Eric Block

Bahia Shehab: At the Corner of a Dream
at the Aga Khan Centre Gallery

The acclaimed Egyptian-Lebanese artist, designer, educator and street art activist Bahia Shehab’s work first came to global attention when she played an active role in the Arab Spring in 2011. Shehab used calligraffiti stencil works which she sourced from words written on mosques, plates, textiles, pottery and books from various countries, and spray painted the Arabic saying, ‘No and a thousand times no’ across Cairo. The artist used this series as an act of protest against the injustices that were perpetrated in the world before the revolution (a TED talk she gave on this work has been viewed over a million times).   

Her first solo show in the UK, which launches the new Aga Khan Centre Gallery in King’s Cross, London, is entitled At the Corner of a Dream, and features five digital artworks inspired by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), that are based on poetry murals that she wrote across Cairo, New York, Beirut and Marrakech, as well as the Greek island of Cephalonia. Shehab began writing these poetry murals after the uprising in 2011 and aims to tell the world that ideas cannot be killed and that humankind is united in its struggle against oppression and dictatorship. Wherever a mural is painted, they act as a meeting point and conversation starter prompting passers-by how they can tackle injustice in their own country.   

The exhibition launch also sees the publication of a new book, At the Corner of a Dream. A Journey of Resistance & Revolution: The Street Art of Bahia Shehab, which documents Shehab’s striking new work and tells the stories of the people she met along the way. We caught up with Bahia to hear more.   

The five films in At The Corner of a Dream are shot in four different cities and one Greek island. Is travel and essential part of your artistic practice?  

The five films in At the Corner of a Dream are shot in four different cities and one Greek island – they were all actually shot in Cairo, but they represent walls that I painted in the four different cities and the island. But the poems were painted in different cities and I have painted fifteen poems in fifteen different cities so far around the world and for me my theme is always a global message of us coming together through poetry. I use Arabic culture as a platform for me to express these views in different cities around the world.  

Your work is deeply inspired by the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish – how did you first come across his work?

I think my first interaction, the first time I came across Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry was when I was growing up in Lebanon, a lot of the musicians sang his poems and he was present in all of the libraries. So as a young girl growing in civil war Lebanon Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry was all around me.  

A Thousand Times No had an incredible impact during the Arab Spring. Do people ever share their feelings about what it meant to them? 

It was my first political work and it was quite well received. People used it and to me the most important part is that the messages that were sprayed using the concept of A Thousand Times No on the streets in Cairo during the Egyptian uprising were shared online and that made them relevant and to me that is the whole point. 

You are showing at the Aga Khan Centre’s new gallery. How did the exhibition come about?  

Because this is the launch of their exhibition space and due to the book launch, they invited me to also exhibit in their space. In collaboration with Alexandra Khan, Charlotte Whiting and Esen Kaya, who is the curator of the exhibition, we decided to reflect on the book itself in a medium that is suitable for the space there, which is a 360-degree screen, and this is how the whole idea developed. It started from the book and the different poetry walls that are documented in the book and then we came up with a film idea. 

Along with your artistic practice you are a designer, historian, creative director and educator– how do you balance these differing activities and do they influence your art works?  

To me, they are all different channels, but I am almost saying the same message. Because as a designer, as a historian, as an educator and as an artist, it is saying the same message in different mediums. It’s not a matter of balancing, to me the mediums compliment each other by giving me different platforms to communicate with different people in different parts of the world but even within my community, I feel that these are just channels of communication.  

The work you created at Lincoln University recently is very impressive – how does your commissioned work sit with your practice as a calligraffiti artist?  

I still have my street interventions, but I also collaborate with different curators to create more permanent works of art. So again, these are two ways to talk to different audiences. Street art is fast and it’s an intervention – it’s not always planned, you never know where you are going to spray it – while a mural is planned and discussed and designed and worked on with a curator, it lives sometimes longer than a street intervention that is usually maybe sometimes erased. So again, these are two different channels talking to different people in different ways.  

The launch of your show also sees the launch of a new book – can you tell us more? 

The book is entitled At the Corner of a Dream and this is due to the first stanza I ever painted outside of Cairo in Vancouver, Canada; it reads ‘Stand at the corner of a dream and fight’. All of the walls that I have painted so far had stories of the communities that I have interacted with and to me it was very important to not just document the walls, because some of them have already disappeared, but to document the process and to document the interactions that I have had with different people in different cities. So, you can call it a kind of a travel book and a documentation of an artistic practice that doesn’t always survive for different reasons.

Some of these walls were not planned, some of them were, some of them were in institutions, some of them were just on the go. I would be visiting the city quickly and I would go out at night and paint something fast. So it’s a way for me to preserve the memory of these walls because they would not exist if I don’t publish them in a book. The stories would be dispersed all around the world. But also, the story of how you deal with moving on after the revolution. What was my solution to dealing with the trauma of having to live again in a political system that does not reflect our ideals when the uprising started in 2011?

The work for me is important as a historical documentation and evidence of what I did as a practice after the revolution. It’s a reflection of our humanity and how important it is for us to connect but also to illustrate that we are the same in all the cities around the world, we share this humanity, we have the same concerns, we have the same fears and I think we should use that to bring us closer to each other and not further apart, not make that fear build more borders and more walls between us but rather more bridges. 

Interview by Eric Block.

Bahia Shehab: At the Corner of a Dream is on view at the Aga Khan Centre Gallery from 27 September 2019 – 5 January 2020. The book is available here

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