Egyptian-Lebanese artist paints Darwish’s poetry on walls around the world

Like most of those engaged in street art, Bahia Shehab does not (always) ask for permission form the authorities for where or what she paints, resulting in having her work erased from the walls on which she drew them. 
Friday 18/10/2019
Lebanese-Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab poses for a photo at the Aga Khan Centre, London, September 26. (Mamoon Alabbasi)
Lebanese-Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab poses for a photo at the Aga Khan Centre, London, September 26. (Mamoon Alabbasi)

LONDON - Egyptian-Lebanese artist Bahia Shehab has been painting words of the much-celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) on walls of different cities around the world since late 2016. 

Like most of those engaged in street art, she does not (always) ask for permission from the authorities for where or what she paints, resulting in having her work (sometimes being) erased from the walls on which she drew them. 

Shehab is proud to have her street art in countries like Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Britain, Holland, the United States and Japan – among others. 

She took photos to document her work and in September published a book that showcases in pictures and in words the message from her journeys.   

“Darwish is seen by many as a poet on the side of the people, whatever their race and wherever they are,” she wrote in the introduction of her book, entitled “At the Corner of a Dream. A Journey of Resistance & Revolution: The Street Art of Bahia Shehab”. 

The book was launched at the Aga Khan Centre in London, where she gave a talk about her work, followed by an exhibition of some of her art as well as the screening of her five short films. 

“My message to fellow street-artists is don’t get caught,” Shehab told her London audience. She did have, however, a more upbeat observation about women in her field of art.  

“There are more female street artists in the Middle East but the perception is it’s still a men’s job … whenever passers-by see a man assisting me, they assume that he is the artist,” said Shehab, who is also professor of design and founder of the graphic design programme at The American University in Cairo.

Part of the motive behind publishing the book is her fear that “history is being erased” as her artwork gets painted over.  “I’m racing with time…I’m leaving these messages for the future, like a time-capsule.” 

For Shehab, her work is not just about the end product. “It’s not about art, it’s about the human connection that results from that art,” she said. “Sometimes I make the (Arabic) letters unreadable … that was by design so that people would come and ask.”  

The book is published by Gingko in association with Aga Khan University, Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC). 

“We were immediately struck by her charisma and her extraordinary art and scholarship,” said Charlotte Whiting, manager at the publications department at AKU-ISMC, in a reference to her first meeting with Shehab in 2018. 

Shehab’s art exhibition at the Aga Khan Centre will continue till January 2020. “We’re looking forward to a range of follow-up events themed around her work throughout the rest of 2019,” said Whiting. 

The Arab Weekly caught up with Shehab following the launch of her book. 

-The Arab Weekly (TAW): You're identified yourself Egyptian-Lebanese, could you expand on that? 

-Shehab: I was born and raised in Lebanon and I’ve been living the past fifteen years in Egypt. I really do not identify with either nation. These are colonial borders that were drawn by colonial powers. They do not represent me as a human being. I don’t identify as either Lebanese or Egyptian, I identify as both, actually. I identify as a woman from the Arab world. To me, I belong to the whole of the Arab world – from Morocco to Iraq. This is my geographical belonging physically but ideally I belong to this planet. I consider myself a global citizen and I belong to planet Earth. 

-TAW: When was the first time you painted and when was the last?

-Shehab: I started in November 2011 after the Mohammed Mahmoud events in Cairo. None of what I have painted in the streets of Cairo is there anymore, it has all been erased. The last time I painted in Cairo was in June 2013. The last thing I painted was in August in Lincoln (Britain). 

-TAW: You made a lovely comment: “It’s not about art, it’s about the human connection that results from that art.” Any examples that you’d care to mention? 

-Shehab: In Lincoln, I had 40 volunteers [the majority of whom were women] help me paint a 30-meter wall in a town in the north of the United Kingdom. When I was thanking two Palestinian women for joining me as volunteers in Lincoln, their reply was so beautiful. They said "we’d do anything for Darwish". I was moved because to me that’s what it’s all about. It’s about sharing the love that we have for our culture. To understand the value and the meaning of poetry; the richness, the struggle, the dialogue that needs to take place. The artwork is a chance for us to talk, it’s a way for us to build a bridge.

-TAW: How was your art met or understood by Westerners?

-Shehab: How it’s received in the Western world is how it’s received in any part of the world; some detest it and would like to take it down, while some embrace it and are willing to have a conversation. Others just completely ignore it as if it doesn’t exist, they just go about their day. For example, in Paris I had more than one rude comment, like ‘why don’t you go write Arabic in your own country?’ But for that, I would get ten people saying "Bonne courage", "thank you for doing what you’re doing", "it is lovely", and "we love what you’re doing". So it really depends on what you want to focus on. You can focus on the negative and say "Oh, they hate us. They’re terrible, they’re all bad" or you can say "there is good everywhere". 

-TAW: You referred to your artwork as a time-capsule for future generations to know about our history. Other than your exhibitions and your latest book – which showcase some examples of your work – have you thought of having a public digital archive for your street art? 

-Shehab: There is a plan to have my work available online but I wanted to get the book out first. In terms of documenting the process, ideally I should have a website but I really don’t trust websites (because websites can be blocked). So even if my aim is more accessibility, I might not always get what I want. But hopefully in the future I will have everything available online. 

A copy Bahia Shehab’s book “At the Corner of a Dream” is displayed, London. (Mamoon Alabbasi)
A copy Bahia Shehab’s book “At the Corner of a Dream” is displayed, London. (Mamoon Alabbasi)
Lebanese-Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab speaks at the Aga Khan Centre, London, September 26. (Mamoon Alabbasi)
Works of Lebanese-Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab are seen exhibited at the Aga Khan Centre, London, September 26. (Mamoon Alabbasi)
Works of Lebanese-Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab are seen exhibited at the Aga Khan Centre, London, September 26. (Mamoon Alabbasi)
Works of Lebanese-Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab are seen exhibited at the Aga Khan Centre, London, September 26. (Mamoon Alabbasi)
Works of Lebanese-Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab are seen exhibited at the Aga Khan Centre, London, September 26. (Mamoon Alabbasi)
Works of Lebanese-Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab are seen exhibited at the Aga Khan Centre, London, September 26. (Mamoon Alabbasi)
Lebanese-Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab poses for a photo at the Aga Khan Centre, London, September 26. (Mamoon Alabbasi)