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
Revolutionary road signs: ‘Crush Flower’ by Bahia Shehab
Revolutionary road signs: ‘Rebel Cat’ by Bahia Shehab
Revolutionary road signs: detail of ‘A thousand times No’ by Bahia Shehab
Revolutionary road signs: street artist Bahia Shehab. Photograph: Bernhard Ludewig
Revolutionary road signs: some elements of the No campaign by Bahia Shehab
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.
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.”