Book review: At the Corner of a dream. A Journey of Resistance and Revolution: The Street Art of Bahia Shehab

In the past year there were fewer opportunities to see art in person, but there was more time to catch up with books. So here is my review of the exceptional art book by the Egyptian artist, designer, activist and art historian Bahia Shehab. Beautifully written and presented, At the Corner of a dream. A Journey of Resistance & Revolution: The Street Art of Bahia Shehab, was a welcome addition to my bookshelf.

At the corner of a dream by Bahia Shehab – book cover

Bahia Shehab’s art activism journey began with the revolution and oppression and turned into a story of resistance and hope. 2021 marks ten years since the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, a part of the so-called Arab Spring. During the mass protests Shehab took to the streets of Cairo and started to paint on the walls of the city. Repeating a single word لا meaning ‘no’ in Arabic the artist voiced her protest all over Cairo. By 2015 Shehab became disillusioned with the reality of post-revolution Egypt and decided to stop painting there. Instead, she made various cities of the world her canvas. 

Cairo from the book At the Corner of a dream. A Journey of Resistance & Revolution: The Street Art of Bahia Shehab (p.8-9)

In the introduction the artist said: 

I saw the dream of equality, freedom and human generosity and creativity unfold and manifest itself in Tahrir Square. During these fleeting moments of freedom, I found my role and life’s mission within this monumental and historic event. […] I became a street artist on the streets of Cairo. My role would be to visualise the voice of the Revolution. That is how I came to paint dreams on the walls of cities. [p.6]

Shehab’s street art projects after 2015 were based on quotes from the acclaimed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008). These works feature single verses from Darwish’s poems and are often placed in the most unassuming places. Each of the designs was meticulously planned and involved local participants. Every chapter of the book takes the reader to a different city, including Vancouver, Marrakesh and Tokyo. Photographs of the artworks are accompanied by the story of how they came to be and people’s reactions to them. In some instances those pieces of writing in Arabic were met with apprehension or even hostility, in other places they were welcomed as an interesting and poignant addition to the local street art scene. On the Greek island of Cephalonia the artist painted a tribute to people who fled war zones (‘Those who have no land have no sea’, p. 47, fragment of artwork on the book cover), and on a wall in Marrakesh she put Darwish’s line ‘We love life – if only we had access to it’ (p.31)

‘We love life – if only we had access to it’, artwork by Bahia Shehab painted in Marrakesh, 2016 (p.31-33)

Shehab’s designs are inspired by classical Arabic art of calligraphy, but are given a modern twist. The book documents the creative process, several planning stages and, in a sense, the life cycle of the artworks. Some of them, like the suitcases in Beirut (‘My country is not a suitcase’, p.51-53) were later destroyed, hence the photographs in the book became the record of the lost paintings. Placing fragments of poems in unexpected locations gave Darwish’s words new context. This shows just how versatile and relatable both the artworks and the original poems are.

My country is not a suitcase, painted in Beirut in 2016 by Bahia Shehab. After a line from Mahmoud Darwish’s 1969 poem Yawmiyyat Jurh Filastini (Diary of a Palestinian Wound). On the right photograph taken after the artwork was destroyed. (p.51-53)
‘On this earth there are things worth living for’ artwork by Bahia Shehab, painted in Tokyo, 2016, (p. 42-45). 

Here is another brilliant quote from the book:

I was willing to die on the streets of Cairo. I am no longer willing to die. I want to live to see the change we set in motion. I want to live to see dictators die. I want to live to tell humanity that we dreamt of a better world – and that world exists because we have tasted it. […] (p.93)

Beautiful and thought-provoking book. 

At the Corner of a dream. A Journey of Resistance & Revolution: The Street Art of Bahia Shehab. 

Author: Bahia Shehab

Format: Paperback

Published: September 2019 by Gingko

ISBN: 9781909942394

All quotes from the book At the Corner of a dream. A Journey of Resistance & Revolution: The Street Art of Bahia Shehab. Page numbers are stated next to corresponding quotes. 

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