“will our legacy be pyramids of garbage?”
Q&A with Lebanese-Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab
Inspired by calligraphy and Islamic art history, Bahia Shehab has spray painted socially-charged murals and protest graffiti on streets around the world – and created a garbage pyramid with an urgent message
I am making sure that the story of the struggle survives.
Bahia Shehab is a prominent Lebanese-Egyptian artist, political activist and Islamic art historian. When revolution swept through Egypt in 2011, she began spraying images in the streets saying no to dictators, no to military rule and no to violence.
Her artwork has always incorporated politically charged themes, such as the civil war in Lebanon from the 1980s and the rights of political prisoners. During the Arab Spring wave of pro-democracy protests and uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, she produced a flurry of cutting-edge, beautiful, impactful street art. After seeing history disappear in cities where she lived and grew up, the artist developed a sense of archival urgency to preserve, protect and document cultural heritage.
Today, Bahia uses history and the study of ancient Arabic script and visual heritage to solve modern-day design issues; as a means to better understand the present, and to find solutions for the future when it comes to the Arab identity and women’s rights. She has taken her peaceful resistance (using lines from Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish محمود درويش) to the streets of the world – from Cairo and Beirut to New York and Tokyo – as a cry for freedom and dignity, and a call to never stop dreaming. She is also a professor at the American University in Cairo, where she has developed a four-year Graphic Design programme focusing on the discipline in the Arab world.
In 2020, as part of the Fine Acts x TED Countdown global art initiative, Bahia erected a garbage pyramid, 11 metres-wide and 6 metres-high, in Cairo, Egypt, to make a point about climate change. In 2022, this work came back to Egypt, in the days prior to COP27.
The first Arab woman to receive the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture (in 2016), TOPIA asked the award-winning artist about using art to spark conversations and her idea of utopia.
Q&A: Bahia Shehab
Why art? Tell us a bit about why you do what you do.
Why art? Because I don’t have a choice. I don’t know if I was always an artist or if art has been a way for me to deal with my reality. I found that creative expression is the healthiest way for me to communicate how I’m feeling and remain sane with what is going on in the world around us. After living through wars and revolutions, I cannot think of impact as an outcome to my work. This is up to history to decide. I am at the stage of documenting and making sure that the story of the struggle survives and is preserved for generations to come. I’m not really concerned about impact in as much as I am concerned about preserving the narrative.
What’s the story behind Pyramids of Garbage?
I love that project. It is a story of how art can still thrive in spite of the pandemic and communicate to a global audience a message that is urgent. I was approached by Fine Acts to develop an artwork for TED Countdown reflecting on the urgency of what should be done by us a citizens of the world to highlight the problems of climate change. Now is the time for us to rethink our legacy on this planet. Are we going to come together to build a sustainable future for all of us or will our new legacy be pyramids of garbage?
And why Cairo?
Pyramids of Garbage was erected in one of the most densely populated areas in Cairo, home to the largest concentration of garbage collectors. By placing an actual pyramid of garbage in Cairo, home of the only surviving wonder of the ancient world, the great pyramids of Giza, the artwork brings to the attention of the viewer the contrast between majestic eternity and wonder and our current apathetic over-producing, over-consuming existence.
How did you work with the local community?
The pyramid was created in collaboration with local carpenters and school children from the area. An intimate story: in many of the projects I work on, there is a human bond and connection that unfolds during the process. The human connection that materialised during the Pyramids of Garbage project is with a young nun who is heading a school at Cairo‘s garbage city – and is now a close friend of mine. You can find comrades in the strangest of places.
You can find comrades in the strangest of places.
Without her help, support and belief in the creative idea, the project would not have been possible. She refuses to be named or credited. To me, what is as important as the work is the team you work with. In my case, 98% of the time it has been women curators and cultural operators who have believed in my ideas and supported me. Our community and connection is the real and valuable work of art.
Take us into your creative cosmos. Who are your biggest influences and who excites you today?
I might disappoint you with my answer because what I find exciting and innovative was a few centuries ago! I am inspired by Islamic art and the artisans and designers of the 13th and 14th centuries who built amazing monuments and designed breathtaking works of art and manuscripts that are still inspiring my practice today.
Do you have any rituals that get your creativity flowing?
Spending time in nature makes me happy; in the garden or the desert, on a mountain, in a forest. Any proximity to nature is very important for my creative process. I always leave flowers in a vase to greet me when I come back home. Reading a novel by one of my favorite authors, connecting with my students, spending time with my family and friends, discovering a new author or musician, it’s the collection of these little things that inspire and guide us.
What role do you feel art and the artist still have in today’s society?
We always need creative resistance to build a more just and peaceful world, we cannot count on solutions from the past for problems of today. Art always has and will have a role to play in societies to drive change, to inspire and to help people realise that a better future is possible. In my view this is the true role of art and artists.
Tell us about one joyous, mind-blowing or totally unexpected outcome in your own journey last year.
