The Aga Khan Centre Gallery is delighted to announce it will launch its new exhibition space with "At the Corner of a Dream", a solo presentation by the Lebanese-Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab. The show — her first solo show in the UK — is comprised of five digital artworks produced by the artist in 2019 about the poetry murals she has painted in four different cities: Cairo, New York, Beirut and Marrakesh, as well as the Greek island of Cephalonia. These have been inspired by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) — the show’s title is a line from one of his poems.
Commissioned by the Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC), the exhibition marks the publication of a book highlighting Shehab’s poetry-based work published by Gingko Press in association with AKU-ISMC. The exhibition also follows the unveiling of a major 30-metre mural called "We Will Not Repent", created for Lincoln University in August 2019.
Shehab began to paint poetry by Darwish on the walls of different cities in new and original forms of the Arabic script after the Egyptian uprising. She uses lines from his poetry to tell the world that ideas cannot be killed, to show that humankind is united in its struggle against oppression and dictatorship. In the featured films, each location corresponds to sites where Shehab created a mural. Shehab views her walls as meeting points and conversation starters. By raising the curiosity of passers-by, they serve as cultural bridges, prompting them to ask about the stories behind the writing and encouraging them to stop and ask how they can tackle injustice in their own country, or how they can work for equality and help others live in a better world.
One of the films, "Those who have no land have no Sea" (2019), was created at a swimming pool reminiscent of one located in Cephalonia where Greek Olympians train and where her mural was painted. It depicts a macabre yet disturbingly realistic scene of floating life jackets accompanied by a single body. Shehab had been struck by the parallels between the trainee swimmers and the refugees who were drowning every day in the sea just beyond the sports centre wall and her film echoes the plight of the many people who drowned while fleeing war zones.
In another film, "We Love Life" (2019), Shehab reflects on Darwish’s stanza that reads ‘We love life if we had access to it.’ It depicts a wedding in four different settings. In the first, the couple are seen in a tuk-tuk (a transportation bike used in informal housing areas in Cairo); in the second, they are seated in their wedding chairs on the street in front of a local butcher shop; in the third they are seen in a destroyed house and, finally, they sit on thrones with the city of the dead in the background. The film plays on the idea of hope and the ability to dream visualising something as joyous as a wedding to reflect a very morbid reality where even hope becomes impossible.
The films are presented in an immersive environment across four screens creating a 360° display in which each image is seamlessly adjoined. Alongside, the show includes a site-specific calligraffiti stencil wall work and two vitrines containing paraphernalia relating to her artistic practice.
Shehab’s work first came to global attention during the Arab Spring, in which she had an active role in the revolution that swept through Egypt over 12 months between December 2010 and December 2011, through her ongoing series, "A Thousand Times No". These calligraffiti stencil works, which Shehab applied to walls across Cairo during the revolution with spray paints, were inspired by the Arabic saying, “No and a thousand times no”.
Created as a protest against the injustices that were perpetrated in the world before the revolution, the artist originally sourced one thousand different Arabic ‘noes’, which she found on buildings, mosques, plates, textiles, pottery and books from countries such as Spain, China, Afghanistan and Iran, where Islam had thrived at one point in history or another.
Her own stencil drawings included a representation of a bra, rendered in blue paint, which was inspired by the public stripping of an unidentified woman on the streets of Cairo, in which her abaya was removed by soldiers, revealing her undergarments. Since then, she has taken her peaceful resistance to the streets of the world, from New York to Tokyo, Amsterdam to Honolulu.
Says, Esen Kaya, The Aga Khan Centre Gallery Curator: ‘We are honoured to be launching our new Gallery with an exhibition by Bahia Shehab. Bahia is probably one of the most important Arab female artists working today. She is an internationally renowned artist, academic, designer and art historian and her artwork has been shown in exhibitions, galleries and streets globally. Her striking and stylized work provides an opportunity for us to think about some of the issues happening across the world today. The work is both poetic and stimulating as she encourages us to think about the lives of others, whilst considering our own.’ Adds Kaya: ‘The Aga Khan Centre Gallery is a place of education, insight and cultural exchange. It is home to a changing programme of exhibitions which aim to create a better understanding of Islam and Muslim cultures past and present. The gallery programme will significantly contribute to the cultural offer across the city of London as well as nationally and internationally. Bahia Shehab’s work forms the inaugural exhibition, so we hope to welcome many visitors to our exciting new gallery.’
AKU-ISMC Director, Professor Leif Stenberg says: ‘We are very excited to be working with Bahia Shehab on these two extremely significant projects. AKU-ISMC is committed to widening the discourse on Muslim cultures. Bahia’s work is of great importance and we are pleased that she has chosen the Aga Khan Centre for her first solo exhibition in the UK.’