Nele De Raedt

On the outskirts of Cairo, a man walks past a highly damaged monument showing ex-president Hosni Mubarak, former president Anwar Sadat, Nobel Prize winner Ahmed Zewail, and writer and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahr. Hosni Mubarak’s face is barely recognisable. His face has been splattered with black paint, and words have been scrawled across the white stone surface (Fig. 1). The picture, taken by a photographer of the international news agency Reuters, has been published in such established western newspapers as the Telegraph, and has travelled the World Wide Web ever since. Taken on the 2nd of August 2011, one day before the trial against Hosni Mubarak started, the picture reminds the world of the public outrage of the people against their former president and highlights the justice that will soon take place.

To damage and spoil the appearance of something by writing or drawing on it (the definition of “Defacing” in the Cambridge Dictionary), allows protestors to communicate strong political messages in the public realm. Walls, monuments, and statues are made of solid stone. To defile their surfaces leaves a permanent and highly visible imprint in the city. To enhance the message, protestors often use monuments with a high symbolical meaning as the object for this defacing. In Ukraine, for example, protestors have often turned to the Soviet Army monument in Sofia to express a variety of messages (Fig. 2) In February 2014, the monument was painted with the colours of the Ukrainian flag as a protest against Russian interventions in Ukrainian political affairs. In 2013, activists painted the monument pink to apologize for the support Bulgarian soldiers gave to the Soviet Union, when it suppressed the Prague Spring in 1968. The soldiers had been turned into Superman, Santa Claus and other comic book characters only one year earlier. The Russian connotation of the monument allows it to become a powerful object when political tensions between Ukraine and Russia rise.

The attack on the monument outside of Cairo, however, turned to a very specific kind of defacing. The etymological roots of the word can be found in Old French. The French word “desfacier” comes from “des”, meaning “away from” and “facia”, meaning “face”. In the Cairo monument, Hosni Mubarak’s face was literally erased. During the revolution against Mubarak’s reign in January 2011, the face of the president took on a central role. Gathering in the streets, enraged citizens showed pictures of their president, his eyes pierced out (Fig.3). Political posters of the president were torn down in the streets (Fig. 4). Unlike the attack on the monument, these attacks were ephemeral. Only pictures taken by photographers with professional cameras or by fellow protesters with their smartphones would keep the memory alive. It was thus no coincidence that the Reuters photographer, on the day before the trial would start, turned to one of the lasting visual testimonies of the protest: the Cairo monument. In contrast to the posters in the street, the defacement of the monument kept the memory in the physical fabric of the city alive long after the revolution had taken place. Taken on the 2nd of August 2011, the picture served as a powerful memory of the anger and persistence of the people during the revolution 7 months earlier.

However, one must be careful to define this specific kind of “defacing” exclusively as aesthetics of resistance. On the 21st of April 2011, under the political leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Cairo Court ordered the removal of all pictures, as well as the name, of the president and his wife Suzanne from all “public squares, streets, libraries, and other public institutions around the country” (NY Times, May 14/2011) (Fig. 5). The Egyptian people were “now aware of Mubarak’s corruption, making it important to rid the country of the image of control of his 30-year rule”, as the court ruling argued. (USA Today, April 21/2011) This order came eight days after Hosni Mubarak and his sons were detained for questioning. They were detained on the charge of negligence in protecting the Egyptian citizens from armed forces during the protests. In an opinion article of the New York Times, Sarah E. Bond warned for the application of such oppressive techniques and stated that it would be better to allow the Egyptian citizens to retain some memories of their former president. She argued that, as history has shown, “erasing the crimes of the past doesn’t help us avoid them in the future” (NY Times, May 14/2011).

fig. 1: A man walks past a monument of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, former president Anwar Sadat, Nobel Price winner Ahmed Zewail, and writer and Nobel Price winner Naguib Mahr. August 2 2011, Outskirts of Cario, Reuters.
fig. 2: Soviet Army Monument, (from top to bottom) February 23 2014, August 21 2013, June 17 2011, March 15 2012, Sofia, Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images.
fig. 3: A boy shows a defaced picture of Mubarak, January 30 2011, Cairo, Goran Tomasevic/Reuters.
fig. 4: Protesters take down a poster of Hosni Mubarak, January 2011, Alexandria, Reuters.
fig. 5: A portrait of former president Hosni Mubarak is being removed from the Cabinet Building, April 2011, Egypt, Associated Press.


  • Bente Kiilerich: Defacement and Replacement as Political Strategies in Ancient and Byzantine Ruler Images. In: Kristine Kolrud and Marina Prusac (eds.): Iconoclasm from Antiquity to Modernity. Ashgate 2014, pp. 57-73.
  • Charles W. Hedrick Jr: History and Silence: Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity. Austin: Univeristy of Texas Press 2000.
  • David Freedberg: Iconoclasts and their Motives. Maarssen: Gary Schwartz 1985.


About the Author:
Nele De Raedt is a PhD student in architecture, currently working on her dissertation project with the working title ‘Social codes and practices in relation to Renaissance architecture and architectural theory: the impact of the culture of honor on the literary and built form of the Renaissance palazzo’ under the supervision of prof. Maarten Delbeke.
Nele received her master’s degree of ‘Science in Engineering: Architecture – Architecture and Urban Design’ at Ghent University in July 2011. She wrote her master’s thesis on ‘City-Culture and Public Space in Rome: The Contrast between Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza Farnese’ during an Erasmus exchange at the Faculty of Architecture of Ludovico Quaroni and Valle Giulia in Rome (Università della Sapienza). Between October 2011 and 2012 she worked as an engineer-architect for the architecture office Urban Platform cvba in Brussels, Belgium. From November 2012 onwards, she has been working as an assistant at the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning of Ghent University, where she is active as a tutor in a variety of courses. From January 2015 to June 2016, Nele received a fellowship from the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut to perform her research activities in Italy. During this time, she was part of the research group on Ethics and Architecture, led by Hana Gründler and Brigitte Sölch with Alessandro Nova. As an active member of the European Architectural History Network, Nele works as the Editorial Assistant for Architectural Histories, the Open Access Journal of the EAHN. Her general research interests concern architectural history and theory, the italian renaissance, the culture of honor, practices of violence and 15th century palaces.

Reference / Quellennachweis:
Nele De Raedt: Defacing, in: Aesthetics of Resistance, Pictorial Glossary, The Nomos of Images, ISSN: 2366-9926, 3 December 2015, URL:

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