Revolutionary art: the writing on the wall

Thousands of Egyptians will protest tomorrow to mark the anniversary of President Morsi’s first year in power. The street art of Bahia Shehab has played an unlikely role in the revolution


On the walls of Cairo a dialogue is taking place. Street artists paint radical messages and images, reactionary forces erase them, then the artists return and paint again. “It’s lovely because we have reclaimed the city and every wall has a story,” says Bahia Shehab, an Islamic art historian, an artist and, since the revolution, a street artist. “We have an emotional affinity with the walls. They become ours. The moment you spray a wall you start feeling it belongs to you.”

Three years ago Shehab created a large curtain of Plexiglas for an exhibition in Munich. It featured 1,000 iterations of the Arabic letter for “no”, sourced from historical calligraphy. Since then she has taken these historical nos to the streets, stencilling them alongside politically charged images and slogans referencing current events. For example, after an incident in which a veiled woman was stripped and beaten by security forces, she sprayed an image of a blue bra, accompanied by the words “No to stripping”, across the city. Later, when an activist was blinded by a sniper, she created a stencil declaring “No to blinding”. She has created many more stencils since then.

Shehab spoke at a recent conference on civic engagement organised by the Irish Development Education Association. In advance of that talk, I spoke to her on Skype. A softly and deliberately spoken lecturer, she’s an unlikely graffiti artist. Our chat is punctuated by the sounds of Cairo traffic and interruptions from her youngest daughter, home sick from school. “I have a little cat here today,” Shehab says with a laugh, when distracted by another off-screen whisper.

Not politicised
Before the revolution Shehab was not particularly politicised, although she grew up in war-torn Lebanon. “It was very clear that belonging to political parties in a civil war was something you could easily get assassinated for, so [being politically aligned] wasn’t something that was encouraged in my family . . . although my father was very attentive to the Egyptian leader Abdel Nasser. ”

Shehab studied graphic design in Beirut – “I studied design because art does not make a living in the Arab world,” she says – before working in Dubai and pursuing a master’s degree in Cairo. There she studied Arabic script under the tutelage of a Cairo-based Belfast man, Bernard O’Kane. She has lived in Cairo for more than a decade.

“The first political statement I made was the A Thousand Times No installation. It said very simply that I was rejecting everything by showing how rich and varied [Arab] history is. I was taking one letter, which means ‘No’, out of its context and showing 1,000 different interpretations of it. That was the big statement. It was using history as a statement about the current state of things.”

When the revolution started Shehab was initially slow to respond. Her first outburst of street art didn’t occur until nine months after Hosni Mubarak’s regime ended, in February 2011. “It took us a lot of time to grasp [the revolution]. I tried within my circle of influence to help. I gave my students projects about the revolution. I had them design logos and posters. I started writing about the revolution . . . [After the resignation of Mubarak] we thought the revolution had succeeded and that now we just had to build the country, but nine months later we realised that that was just an illusion. It was in our heads only because all the government apparatuses were still there; the corruption was still there. I had been exposed to brutality [since the] revolution, but I kept ignoring it as labour pains or leftovers that were not concrete or important. But after the army came and started beating up protesters, I realised it was time to get out of our comfort zone and get out on the street.”

She took a simple A3-size stencil declaring “No to military rule” and sprayed it in Tahrir Square. “It was broad daylight surrounded by a million people – the safest place to be.”

Since then the work has become more ambitious. Last weekend, with the help of two volunteers, she debuted an image of a man’s brain made up of naked female bodies. A recent campaign is against sexual harassment on the streets. One of her works is a feminisation of the Arabic word for rebellion. “In Arabic the word for rebellion is written in the masculine, so I’m feminising it. I’m asking the women to rebel. I’m also using a very sexual connotation. When men holler at a woman on the street they sometimes call her a cat, so my stencil reads ‘Rebel Cat’.”

In some ways her work is journalistic. “It’s like a caricature on events, but not on paper. I comment live on the street. It’s never art for art’s sake. There’s always a message. The placement is always important, because it’s part of the message. The place decides many factors, including the speed at which you have to spray. If it’s near an embassy or a police station you can get caught quickly, so you have to work quickly.”

She laughs. “Last weekend someone vandalised my work while I was spraying it. They chased me away and they vandalised it with my own spray can. That was very painful . . . You can mark the revolution-friendly areas from the revolution-hostile areas by how soon your work gets covered up. There are areas in Cairo where people celebrate it as a memory of the revolution and there are areas where the work is covered directly.”

Police tolerance
Shehab says street artists support each other. When another emerging street artist’s work was partially erased, she went to the spot and surrounded the space with her own stencils. “There are these ongoing conversations,” she says.

So far the police have been relatively tolerant of street artists. “This weekend a police car stopped for the first time. I think it was because I had a German film crew with me. They said, ‘Art is fine, camera is a problem.’ One of the policemen even helped me to spray. I told them I was working on a sexual-harassment campaign. I said, ‘Would you like that to happen to your mother or sister?’ . . . They don’t think we’re dangerous.”

Others have not been tolerated. “We’ve had one journalist killed by a bullet in the street because he wrote an article about the current president and corruption, and we’ve had another activist who managed an online page against the government [who was] drowned in his car . . . I try not to think about these things . . . What is important is the final aim, which is that we stabilise the country and we turn it into what we want it to be.”

She worries about state reprisals for a protest planned for tomorrow, to mark the first year in power of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Shehab is not aligned with any political party and works alone, but her work can be found adorning the Facebook profiles of a generation of young Egyptian activists, particularly young women.

Shehab is modest about her influence. “Doctors can heal and lawyers can get [activists] out of prison. As an artist my only tool is art so, as stupid and superficial as it might be, I just want to contribute.”

She thinks we should all contribute, that top-down solutions are for another era. “As citizens of the world we should be the source of change; we should never wait. However small, even if it’s only cleaning your backyard, be the centre of change and don’t wait for change to come to you.”