Bahia Shehab

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Bahia Shehab
Born1977 Edit this on Wikidata (age 44)
OccupationArtist, art historian, designer and scholar
Stylecalligraffiti Edit this on Wikidata
Website Edit this on Wikidata

Bahia Shehab (Arabic: بهية شهاب‎; born 1977)[1] is a multidisciplinary artist, designer, historian, creative director, educator and activist based in Cairo, Egypt. Her work is concerned with identity and cultural heritage, and uses Islamic art history and in particular Islamic calligraphy and graphic design to explore contemporary Arab politics, feminist discourse and social issues.

Her culturally oriented work is concerned with using history as a means to better understand the present, and to find solutions for the future. Shehab is interested in the ways in which art can be employed for social change, and has explored this phenomenon through her artwork, which draws upon such socially charged themes as Arab identity and women's rights. Her research is largely concerned with understanding the Arabic letter and much of her work explores both traditional and refashioned Arabic calligraphy.

By imbuing traditional Arabic and Islamic scripts with political messages, she has used art to explore and interrogate to understand societal situations and bring them to a larger audience. Her artwork first appeared on the walls of Cairo during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, and has since been displayed in exhibitions around the world . Shehab has received several awards for her achievements.[2] In 2019 she was featured in the Polaris catalogue produced by Visual Collaborative, where she was interviewed alongside other artists from around the world.[3]

Early life and education[edit]

Shehab was born in 1977 in Lebanon,[4] and grew up there. She studied graphic design in Beirut, and studied for a master's degree in Cairo.[5]

Educational Work and Research[edit]

Academia: The Graphic Design Program at the AUC

Shehab began teaching at the American University in Cairo in 2010, and in 2011 established the Graphic Design program at the Department of the Arts in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the AUC.[6] This revolves around the visual culture of the Arab world and encourages students to expand their awareness of Arab visual culture as they work on various design projects. Bahia encourages her students to make use of their interests while developing their work, and emphasizes the need to use design to solve problems.[7]

In 2015, the first graduating graphic design class presented their graduation projects in the Sharjah Art Gallery at the AUC. Their projects were concerned with rebranding public institutions, with human rights, social issues, cultural heritage, political reflections and personal expression.[7] Students employed all forms of design in their projects to communicate their messages in their relevant medium. Since then, the number of students studying in the Graphic Design program has dramatically increased.

AUC Graduating Graphic Design Students displaying their work in the exhibition "Zoom in Keda!", Sharjah Art Gallery, AUC, 201. Photo by Mostafa Abdel-Aty

Bahia Shehab has taught over fifteen courses on graphic design, including theoretical courses on the history of Arab graphic design, the history of Arabic calligraphy and the history of advertising in the Arab world. Her courses also include practical explorations of Arabic typography, introduction to design, logo and corporate identity, packaging, retail design, illustration and advertising and branding. She has also served as senior thesis advisor for graduating classes.

Edraak Courses

Bahia Shehab has also participated in developing MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for Queen Rania Foundations' educational platform Edraak, where over 50,000 students have registered to date. In Fall 2015 and Spring 2017, the course "Introduction to Graphic Design", was offered to Edraak students. Another course, "Introduction to Arabic Type Design", was offered in 2019. [8]

Conferences and Symposiums

Shehab has given many public lectures around the world, speaking on her art practice at conferences, symposiums universities, institutions and museums, in particular on the "A Thousand Times No" project and her other contributions to street art. She has also lectured internationally on Arab visual culture and design, design education and curriculum development, women's' rights, social issues and Islamic cultural heritage.[2]

Jury and Board Work

Bahia Shehab has served as a jury member for a number of competitions. In September 2014 she was a jury member of the Poster for Tomorrow competition, whose theme revolved around the rights to fair and equal employment. The title of the competition was "Work Right!”.[9] She became a jury member again for the same competition in September 2016, when the competition was titled "Make Extremism History" and the theme was concerned with addressing extremism.[10] In October 2017 she was again a jury member, when the theme was "Freedom of Movement.[11]

In March 2016, the 100 Best Arabic Posters initiative, which was launched from the German University in Cairo in Egypt, gave designers in the Arab world the chance to submit their posters for judging and inclusion in a publication by a jury of which Bahia Shehab was a member.[12]

