‘I’ve always said that I’m an Egyptian born in Beirut,’ says Bahia Shehab, who moved to her honorary homeland to pursue a master’s in Islamic Art and Architecture at the American University in Cairo.
Just five years after graduating, and though, admittedly, not something she thought she would end up doing, Shehab is now developing an entirely new curriculum for a Graphic Design major at the same university – not to mention teaching 12 of its courses, continuing her own artistic practice and serving as an advisory board member at the Khatt Foundation, a centre for Arabic typography in Amsterdam (where she also happens to be reading for her PhD at Universiteit Leiden).
Of all the ‘million things’ that she does and researches, it is Arabic typography that Shehab is particularly interested in delving into. And, after nine years of studying its history, she has distilled her fascination down to just one letter-form – the word ‘no’.
After finding 1000 different references of the word ‘no’ in the scripture and engravings on mosques, carpets, old science textbooks and artworks across the Islamic world during her master’s research, Shehab decided to present these historical artefacts as one contemporary artwork, ‘A Thousand Times No’, at Haus der Kunst, Munich, in 2010.
It’s this bridge between visual history and contemporary practice that is the linchpin of the 25 courses that Shehab has designed for AUC. ‘Every course I write, I have that in mind,’ she says.
You seem to be doing a million things in Cairo, but you’re also currently studying for a PhD in Amsterdam. Can you tell us about your research subject – ‘floriated Fatimid Kufic’?
Yes, I’m working on my PhD in parallel. Although, there’s been a change in my plan. The past three years have been very life changing for me… I felt that Fatimid Kufic isn’t something that reflects where I am emotionally. I love the Fatimids, and I was halfway done with my writing, but then I thought, ‘That’s a book I want to write when I’m 60.’ I wanted to leave myself something to write when I’m older, you know! [Laughs.] They’re a topic that I like to savour. It’s for pleasure – I want to enjoy the Fatimids.
What are you researching instead?
I brought the topic into modernity – I’m now writing on the Lettrism movement but I’m focusing on one person. He’s actually my godfather. I’m writing his story. I’ve been conducting research on him for the past 18 months and I’m in the final, concluding phases. It’s going to be my PhD, but it’ll also hopefully be published as part of a retrospective on his work. So it’s two birds with one stone.
What is it that fascinates you about Arabic script?
Typography is very intimate. You take it for granted when you’re reading it, but it’s the subtle DNA of visual communication. I find script is also about identity and, the more we work on it, the more research is done, the more aware you are of your visual surroundings.
It’s a theme that occurs in your artwork, too, particularly in ‘A Thousand Times No’.
I had just finished my master’s when the Khatt Foundation invited me to participate in an exhibition – the condition was that I had to use Arabic script. I needed something that would be clear, simple and obvious to my audience and I thought, ‘If there’s one thing I want to say to anybody in the world about our situation now, I want to say “no.”’ It was a way for me to bring about the richness of Arabic and its visual muscles – how strong the visual language is, this quantity in the beauty of one letter form, the word ‘no’. I listed where I found each ‘no’ – the patron, the date and the material – in a small book. So, it wasn’t just saying ‘no’ because I felt like it, it was a ‘no’ that documented the history of a civilisation.
Does your approach to your personal practice ever overlap with your professorial duties?
I built on my experience from studying at AUB in Lebanon. When I moved to Cairo, to me, there was a big disconnect between what I had studied and my visual history, as an Arab, so I decided to study Islamic art and architecture for my master’s. Over the course of those four years, all of my research was focused on Arabic epigraphy – I was studying the Arabic script in different parts of the Islamic world. It gave me more insight into the missing links between where we came from and where we are today. So, all of the courses I wrote for AUC are trying to bridge this gap between visual history and modernity in the Arab world. Where do we want to take this in the future? Every course I write, I have that in mind.
The exhibition evolved into a street art project. Which had a more profound effect – seeing your work in a gallery, or seeing it on the streets of Cairo?
On the streets, of course! In hindsight, the exhibition was just my preparation for the street. The installation was lovely and everything, and the book is interesting, but to me the freedom – the real realisation – came on the street.
So, how would you describe the course you teach at AUC to someone on the street?
That’s a very difficult question because nobody really knows what design is, especially the average person on the street. I wrote the design programme for AUC so that we could educate the man on the street faster.
What do you enjoy about teaching at AUC?
Oh, the students. It’s really amazing to take a young talent and grow it. I love to garden and I really feel like I’m growing, trimming and watering a tree with each of my students. Every one of them is special to me.
How do you make them aware of that?
What I’m trying to do is individualise education. We are not cattle. This archaic system of putting everybody in the same classroom with the same teacher is a 19th century, dead educational format. We shouldn’t be doing it anymore. It’s devastated the lives of so many people and it still is devastating the lives of so many people.
Is there a good alternative approach to teaching instead?
I think education should be more geared towards our individual talents. On the surface I am, in the administrative sense, teaching design. But on the inside I try to teach students more about themselves. Any good designer should know themselves very well.
When did you decide to make the switch from designer to professor?
I still haven’t… [Laughs]. I don’t think I want to be one thing. I’m a street artist and a professor, and a gallery artist and a creative director when I want to be. I don’t like to label myself. I like having many places to play, but I find education the most enriching part of my, let’s say, multifaceted career.
Why is that?
It’s the place where I can give, and I’m happy to share my knowledge. I take pleasure in it, because I feel that teaching design can actually instil change.
This article can be found in Brownbook’s November/December 2014 Issue.
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