An Interview with Artist and Activist Bahia Shehab

By Erin Hayes

Bahia Shehab is a multidisciplinary artist, designer, political activist, and historian whose work focuses on the intersection of modern identity and ancient cultural heritage. Her imaginative combination of calligraphy and Islamic art history produced cutting edge, beautiful, impactful street art during the Arab Spring and continues to inform her work. She is also a professor of the practice of design and founder of the graphic design program at The American University in Cairo. Erin Hayes of the OMER editorial team spoke with Bahia on December 6 via Zoom. 

EH: You gave a Ted Talk in June 2012 about your project “A Thousand Times No.” Can you describe it and your inspiration for the project?
BS: I was invited to contribute to an exhibition commemorating 100 years of Islamic art in Europe, and for that exhibition, the curator asked that the artwork involve Arabic letters. This is what initiated the project, and then I thought of what I wanted to say on such a platform, and “A Thousand Times No” was for me the most interesting thing to say. I just wanted to say “no,” and so this is how the whole project started. 

EH: I understand that this then evolved into street interventions during the protests. Can you explain the transition from the curated exhibition to the interventions, and how what you were saying “no” to evolved?
BS: It was interesting to transpose a message that was designed to be displayed in a European exhibition into the streets of Cairo. During the revolution, I had this abstract thousand “no’s” that I wanted to express, things I was feeling we should say no to globally, and then suddenly there was this crisis at home and people went out on the streets. Honestly, the first nine months of the revolution I was just documenting; I was not involved on the street. But nine months into the revolution, after documenting everything and understanding the reality of what was unfolding, I decided to join. I started spraying  concrete “no’s” that were more relevant to what was happening on the streets in Cairo. No to barrier walls, no to snipers, no to bullets, no to killing, et cetera. The once abstract “no’s” that started in a white cube in Munich in Germany now became concrete, physical “no’s” on the streets of Cairo. 

EH: You also used a tag of a blue bra that became famous in this intervention. Can you describe what inspired this tag?
BS: For the blue bra, I was not the only artist honestly. There were literally tens of artists who directly went down to the streets to mark the event of a veiled woman being brutally beaten and stripped on the street. Mass demonstrations broke out after this event and many, many artists contributed and created reflections and graffiti and paintings and caricatures—all forms of artwork were created around the blue bra. But I think, in my work, I turned it into an icon. By removing the imagery of the woman and the men who were beating her on the street, and simplifying that into just a blue bra, I created an icon of that event. The bra became a symbol that summarized that event, and it was sprayed on the streets of Cairo to keep the memory of that event present in the city physically.

EH: What inspired you to simplify the imagery of the event and take out the human figures that were involved?
BS: Well, I’m a designer, and sometimes we need to make the message very clear. The most striking visual in that whole event was the fact that her blue bra was revealed. And, as an icon, the blue bra is really eye-catching. To me, I just wanted to grab the attention of people on the street, and this is why I simplified it. 

EH: You’ve also created a lot of art around the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish. Can you talk a little bit about what makes his poetry special to you?
BS: Yes, I also published a book on the topic. After coming out of the revolution and having to deal with the reality in which we were living, I turned to Mahmoud Darwish. To me, he is the Arab poet of resistance, and he summarizes this human experience of identity affected by the  loss of land, of colonization, of the dream of the homeland. It does not only relate to us in the Arabic-speaking world. It’s written in Arabic, but if it’s translated to any other language, anybody would be able to relate to this poetry. So I started painting his poems in different cities around the world. At first, it started as a public intervention, and then these walls became more and more organized and bigger in size, involving more of the community where they were painted, so I eventually decided to document them in a book. The book was published in 2019 by Gingko, and it’s called At the Corner of a Dream, which is the first poem I painted by Darwish. Although the book is titled At the Corner of a Dream, the stanza itself reads, “Stand at the corner of a dream and fight.” 

EH: Where was that first intervention painted? And how did you decide where the interventions would be?
BS: It was in Vancouver, Canada. As to the others, I didn’t actively decide, it’s honestly just all by chance. I would be in a place for a conference, and then at night I would take my stencils and I would spray them on the streets. I just used the city where I was; I connected with local street artists who knew the legal locations of the walls to paint and where the safe spaces to spray in the city were, and I took it from there. So it grew quite organically.