In November 2016, Bahia was selected to be a member of the jury of the Mahmoud Kahil Award program, which is based in Beirut, Lebanon and is dedicated to promoting comics, editorial cartoons and illustrations in the Arab world by recognizing and rewarding the work of Arab illustrators.[13]

In honour of her achievement as a laureate of the Prince Claus Award, the Embassy of the Netherlands in Egypt announced a Wasla competition in September 2017 in collaboration with the Prince Claus Fund, where the theme was making connections and building bridges. Egyptian designers were given the chance to submit poster designs on this theme and Shehab participated in choosing and announcing the winners.[14]


"A Thousand Times NO" and Political Graffiti[edit]

In 2010, the Khatt Foundation in Amsterdam invited Bahia Shehab to produce an artwork for the exhibition "The Future of Tradition", whose purpose it was to commemorate 100 years of Islamic art in Europe after the exhibition "Masterpieces of Muhammadan Art" at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany. Her project "A Thousand Times NO" was an art installation and research project that went on display in a room curated by Huda Smitshuijzen Abifares, the founder of Khatt Foundation, with other female artists from the Arab world celebrating the Arabic script. The main message that Bahia sought to convey through her artwork was the simple "NO". In accordance with the Arabic saying, "No and a thousand times no". She sought out one thousand different Arabic no's, finding them on buildings, mosques, plates, textiles, pottery and books, and from countries including Spain, China, Afghanistan and Iran - all places where Islam had thrived at one point in history or another. While this project was a form of historical visual research, during the 25 January Revolution in 2011 in Egypt, Bahia "freed" these one thousand no's from their historical associations and gave them new meanings within the political events of the revolution, using the different styles of "no" to protest against current events. Examples include, "no to burning books", "no to a new pharaoh", “no to stripping the people” and "no to killing men of religion".[15][16] Her one thousand no's had originally been displayed altogether in the form of a plexiglass curtain at the Haus Der Kunst exhibition. Next to this installation was a book, which was published by the Khatt Foundation, where she gathered all one thousand no's into chronological order, together with the names of the places where she came by them, the media that were originally used to write them and the patrons who were responsible for commissioning the works upon which the no's were found.[17]

Landscape/Soundscape: 20 Minarets from the Arab World[edit]

Another project, "20 Minarets from the Arab World", is a significant cultural project that was displayed at the Arab Contemporary Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. In this project, Shehab took the minaret, an important element of the architectural landscape in the Arab world, as her starting point, displaying 20 minarets from the Arab world while taking into consideration their proportions, beginning with the smallest minaret from Mogadishu and ending with the tallest from Abu Dhabi. She also included the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo in Syria but it appears in ruins, to represent the cultural disaster that struck in 2013 when the minaret was bombed. In this project, Bahia Shehab was concerned with how the Arab cultural heritage was being physically destroyed on one hand and, on the other, how it was being intellectually attacked by Western nations and labelled as backwards and terroristic. As part of the installation, Bahia also included the adhan (call to prayer) in the voice of a woman. Her choice was inspired by the idea that women should raise their voices to God.[18]

Global Street Interventions Campaign[edit]

Since 2016, Bahia has been working on a global street interventions campaign that involves spray painting quotes from the Palestinian poet and author Mahmoud Darwish on the walls of streets around the world. She believes that Darwish's words are relevant to the political situation in which we find ourselves today. The quotes include, "Stand at the corner of a dream and fight" and "I had a dream that will be and a butterfly cocooned in prisons", in honour of Mahinoor Elmasry who was arrested along with countless others for standing against injustice in Egypt.[19] Other quotes include, "No to the impossible", "We love life if we had access to it", "I will dream", "How big is the idea, how small is the state", "Those who have no land have no sea", "On this earth there are things worth living for", "One day we will be who we want to be, the journey has not started and the road has not ended", and "My people will return as air and light and water".[20][21][22] The style with which these quotes are painted is largely abstract and geometric and uses such simple forms as circles, rectangles and triangles. Her street art has also been inspired by older Arabic scripts. Thus far, she has painted walls in Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Japan, Lebanon, the United States of America, Morocco and Norway.[23][24]

The Chronicles of Flowers[edit]

In 2017, Bahia opened an exhibition in Istanbul, Turkey called "The Chronicles of Flowers" documenting her personal relationship with flowers. When Bahia broke her left knee in 2011, her mother came to Cairo from Beirut to look after her and would create a flower arrangement to place next to Bahia's bed. This led to an interest in documenting flowers for years to come. More than that, these flowers embody for her significant connections to the women in her life, as they have given her the chance to better understand herself and her society. The exhibition used plexiglass screens, video and audio projections and flower scents, allowing the audience to enjoy a multi-sensory experience. A book, whose narrative begins with Lebanon's Civil War in the 1980s and ends in 2017 after the revolution in Egypt, also contains a documentation of 77 flowers along with their significance to Bahia. The exhibition ran from 9 May to 17 June in 2017.[25][18]

The Chronicles of Flowers

Project Light[edit]

Project Light is a global art campaign that was launched by Peek Vision and Fine Acts. The aim of the project is to raise awareness and increase public engagement with everyone's right to enjoy good vision.[26] In Phase 1 of the project, the goal is to allow a number of artists, of which Bahia is one, to create contemporary art pieces based on the concept of the right to sight. The campaign seeks to encourage policymakers to make decisions that will allow people better access to eye care.[27]

The Reflections of Shangri La[edit]

Between 9 August and 22 August 2018, Bahia completed an artist residency at the Shangri La Museum for Islamic Art, Design & Culture in Honolulu, Hawaii. During this period, she studied Doris Duke's collection of Islamic art and used her findings as part of an exhibition, "Reflections on Shangri La", which opened on 27 September in the Arts of Islam Gallery at the Honolulu Museum of Art.[28] While studying the artwork in Shangri La's collection, she noticed that many women had been depicted in illustrations, but that the illustrations were miniature. As such, for the exhibition, she decided to make these women the center of the works by drastically increasing the sizes of the illustrations. Her aim was to give visitors the chance to better see how these women from different dynasties had lived and looked.[29] A second part of her residency involved the creation of a two-part mural onsite at the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design. Based on a poem from the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, the stanza - depicted in an artist-created font of foliated and pixellated Kufic, with roots instead of vegetation - is a site-specific commentary on colonized land.[30]

Recognition and awards[edit]

  • 2012, she became a TED fellow and gave a TED talk about her project "A Thousand Times No",[31] becoming a senior TED fellow in 2016.
  • 2013 Bahia was included in the BBC's 100 Women list[31] and was given the chance to meet and discuss important issues with BBC's other 99 women.[32]
  • 2015 Bahia was featured in the documentary film “Nefertiti’s Daughters,” which recounts the important role that street artists played during the Egyptian revolution, with a special focus on what women did during that period and how they participated in the struggle to attain women's rights. The film's director was concerned with particular women artist's perspectives on the events that were taking place in Egypt.[33]
  • 2016 Bahia's work on the development of the Arabic script culminated in her becoming a laureate of the Prince Claus Award from the Netherlands. Her successful integration of the historical Arabic script with current political events, bringing this historical research out into the streets in the form of street art using her "A Thousand Times No" project, was hailed as a breakthrough in the knowledge of the uses of the Arabic script.[34]
  • 2016, Bahia was shortlisted for the Jameel Prize 4 award from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London for her work on the "A Thousand Times No" project.[35]
  • 2017, she became the first Arab woman to receive the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture for her use of historical Arabic calligraphic scripts in the streets in a modern political context. She received this prize alongside another Arab calligraffiti artist, eL Seed.[36]
  • 2017, in October Bahia was invited to speak at the Obama Foundation Summit where she shared her experiences as an artist working and achieving in the Arab world.[37]


In her artwork, Bahia has always incorporated politically charged themes. Her work is concerned with issues of current political interest, such as the civil war in Lebanon from the 1980s, the revolution that swept through Egypt in 2011, and the rights of political prisoners. An important element of her artwork is her concern for women and while this takes on a largely political scope in the sense that the concern is often with women's rights, as a woman herself, Bahia is also concerned with the humanity of women. Through her artwork she encourages others to relate to women's lives however ordinary those lives may seem. Her concern for Arab heritage has led her to pay attention to Arab woman and the current issues that make the attainment of women's rights a significant issue. Although led by significant research efforts, many of which are academic, Bahia is able to employ much of her artwork in such a way as to be able to relate to a contemporary, non-academic audience.


  • Shehab, Bahia and Nawar, Haytham, "A History of Arab Graphic Design", The American University in Cairo Press, 2019.[38]
  • Shehab, Bahia, "A Thousand Times No!: Spray Painting as Resistance and the Visual History of the Lam-Alif", in Contemporary Revolutions :Turning Back to the Future in 21st-Century Literature and Art, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.[39]
  • Volker Albus, Adélia Borges, Axel Kufus, Tapiwa Matsinde, Divia Patel, Bahia Shehab, Eggarat Wongcharit, Zhang Jie, Pure Gold: Upcycled! Upgraded!, Leipzig: Spector Books, 2017


  • O’Kane, Bernard & Shehab, Bahia, "The Epigraphy of the Mausoleum of Yahya al-Shabihi", in Doris Behrens-Abouseif Festschrift, Gingiko Press, 2016.[41]
  • Shehab, Bahia, "The Granddaughters of Scheherazade", in Companion to International Children's Literature, Dr. John Stephens, Dr. Celia Abicalil Belmiro, Dr. Alice Curry, Dr. Li Lifang. Dr.Yasmine S. Motawy eds., Routledge, 2016.[42]
  • Shehab, Bahia, "Emotional Translation", in Translating Dissent: Voices from and with the Egyptian Revolution, ed. Mona Baker, NY: Routledge, 2016, pp. 163–177[43]
  • Shehab, Bahia, "A Thousand Times No", in No Gods, No Masters, No Peripheries: Global Anarchisms, Barry Maxwell & Raymond Craib eds., Michigan: PM Press, 2015, pp. 233–241.[44]
  • Shehab, Bahia, A Designer's Dream: Helmi el-Touni Exhibition Catalog, Graphic Design Program at AUC, 2014.
  • Shehab, Bahia, "Landscape/Soundscape: 20 Minarets from the Arab World", In World Architecture, March 2014.[45]
  • Shehab, Bahia, "Quran Lectern of Judge Zaineddine Yahya, Majordomo of Sultan Jaqmaq", in Arab Contemporary - Architecture and Identity, Michael Juul Holm & Mette Marie Kallenhauge eds. Humlebæk: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art & Rosendahls, 2014, pp. 33–34.
  • Shehab, Bahia, "Spraying NO", in Walls of Freedom, Basma Hamdy & Don Karl eds. Malta: From Here to Fame, 2014, pp. 117–119.
  • Shehab, Bahia, "Urban Dialogues", in Positions - Arabich Worlt, Johannes Ebert et el. ed. Göttingen: Steidl-Verlag, 2013, pp. 274–278.
  • Shehab, Bahia, "Faṭimid Kūfī Epigraphy on the Gates of Cairo: Between Royal Patronage and Civil Utility", in Calligraphy and Architecture in the Muslim World, Mohammad Gharipour & Irvin Cemil Schick eds. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013, pp. 275–289.[46]
  • Shehab, Bahia, "Voices From the Region: Cairo as Mirror," in Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts, authors Harm J. de Blij, Peter O. Muller & Jan Nijman, USA: John Wiley & Sons, 2013, pp. 315.
  • Shehab, Bahia, "GD 99: They Called Us the Harem", in Revolution/Evolution: Two Decades and Four Hundred Designers Later, Leila Musfy ed., Beirut: American University of Beirut Press, 2013, pp. 152–153.
  • Shehab, Bahia, "Voices From the Region: Take Me to the Country of the Beloved." In Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts, authors H.J. de Blij, Peter O. Muller, Jan Nijman, USA: John Wiley & Sons, 2012, pp. 317.
  • Shehab, Bahia, A Thousand Times No - Alif Lam-Alif: The Visual History of the Lam-Alif. Amsterdam: Khatt Books, 2011.[47]

''A Thousand Times No": The book is a research-based tribute to the wealth, diversity and freedom of expression in art from Islamic lands. It is a rejection of conformity and repression that often plagues the Arab and Islamic cultures. It traces chronologically the history of one letter form, the Lam-alif (which also means NO in Arabic), on different items produced under Arab and Islamic patronage over a period of 1400 years, from countries that range from Spain to the borders of China. "A Thousand Times No" is a bilingual book written, illustrated and designed by Bahia Shehab in conjunction with an installation by the artist under the same title at "The Tradition of Future 100 years after the exhibition 'Masterpieces of Mohammadan Art'" (Munich-Germany, September 2010-February 2011).

  • Shehab, Bahia, "At The Corner of A Dream, A Journey of Revolution and Resistance: The Street Art of Bahia Shehab" Gingko, 2019
  • Shehab, Bahia, "You Can Crush the Flowers: A Visual Memoir of the Egyptian Revolution" Gingko 2021


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