerged concepts underpinning them – without experiencing this as posing, preaching or stating the obvious.2 The evocative poignancy of the Middle East figurative work is especially powerful in this regard – manifesting creative engagement during the otherwise brutal routine of conflict, and prompting direct and immediate feedback from local viewers. Perhaps overwhelmingly obvious oppression provides a clearer backdrop for focusing on the human condition via the interaction between sympathetic outsiders and those bearing the brunt. I look forward to the artist developing further this dimension to his palette at home, where the postmodern apparatuses of power magnify the rootlessness of existence in our fragmented communities. Here, questions of agency, domination and creativity easily dissolve in hubris, hysteria, narcissism and psychosis; the positions of artists, viewers, producers and consumers being so difficult to disentangle. In this context, shunning the stifling seduction of institutions – while spraying onto their external surfaces shared emotional contours of suffering, despair, hope and solidarity – seems a highly promising endeavour.
1. collected at www.arofish.org.uk.
2. from an email conversation, January 2005.
Art review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 4, February 2005.
For other essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: