During the 2011 Egyptian revolution Bahia Shehab sprayed “no” in Arabic 1,000 times on the walls of downtown Cairo. No to dictators, no to military rule, no to violence.
One of her stencil drawings is a blue bra, it stands for no to stripping people, in memory of the protester who was dragged by soldiers from Tahrir Square during the uprising. As they beat her, her abaya fell away from her body and the image ignited global outrage.
“The blue bra is to remind us of our shame,” Shehab has said in a TED talk that received over a million views.
Lebanese-Egyptian Bahia Shehab is a design professor and founder of the graphic design programme at the American University in Cairo. She was the first woman from the Arab region to receive the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture.
Her work, now on display at the Aga Khan Centre Gallery in Kings Cross, is a series of short films shot in Cairo, New York, Beirut, Marrakesh and on the Greek island of Cephalonia, played on a loop across four screens in a circular chamber.
One of the films follows Shehab across the five screens as she sprays her 1,000 noes – in fact each of the films is inspired by murals the artist has painted and each responds to a political issue in the five countries.
In another film a body floats in a large Olympic swimming pool alongside life jackets, evoking Shehab’s mural at a swimming pool in Cephalonia where Olympic hopefuls train.
In her book “At the Corner of a Dream”, which was commissioned by the AKU-ISMC and coincides with the exhibition, Shehab describes a conversation she had with one of the swimmers who was training at the pool.
“I drew a sad parallel between him and the Syrian and African refugees who were drowning at sea every day just behind the walls where others were swimming to compete and become role models for the world.”
In letters designed to look like small sail boats Shehab sprayed “those who have no land have no sea”, a line from the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who inspired a lot of her work and features in each of her murals.
Shehab says she wants to take a message of resistance to walls around the world – who better to help her than Darwish, who spent his life writing poetry about the Israeli occupation.
“I was exposed to Mahmoud Darwish’s work when I was a young girl growing up in Lebanon. His poetry was sung and recited by many artists,” Shehab tells me.
“I became interested in Mahmoud Darwish after the Egyptian revolution and because I always resort to poetry. His work resonated with me because I feel like he dealt with a lot of the issues that we are dealing with in the Arab world today but also humanity at large.”
Shehab thinks Darwish would have been inspired by the Arab Spring:
“I know many artists from different parts of the Arab world who were moved by the revolutions and the uprisings and inspired to make paintings and music and more poetry, so I think Darwish would have created more poems for us to read.”
Another of Shehab’s featured films follows a wedding in four different settings in Cairo’s Hataba neighbourhood. On the first the bride and groom ride on a tuk-tuk; on the second they sit on large red chairs in front of a butcher, in the third inside a destroyed house and finally on thrones with the city of the dead behind them.
The film contrasts hope with despair, freedom with human suffering. It’s called “We Love Life” from the Darwish stanza, “we love life if only we have access to it.” In her book, Shehab writes that the poem reflects the state of mind of Arabs at the time.
“The poem highlights the lack of opportunities available to Arab youth and, at the same time, the abundance of life force. Statistics show that 40 per cent of the Egyptian population is under 18.”
“They are the future personified, a generation that loves life but due to the current political situation will struggle to access it fully. Connecting with the energy of Arab youth in Morocco was the most significant part of this experience. It confirmed that the hope for change is everywhere.”
For Shehab, ideas cannot be killed and humankind is united in the struggle against oppression and dictatorship.
“I hope that my work at the Aga Khan [Centre] will help visitors reflect on injustice in different parts of the world, not just my part of the world, and would also help them bridge the humanity between us and bridge the idea that the struggle is everywhere,” she says.
We’re all struggling on this planet and this should bring us closer, not further apart, it should not be used to build walls but rather to build bridges and help us to understand each other better.
With so many projects across the world, which is Shehab’s favourite? “This is a difficult question because it’s asking me to choose between all of my children. I don’t think I can choose because each wall has a story and a community and people who related to it.”
But she admits that “A Thousand Times No” was the turning point in her career, her political interests and her outlook on life in general. During the 2011 revolution Shehab took her daughters with her to watch her spraying it in downtown Cairo, because she was doing it for them.
“I hope my daughters can tell the story to their children that there was an uprising, that people tried to stand up for human dignity,” she says. “That’s the whole point, that the memory is preserved and the story is retold. I just hope that they will share the story with their children and that their children will keep talking about it.”
Bahia Shehab: At the Corner of a Dream is on view at the Aga Khan Centre Gallery, London, until 5 January 2020