EH: Did you often collaborate with local artists during this intervention?
BS: In the beginning, it was not an official collaboration. But I really love the street art community, because in a city, you mark your space, so as an artist, you deal with a city differently. You physically deal with the city. You have your own streets, you memorize walls based on tags that you’ve done or tags that somebody has done over your work or work that you have. So it’s a constant dialogue. For me, connecting with these artists in the beginning was simply for understanding the city through their eyes. And when the work started evolving, I was then invited by bigger institutions to make my contribution. Then, the way you deal with the city becomes very interesting, because you are a visitor, you are painting in a foreign language, but you can still connect with the people on the street. They can tell you they hate it, they love it, they don’t understand it. To me, this live feedback is really precious.

EH: Do you have any interventions that were particularly memorable for you, either because of the poem or because of the feedback you received?
BS: Yes, of course. I like to point out Paris as an example, because I painted just one word on the corner of the Institut des Cultures d’Islam, and what was very interesting is that I had a few older French women pass by and angrily tell me, “Why are you painting Arabic here? Go paint it in your own country.” But then for every unhappy person, I would get around 10 people saying, “Bon courage,” “We love your colors,” “We love the message,” “This is very nice.” So it just depends which side you want to look at. To me, I would rather focus on the people who feel that the message is useful and relevant to them, rather than those who really hate it.

EH: You also teach at AUC (the American University in Cairo). What are some of the most important lessons that you try to convey to aspiring artists?
BS: I actually don’t teach art, I teach design. They’re two different disciplines. And to me, I think if I were to summarize the learning that I hope my students get from taking my classes, it would be critical thinking. I would of course love them to learn how to think as designers and think creatively, but they also must think critically, because if you don’t have a critical mind, you will not be able to change your reality. I’m also hoping that they will become agents of change.  Linking them to their locality, their heritage, their identity; these are also ideas that I hope they walk away with. But I think the most important lesson I would like them to learn is to dare to dream. That is a luxury that not many citizens around the world can afford, especially in oppressed societies. So I would like to think that I empower my students and give them the tools to realize they can do or accomplish anything they can dream of. 

EH: Do you have any students who have gone on to do interesting design work that you know of?
BS: Yes, of course. In the first class to graduate from the Graphic Design program, we had this amazing young student named Deena. She now goes by Deena Mohamed for safety. Deena created a character during the revolution that was called Qahera, a veiled superhero woman fighting crime on the street. This became very popular during the revolution. For her final project, I encouraged her to work on a comic, and this year, she published the comic that she started as a student as a trilogy. The three books are going to be translated and published by Penguin in the U.S. next year.

EH: Is there something you would want to convey to fans and audiences of your work outside of Egypt who might have either seen your interventions or read your book?
BS: I’m grateful that people actually follow my work. I don’t have time to process immediate attention, because there’s so much work to be done, whether in academia or the arts or in terms of driving for human rights in my part of the world and elsewhere. We have environmental issues that we all need to be concerned about. If I am to say anything to them, it would be to please care about something that you love, and if you can do something about it, no matter how small, please try. Because we all need to work together to create change on this planet. Without collective efforts, things will never change. If we all say, “This is none of my business,” then it will be nobody’s business, and we will just keep going downhill and damaging this planet we live on and overlooking human rights. If you care about people in other parts of the world who are suffering because of military endorsements by your government to their government, please pressure your government to stop supporting oppressive regimes. If you care about the environment, please do small things that will help us all save the environment. Look for something that you care about and support it, because without care, there’s no change.

EH: Are you working on anything right now that you are excited about or want to share?
BS: Yes, actually, I’m just releasing an announcement today. I’ve been working for a whole year on this artwork. It’s a 56-screen video installation. The curator approached me with a question on persuasion. I told her, “Okay, I can work on persuasion.” To me, the ultimate form of persuasion is when somebody convinces you to give up your life, so the title of the artwork is “What Would You Die For?” It’s a 20-minute video installation using 56 screens, and it deals with all the topics that people will die for, from extreme military recruitment and religious and political extremism on one end of the spectrum, all the way to mothers who would die for their children; nurses and doctors who put their lives on the front line for patients; policemen, firemen and women; all these groups of people who selflessly give up their lives to save another, versus those who give up their life for a certain propaganda or political agenda. It also tackles issues over what we are doing to the planet, what our relationships are with the cities that we are building, and how the forms of consumerism that we are adopting can be damaging. So, it’s what would you give up your life [for], from the individual mother-child connection to the big Mother Earth connection and everything in between. 

I’m also very proud to be one of the 25 artists with the Prince Claus Fund. I’m one of their laureates from 2016, so to celebrate their 25th anniversary, they invited 25 artists to contribute with a video that’s going to be live-streamed to the world in celebration on that day, which is in two days. So that is going out on December 8, and it will be on their website, but to me, it was a chance to pause and reflect on everything I have been doing  for the past few years and comment on it in general, on the state of art and where we are today. 

EH: Thank you very much for all of your insights!

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