AT THE CORNER OF A DREAM
A Journey of Resistance & Revolution: The Street Art of Bahia Shehab
Review by Sanaa Alimia, AKU-ISMC.
In the aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution “Outspoken activists… once symbols of the Revolution are either dead, imprisoned or in exile,” but At the Corner of a Dream is an artist’s refusal to forget, be silenced, or give up hope. With visuals and narration, the book itself is there “for the record”—a reminder for those who had dared to dream and live “brief moments of freedom” that the days of the Arab Spring were real. The book takes its title from a line by the giant of Palestinian resistance poetry, Mahmoud Darwish, who is ever present in Shehab’s work. The street art collected in this book is the artist’s response to Darwish, and that of a generation with her, We have heard your call, we will continue to fight.
Shehab’s second publication documents her street art, which starts in Cairo and moves to different cities in the world: Vancouver, New York, Madison, Marrakesh, Istanbul, Cephalonia, Beirut, Stavanger, Tokyo, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Honolulu, and Tunis.
In the writings and images from Cairo we are taken on a journey of the political awakening of an artist, educator, a woman, a mother, and a child of the Lebanese civil war (to name but some of the ways she describes herself), who finds her voice with the spray can. Her previous acclaimed work, “A Thousand Times No”, was a more institutional endeavour. Mapping the chronological evolution of one Arabic letterform – the lam-alif (“La”/ “No” in Arabic) – into a brilliant visual display, Shehab’s work was more for the gallery than the street. 2011 changes this. Shehab redirects her work, unintentionally at first, to become an intervention in public space, especially the wall. Capturing the sentiments of the people at the time, “La”/ “No” starts to appear across city walls and is accompanied with messages relevant to the moment: “No to Military Rule”; “No to Separation Walls”; “No to a New Pharaoh.”
Shehab’s commentary on this period takes a reflective, autoethnographic tone. Without hiding behind academic jargon, we get an insight into how social movements are as much about political demands as they are about emotions, sensory experiences, and known and unknown networks coming together to produce a common pulse. In one part of the text, Shehab describes how artists communicated with each other on the walls through their art. Through this, space and the city is transformed: it is alive. The images she shares of her street art are powerful for this reason. We see her work and that of other artists occupying a wall. In one photographic still, we see a police man sitting on a bench with different artists’ graffiti behind him, including Shehab’s “La” collection. In the next image the police man, who has seen the photographer’s gaze, is staring into the lens, motioning with his hand, “La.”
The book continues with Shehab’s journey outside of Egypt. In different cities of the world, in collaboration with friends, strangers, family, and other artists, she continues to use the wall to display her art. As she does in Cairo, Shehab’s work uses stylised typographic and calligraphic forms of the Arabic script and poetry, usually Darwish, to deliver a message. Shehab doesn’t go into too many details, but tells the reader that it is difficult to “adapt the Arabic script in the digital world for use in modern visual communication”; as such Arabic is often associated with history and tradition. In each of her works we see Shehab pushing the boundaries of how the Arabic script can be shown to challenge these associations. In Beirut, Darwish’s line, “my country is not a suitcase” appears on an illegal concrete structure in Arabic script in the shape of suitcases. In Tokyo, Darwish’s line, “On this earth there are things worth living for” appears in a script based on circles.
Meanwhile the poetry she uses speaks to the city in which she is. Whilst the echoes of Egypt follow her everywhere, her work is not an ode to the Egyptian people’s revolution. Rather her curation of single lines of poetry from Darwish, and on one occasion another Palestinian poet, Muin Bseiso, is done for the people in whose cities she is making her art. Yet throughout these different cities one underlying message comes through: to find the connections amongst each other and build a better world.
At the Corner of a Dream is this artist’s intervention to not lose hope.
In association with our co-publishers Gingko, we’re delighted to offer Bahia Shehab’s At the Corner of a Dream at 50% discount for a week – free shipping included. Please enter code AKU20 at check-out: https://www.gingko.org.uk/title/at-the-corner-of-a-dream/
Offer ends on 6 December.