Bahia Shehab is an artist, designer, and art historian. She is a professor and the founder of the graphic design program at the American University in Cairo, mainly focused on the visual culture of the Arab world.
Her artwork has been on display in exhibitions, galleries and streets internationally and was featured in the 2015 documentary Nefertiti’s Daughters. Her work has received a number of recognitions and international awards, including the BBC’s 100 women’s list, a TED Senior Fellowship, a Prince Claus Award, and the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture. Her publications include A Thousand Times NO: The Visual History of Lam-Ali (2010), At the Corner of a Dream: A Journey of Resistance and Revolution (2019) and the co-authored book A History of Arab Graphic Design (2020).
She is the type of person that doesn’t believe in borders, in lines drawn by humans across the world’s map. She considers that creativity, in general, is a global human need, not a luxury, and that it is necessary for our existence to move forward and make life beautiful. Here’s a peek into Bahia’s perspective.
WHAT WOULD MAKE YOUR SOUL SING? WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY?
My students and my children, I guess the future makes me happy. I feel like they are the ones who will change the world and whenever I see creative, young people, I am very optimistic.
A CHILDHOOD STORY THAT ANNOUNCED THE CREATIVE PERSON YOU ARE TODAY
I love nature and as a child I used to spend a lot of time in the mountains in Lebanon, picking flowers and creating elaborate compositions. I spent hours in my childhood doing that so maybe that announced the creative person I am today.
BEST CONTEXT EVER FOR INSPIRATION WAS
The 2011 Egyptian revolution.
THE PROJECT YOU LOVED MOST
I can’t choose between all my children unfortunately, but if I were to choose, I would say The call to prayer using the voice of Mai Kamal, a mezzosoprano woman from the Cairo Opera house. To me, that was a very simple, but disruptive kind of work the kind I like.
THE PROJECT OTHERS LOVED MOST
The 1000 times No, where I collected 1000 different “Nos” from everything produced under Islamic or Arab patronage, in the last 1400 years, from Spain to China. That is the project I am most known for.
THE BEST THING ABOUT EGYPTIAN CREATIVITY IS
I don’t like borders and I don t believe in lines drawn by humans across our geography. I think that they are irrelevant. Creativity, in general, is a global human need, it pushes our existence forward and makes life more bearable, it is something beautiful, that we all need and is definitely something that has been changing the world.
BEST STATEMENT OF EGYPTIAN HUMOR
You should have seen the thousands of memes that were flooding our newsfeed, during the revolution. Humor is always a very healthy sign. There is a lot of humor in Egypt, at different levels, but the way I visually saw it and felt it the most was definitely on my timeline during the Revolution.
ADVICE FOR INTERNATIONAL HEADHUNTERS, RELATED TO EGYPTIAN CREATIVES
I would say – come over. Meet them, because there are literally millions of undiscovered talents, the country is full of amazing young people who are doing amazing things. My advice is just go on a plane, when you can and meet as many people as you can.
BEST PLACE IN CAIRO
Cairo is a megalopolis, so you can’t pinpoint just one spot. Best places- Al Azhar park, overlooking the old Cairo, the new museum, seeing 5000 years of history in one place, taking a felucca on the Nile, Khan El Khalili, bursting with life, full of amazing trinkets, the old Islamic Cairo district, literally an outdoor museum full of monuments from every Islamic historic period so you see history unfolding on the street.
BEST PLACE IN EGYPT
Egypt is a beautiful country, there is so much to see: all the cost of the Red Sea, Aswan and the ancient temples, Alexandria and the amazing food there, Fayoum and the beautiful scenery and a small exquisite pottery village called Tunis, the Siwa desert and the salt lakes. There is so much to see.
MOST DISTURBING CLICHÉ ABOUT EGYPT, IN THE MEDIA OUTLETS OF THE WORLD IS
There are so many clichés that are disturbing and unfortunate – but this is not only about Egypt, it is about the Muslims and people in the Arab world at large. It is a machine that has been working on portraying us in that view, look at all the Hollywood films and try to decode how many times we are portrayed as barbaric, as backwards, as ignorant, as uneducated, as savage and imagine how media, film and other mediums are being used to brainwash everybody about how do we look and who we are. It is not just one thing, that’s disturbing, the whole set up is. When you dehumanize the other it becomes easier to colonize them. History is always repeating.
EGYPT SHOULD BE KNOWN FOR
Creativity, amazing young talent, new ideas, innovation, hard work, scientists, artists, history, for everything that is beautiful everywhere else in the world, not just in Egypt.
YOUR VIEWS ON SPIRITUALITY
I believe that we are all connected, we are all one body, and if we don’t care for our weakest, then there is a serious problem in how we exist together on this planet.
YOUR VIEWS ON MONEY
It comes and it goes. There are more important things in life.
AN INSPIRATION SOURCE YOU RECOMMEND FOR A YOUNG CREATIVE
I would like young creatives to spend time alone, to reflect and discover who they are. I think young creatives are bombarded by information on social media. The best advice I would give is to spend some quiet time with yourself and try to look inwardly and try to see what do you love and what do you need to be happy and go out and find it. The journey starts from within.
AN EGYPT BASED FEMALE TALENT THAT DESERVES TO BE PROMOTED AT INTERNATIONAL LEVEL, AS EXPONENT OF LOCAL CREATIVE SPIRIT
There are so many: May al-Ibrashy, a conservation specialist – restoring both buildings and human beings. She has an NGO and a design school in old Cairo and is a fascinating woman.
We highly recommend you to listen to her TED speech on “A Thousand times No”, one of her iconic and fascinating projects.
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