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Between the street and the gallery: Egypt artist's interventions in Germany

Egyptian visual artist Bahia Shehab says no a thousand times to those who pass by the Wiwili bridge Freiburg, Germany. Her work is also exhibited at the city's Gallery E-WERK

Dalia Basiouny, Tuesday 2 Jun 2015
Bahia Shehab
Bahia Shehab's artwork in Freiburg (Photo: courtesy of the artist)
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The figure sneaking out of the house quietly with the first light, making its way to a spot under a bridge with its weapon of choice: cans of paint and stencils, looks very different from the immaculately dressed university professor, who not only teaches graphic design but who started a new program hoping to graduate a generation of designers who could change the face of the city.

Welcome to the world of Bahia Shehab: visionary, street artist, designer, historian, educator, and mother.

This week Shehab is back with her favorite art artillery in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany. Gallery E-WERK is hosting a retrospective of her work, where she presents street interventions and art- work starting with her famous “NO” campaign, the “Azaan” installation, in addition to a new piece titled “12.2.2011”.

Shehab is part of the fascinating breed of artists who prefer the streets to the galleries. Her work bridges many worlds, not just streets and galleries, but also east and west, ancient and modern, artistic and revolutionary.

She studied Islamic art and believes that our ancestors lived their lives surrounded by beauty; in the books they read, the bowls they ate from, as well as their carpets, their lanterns, and the mosques where they prayed.

“We used to be surrounded by beauty, now our cities are ugly. They are becoming complete monsters. We need to have beauty back into our everyday life, not just every gallery,” Bahia Shehab told Ahram Online

A Thousand Times No

In Freiburg, Germany the artist recreates the campaign she started in the streets of Cairo in 2011. This time within an international framework; she comments on the latest developments worldwide and the anti-Islamic discourse that spread in Germany. The 50,000 people who cross the Wiwili bridge daily see sprayed graffiti from the No campaign such as: “No to Racism”, “No to Violence”, “No to Bloodshed", “No to Killing”.

As this is in Arabic, there is a QR Code sprayed as well. When passers-by scan the code it links them to a website to read more on the art and the story of each “NO”, in addition to information on the rest of the exhibition at Gallery E-WERK.

The “No” project was born in 2010, when Shehab was invited to participate in commemorating 100 years of Islamic Art in a Munich exhibition, using Arabic script.

“This was a major art forum. If I had one message to send, what would it be?” Shehab said. “In Arabic when we want to stress our refusal, we say “No, and a thousand times no!”

She researched Arabic calligraphy, found one thousand different “Lam-Alif” (No) formations and documented them in book “A Thousand Times No: The Visual History of the Lam-Alif”, in addition she created a 7x3.5 meter installation with the various formations of the “No” throughout Islamic history.

During the Egyptian revolution, Bahia was documenting the events as a historian. “When the violence escalated in Mohamed Mahmoud, in November, I didn’t want to be a historian anymore. Seeing the bodies piled up, I felt I needed to be on the street. Doctors and nurses were helping, lawyers were helping. I only know how to be an artist.”

Shehab was moved to spray her No’s on walls around the streets of Cairo, in conjunction with political statements such as “No to dictatorship”, “No to violence”, “No to military rule”, and “No to undressing the nation.”

Today, displaying her work in Freiburg, it is interesting to see Bahia’s art intervention on a bridge, where she not only connects worlds but she also challenges them. She writes in her No book: “When you want to refuse to be an imitator or follower of the west, yet you also refuse the regressive interpretation of your heritage, a thousand no’s are not enough.”

The bridge itself is not without significance. Pride of Freiburg, the bridge was erected in the 1870s, and for long it was known as Kaiser Wilhelm bridge. Today leading over the railway, the bridge is often referred to as a Blue Bridge -- due to its dominant colour -- or Wiwili bridge.

This street intervention is not the only rebellious piece in the current retrospective.

Azaan Installation

The Female Voice and the Call to Prayer: The artist’s second piece is the “Azaan” (Adhan) installation, showing ten painted minarets from different parts of the Islamic world, to a soundscape of the call to prayer, performed by a woman. The familiar words, traditionally heard five times a day through the Islamic world, take a fresh yet subversive meaning when presented by a woman’s voice.

Shehab was devastated when the minaret of the great mosque of Aleppo -- the Omayyad Mosque -- was destroyed in 2013. Its minaret was not only part of the Islamic heritage, it was artistically a culmination of centuries of Mediterranean architecture.

She started studying the minaret as a symbol; finding out how high each famous minaret in the Arab world is. At the current exhibition, she paints 10 minarets, each on a four-sided column. In addition, there are two projectors showing images, one shows photos of minarets in their full glory, while the other simultaneously shows the destroyed mosques with the same minarets as piles of rubble.

Shehab says this piece is meant to challenge the two extremes of extremism: the fascists, and the Muslim extremists.

12.2.2011

The third piece is a new installation entitled “12.2.2011” where she displays all of the newspapers she found on the date after the ousting of former president Mubarak, at the end of the 18 days of the January revolution.

Shehab collected these papers from Egypt and around the world to document the extreme response to the event, creating a historical snap shot of the day. In retrospect four years later, looking at this material all next to each other captures that moment of the triumph of the people. It also shows indicators of the different position of the various parties as it unfolded over these loaded four years.

Towards the Nefertiti’s Daughters

As it is becoming increasingly more dangerous for street artists to create work in the streets of Egypt, Bahia is still figuring out ways to share art and beauty in the streets of the city.

The No project will have another iteration in Paris. 11 huge “No” shapes will be displayed in white on the façade of Bibliothèque Universitaire des Langues et Civilisations in Paris. The exhibition will open on 15 June under the title TYPOGRAPHIAe ARABICAe.

Shehab will have more street interventions in Augsburg, Germany in August, where artists occupy the city for two weeks, making art public for everyone.

And if you can’t make it to Frieburg, Paris or Augsburg to see Bahia Shehab’s street art, you can check her work in Mark Nicolas’s film “Nefertiti’s Daughters”, which documents female Egyptian street artists and their public intervention.  

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