Street Art and Graffiti started out as illegal and a way of self expression until it became more accepted and people started seeing its potential transformative power. We have seen this evolution from small casually organized graffiti jams to full blown international festivals, where both organizers and artists benefited from it one way or another. But then we have seen a massive shift as more commercial interests, layered in politics came into play.
Some street artists were taken advantage of by organizers, and I have heard stories, but these stories pale in comparison to what happened to Mohamed L’Ghacham in Odessa, Ukraine.
This is his story:
“I am Mohamed L’Ghacham, muralist from Barcelona. A couple of weeks ago, Geo Leros, an art curator of mural projects in Ukraine sent me an e-mail in which he invited me to paint in this country. His proposal was for me to paint two murals during my stay in Ukraine. After agreeing on terms and dates, I received another e-mail with pictures of 20 different walls in a city called Odessa, from which I chose the two walls that I was most interested in. A few days before traveling, he decided to ignore my preferences and decided for himself which walls I would be painting. In this e-mail, he sent me pictures of the walls that he had chosen: one of the walls was 3 floors tall, and the other one was 11 floors tall. He also suggested that one of the murals could be related to music, as one of the walls belongs to an institution related to music. This was only a suggestion and he never stated this was an indispensable condition. I agreed on the walls he had chosen, as I thought they were affordable-sized walls that I would be able to finish during my stay. After this, I said I would like to bring an assistant, and he answered “of course”.
The day I arrived to Ukraine, Geo came to see me and asked me to see the project I intended to paint. He insisted on the fact that one of the walls belonged to a music academy and -for the first time- he demanded that the wall had to be related to music. I didn’t see any problem in referencing music on the project I previously planned, so I agreed. Big Mistake. In general, I enjoy contextualizing what I paint, as long as I have the freedom to decide about it. Geo gave me some money for food & expenses and left. As days went by, all I saw was problems. Some electric cables prevented the crane from reaching the entire wall, so handling the crane was complicated, dangerous and made the process slower and slower. I let Geo know my complaints, and demanded a solution, since he was the responsible of this project. After some days I wasn’t seeing any solution on the way from the curators of the project. Geo kept on repeating that he was only the curator, and that he works and lives in Kiev (a city 500km away from where I am), and that it’s the people in Odessa who should take responsibility on finding solutions to the problems I have.
After five days wasting my time, fighting to solve the problems I kept on finding, I decided to make some changes in my project in order to adapt myself and find solutions. At this point, I knew I wouldn’t be able to paint both murals in time, so I decided to finish the “small” one in the best way I could. Then Geo contacted me to “remind” me I was there to paint two murals and asked me to confirm if I had any intentions on adding something “music related” to my project (so now he starts acting like he actually is the responsible of the project). This is when I found out that Geo had agreed (before I did) with some “high ranks” of the city that the mural would be mandatorily related to music and that I had to paint two murals, and there was no way that could change. After this, I decided to quit the project, so I demand Geo to bring forward our flights asap. He answered that there was no way he could do that, and that if I left, there would be problems. Basically, I can’t leave the country until I finish at least the mural I’m currently working on. I required to speak to Helen (the maximum responsible of the project in Odessa, although I never got to meet her in person), and he said that she was coming soon to see the mural. After a few hours, I found out that she wasn’t even in the same city. After being disrespected and arguing with Geo and hearing him lie, I decided not to keep in touch with him and I tried to talk directly to the only reliable source I have in Odessa.
During all my stay, Geo never showed any type of interest regarding my safety or my assistant’s safety. He didn’t solve any of the problems I found, and I believe his only interest was to be on good terms with the “high ranks” of the city, to whom he had promised two murals to add to their curator projects. During all my stay he kept on joking and laughing at my struggles, and put all the blame on the workers in Odessa for not fulfilling the minimum conditions for making the mural possible (which was his responsibility).
Two days before my deadline, Geo send me a message that says I have not complied with the agreed treatment and add this “You fucked totally, I returned your tickets, and we don’t pay for hotel. Tomorrow i will send to all blogs with screen shots, what’s happening with u. Bye ” I can not leave here until I paint the mural. Seeing this and after trying to talk to the organizers of Odessa, which finally do have the same sense as Geo, we decided to leave on by our own of this country.
These last days we have felt “abducted”. In my opinion, our rights of freedom and decision about our immediate future have been violated. Everything I write here can prove it.
This year I’ve been lucky enough to be able to paint and exhibit in a lot of different countries and I’ve never had any problems with any curator or festival. The only thing I demand is to have the minimum safety conditions to work and to receive respect, for me and my work. With this being said, I want to apology to Alba Trench for getting her into this mess. Also many thanks to Sergey and Oleg for being the most incredible crane drivers I’ve ever met. And also thanks to Sam for making this stay way more bearable. To all my muralist friends who have been helping me these days to try to solve this and first of all Aryz for getting so involved in reassuring me and helping us to get out of here.
A curator should know his limits and understand that his job only exists because we make it possible. When you contact an artist in order to work with him, you’re supposed to do it because you are interested in his work and you have respect for it, not just as a chance to benefit from it.
At the end we live on our reputation and yours has been rotten for years.“ – Mohamed L’Ghacham.
I am learning that many artists that dealt with Geo Leros share similar sentiments as Mohamed and they are supporting him privately.