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.
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.
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)
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.
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
Published: September 2019 by Gingko
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.