The highlight of my 2022 was how my experiential artwork Heaven and Hell in the Anthropocene (created in collaboration with Fine Acts) was received by the community at COP27. We have over 3,000 visitors who are now more aware of how their daily decisions affect all of us.
When I was approached by Fine Acts, Yana [Fine Acts’ executive director] gave me an insight for inspiration – how body temperature can affect our decision making process: namely, that people sitting in warmer rooms are more likely to say that ‘global warming’ is a problem. I wanted to present this in a more visceral and conceptual way at the same time. Heaven and Hell are two concepts that are familiar to everybody, and they’re also linked to concepts of eternity. So to me, it was crucial to translate a scientific insight into a conceptual one that is accessible to the masses.
I think what’s important at this point is that we start opening up the conversation, to include everybody. Because these conversations have been happening behind closed doors for a long time. They have been largely between governments, stakeholders in the private sector and the scientific community. Most of the time everybody else is left out of these conversations. So what the artwork hopes to accomplish is to create a tunnel, create a space, where these two worlds can come together and have a difficult conversation. The legacy of the artwork, I hope, is to be an icebreaker.
What were the most surprising and most favorite reactions from participants in the installation?
There were so many! There were two men who were dancing and singing: “Heaven, I’m in Heaven,” when they got to heaven. Then there were little children, who were jumping around Heaven saying: “Oh, we are in heaven. We made it to heaven!” To me, it was the extreme emotional reactions that were the most beautiful to witness as they revealed so much about the people playing and their personalities.
As an artist, activist and historian, what, according to you, is the role of art for climate action and shaping the climate movement?
To me, the reason why we worked so hard to make it to COP27 this year is because I believe that art can be part of the bigger conversation. We don’t create art only for society’s entertainment. We’re not there just for consumption. Art is a tool for social change. I always believed in that, and in activating the artistic process to serve the community, to help us tackle serious issues, to help policy makers realize that art can be used as a tool in disseminating knowledge, in shifting public perception, and in creating more awareness.
Art is a tool for social change.
Talking about the role of art, generally, globally, there is now a conversation about “where does art go”. Does art go in the museum? Or is art on the street? Where do we go with art? To me, as an artist, I feel that art should be at the forefront of all important conversations, like the ones that have to do with the climate now. Art is a facilitator. It’s the soft power. We should be building on our soft power as humanity to correct the mistakes that we have done to the planet.
What’s next? Share your plans for the coming year – what would be your dream ‘utopia’ scenario for 2023?
More human connections in spite of our new challenges, more artworks and more books hopefully. We have a book on SWANA [Southwest Asian and North African] women graphic designers that will hopefully come out in 2023, in addition to two other book projects that I am working on. For the artwork, I can’t wait to paint a new wall since I haven’t painted on the streets since pre-COVID (last one was in Antwerp in 2019) and I also look forward to making our Heaven and Hell in the Anthropocene artwork experience accessible to more people around the world.
The next edition of the artwork is actually going to be in March on the American University in Cairo campus. It will be also used as a testing ground, as a seed for other universities and other schools to experience it. It will be similar to what was created at COP27, but we are hoping to create a faster, cheaper DIY Heaven and Hell that anybody can use to create change in their community.
What value do you see in sharing your artwork under an open license for people to recreate, with Fine Acts?
I come from a street art background. So art for the people is my driving force. I believe in the accessibility of art. I believe that art should be where it’s most needed – for the people who don’t have the tools or the ability to enjoy it, or the luxury or the background or the facility or the tools to consume it and to use it and for it to change their lives.
Art can indeed change lives and it should be present in places where it can play that role of creating social change. So for me, creating an artwork under an open license is an amazing opportunity to share the vision, the thinking process and the tools to create social change.
If you had to look at one artwork only until the end of days, what would it be – and why?
If we had to look at one artwork till the end of days I would ask us to all look inwards because we are the real work of art. Human knowledge and creativity can turn reality into a dream or a nightmare. Right now we are in the nightmare phase unfortunately.
Lastly, we are creating a playlist for TOPIA. What is the last song you’d want to hear during your time here on Earth?
This is a difficult choice to make! I am a different person every day I wake up and I do not know who I will be on my last day on Earth. But if my last day is today, then I am currently listening to ‘Una Rosa Blanca’ by Ibrahim Maalouf on a loop!
Bahia Shehab’s tips of Good people to follow
1 – May al-Ibrashy just received a Prince Claus award and is a brilliant powerhouse of a woman
2 – Huda AbiFarès because she is pushing frontiers for Arab design and designer in the region
3 – Laura Boushnak because she just rocks as a talent and a human being
Meet the writer
A wise-cracking detective somewhere in the multiverse, Lisa Goldapple is the brain behind the world of TOPIA, She might not behave as good as gold, but thinks good is golden. To understand how TOPIA came about, read Mind Blown: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”