A thousand times NO: Fellows Friday with Bahia Shehab

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When art historian and scholar of Arabic script Bahia Shehab was asked to create a piece commemorating the centenary of the first exhibition on Islamic art in Europe, little did she know that the Egyptian revolution would ultimately transform her into a street artist and activist with a powerful and subtle voice of protest.
How did your work with the character for “no” begin? 
Two years ago, I was asked to produce an artwork for The Future of Tradition – The Tradition of Future, an exhibition at the Haus Der Kunst, Munich, produced by the Khatt Foundation in Amsterdam. The foundation is concerned with the development of Arabic script, and the exhibition was to showcase works by female Arab artists and designers.
The curator had only one condition: I had to use Arabic script for my artwork. I started contemplating the beauty of Arabic poetry, the poetry of the language and so on. But I worried that I could never express myself in Arabic to a European audience because of the language barrier. I would get lost in translation.
Then I thought that for me, as a human being living in the world at that moment — as an artist, an Arab, a woman — I decided I only had one thing to say: NO. There were a thousand things I wanted to say no to.
In Arabic to confirm and stress the no, we say, “No, and a thousand times no.” So I decided to look for a thousand different nos. It was very intimidating. I didn’t think I could find a thousand different shapes of the word in Islamic history. But to my surprise, I found thousands. I just had to stop at a certain point. It showed me how rich the culture is, how global. I found characters from Spain, Afghanistan, Iran, China, the borders of China, on everything ever produced — buildings, mosques, architecture, plates, textiles, pottery, books. I examined all of these things, and it was very easy to find the character because the Islamic Shahadah starts with “There’s NO God but God.” So the word “no,” even in Islamic and Arabic culture, was easy to spot because it was everywhere.
With the thousand nos, I created a Plexiglass curtain, 3.5 by 7 meters. I also compiled my findings in a book, placing the nos chronologically, stating the places I found them, the medium, and the patron that commissioned the work.

No to Stripping

No to Stripping

“No to Stripping the People.” This refers to the stripping and beating of a veiled woman during a demonstration. The footprint reads “Long live a peaceful revolution.”
Then the revolution began. How did that shift the nos in your work?
When the revolution began in January 2011, I forgot completely about the artwork and I became very immersed in the revolution. Then at some point, about nine months into it, I realized that every no has a reason. They’re not a thousand general nos. I can assign a purpose, a message, to each one of these nos. So: “No for a new pharaoh,” “No to beating women,” and so on. So I started using the nos like ammunition. I designed stencils with them, and sprayed them in the streets. At the same time, I was taking these characters out of their historic context to put them in a new context — a modern context — giving them new life. So many of these nos are resurrected forms coming back to life.
You create a different stencil for each message of protest. How do you decide which no to use?
The nos I take from history are relevant to the topic at hand. So, for example, if I take one that originated from the wall of a mausoleum, I use it for a topic that is relevant to it now — like a man dying or being beaten. The guy who lost his eyes and became a symbol of the revolution — I used a font called najm, meaning ­star, because he became a star of the revolution. The revolution gave a face to my nos. But these are small nuances just for me. Nobody on the street will ever understand them. They are just little cues for me to make history relevant to modernity. The historic knowledge is only available to me because I did the research. But while it’s not public knowledge, I think it’s felt on the street. There’s a resonance.
No to Military Trials

No to Military Trials

“No to military rule.” The no is taken from a 7th Century tombstone at the Islamic Museum in Cairo. Click to view larger size.
It sounds like you were surprised by the results of your research.
Yes. As a historian, the results, chronologically, created a shocking finding for me: the richness of the evolution of the script, from the birth of the Islamic civilization up until the 15th or 16th century, was amazingly vibrant and creative and so out there. If we could now think the way these designers and calligraphers thought, it would be amazing. Then, up until the 17th century, there was a stagnant period, and then later, the printing period and digital age started. Now, everything looks the same: we now more or less have one letter shape, and it’s the same one being repeated over and over again. You can actually trace the life of the civilization simply by looking at the life of this one character.
So this was a great insight on our human state, even politically and socially, how stagnant we are, simply by looking at the evolution of the shape of our script. It’s all these nos, hundreds of them, that just look exactly the same. There’s no creativity. There’s no innovation. If you look back in history and compare, it’s shocking what the script looked like and what it looks like today. The gap is just mind-blowing.
Aesthetically I’ve also always loved the shape of the word no in Arabic. It’s a beautiful ligature composed of two letters. I’ve always wanted to see how different calligraphers had solved the problem of combining them. Other than the political statement of the work, I was interested in the development of the character in different mediums by different designers.
Did you make art before this project?
Never anything so big. It was always more design than art. But the paradigm of what is art has shifted for me since I started working on the street. The audience has changed, and the lifespan of the work is more ethereal. The most important thing now is for me to keep exploring ways of getting the message across. I will differ with McLuhan only this once and say the medium is not that important for now.
I’ve designed a museum concept for the revolution, but there was no minister in place to see the commission through, so the project is still in my drawer. I am sure it will see the light eventually, somewhere.
A Neruda poem found scribbled on a piece of paper in a field hospital in Tahrir, turned into a stencil. It reads: “You can crush the flowers but you cannot delay spring.” The big shape in the middle is a no that I took off the Mausoleum of Sultan Barquq, 1384 CE, Cairo, Egypt. Click to view larger size.
How are you spending your time these days?
I’m working on a PhD on the Fatimid Script and its evolution at Leiden University in Holland, and I’m building a four-year graphic design program for AUC. I’m developing a total of 24 courses on graphic design, with some very new classes on the history of design and advertising as a discipline in the Arab world that have never been offered anywhere before. I start teaching the first official class of design students this September, and I am very much looking forward to that. I am also preparing to give a talk at the “Global Anarchisms” conference at Cornell University in Ithaca, and another talk at the Aspen Cultural Diplomacy Forum “The Art of Peace-building and Reconciliation”  in Tokyo in the coming months.
How has your TED fellowship experience affected you and your work?
The greatest realization the TED fellowship has given me is that I am not alone in my endeavours, and that there are many other people who are crazy enough to believe that they can change the world. So even when the whole world around you thinks that what you are doing is too utopic and unrealistic, at TED you find people who will tell you that the bigger your dream is, the better. The TED fellowship was like a pat on the back, a salute from a group of fellow dreamers to continue the struggle. Sometimes that is all you need.
Do you intend to carry on designing and spraying stencils? And are you worried about the danger?
Yes, I can’t stop now. Now is the time to work, even harder than before. Danger is a state of mind, and it is relative. I do not feel that what I am doing harms anyone, so I do not expect harm back.
How quickly before you run out of nos?
I still have 975 to go.