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TEDGlobal 2012

Bahia Shehab: A thousand times no

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Art historian Bahia Shehab has long been fascinated with the Arabic script for 'no.' When revolution swept through Egypt in 2011, she began spraying the image in the streets saying no to dictators, no to military rule and no to violence.

- Artist and historian
TED Fellow Bahia Shehab sends an important message through her street art in Cairo: “You can crush the flowers, but you can’t delay spring." Full bio

Two years ago, I was invited as an artist
00:16
to participate in an exhibition commemorating
00:19
100 years of Islamic art in Europe.
00:22
The curator had only one condition:
00:24
I had to use the Arabic script for my artwork.
00:27
Now, as an artist, a woman, an Arab,
00:30
or a human being living in the world in 2010,
00:33
I only had one thing to say:
00:37
I wanted to say no.
00:40
And in Arabic, to say "no," we say "no,
00:43
and a thousand times no."
00:45
So I decided to look for a thousand different noes.
00:47
on everything ever produced
00:51
under Islamic or Arab patronage in the past 1,400 years,
00:53
from Spain to the borders of China.
00:58
I collected my findings in a book,
01:02
placed them chronologically, stating the name,
01:04
the patron, the medium and the date.
01:07
Now, the book sat on a small shelf next to the installation,
01:10
which stood three by seven meters, in Munich, Germany,
01:14
in September of 2010.
01:17
Now, in January, 2011, the revolution started,
01:21
and life stopped for 18 days,
01:27
and on the 12th of February,
01:30
we naively celebrated on the streets of Cairo,
01:31
believing that the revolution had succeeded.
01:34
Nine months later I found myself spraying messages
01:38
in Tahrir Square. The reason for this act
01:42
was this image that I saw in my newsfeed.
01:46
I did not feel that I could live in a city
01:50
where people were being killed
01:53
and thrown like garbage on the street.
01:55
So I took one "no" off a tombstone from
01:58
the Islamic Museum in Cairo, and I added a message to it:
02:00
"no to military rule."
02:03
And I started spraying that on the streets in Cairo.
02:05
But that led to a series of no, coming out of the book
02:08
like ammunition, and adding messages to them,
02:11
and I started spraying them on the walls.
02:14
So I'll be sharing some of these noes with you.
02:17
No to a new Pharaoh, because whoever comes next
02:19
should understand that we will never be ruled by another dictator.
02:22
No to violence: Ramy Essam came to Tahrir
02:26
on the second day of the revolution,
02:30
and he sat there with this guitar, singing.
02:32
One month after Mubarak stepped down, this was his reward.
02:35
No to blinding heroes. Ahmed Harara lost his right eye
02:39
on the 28th of January,
02:45
and he lost his left eye on the 19th of November,
02:46
by two different snipers.
02:50
No to killing, in this case no to killing men of religion,
02:53
because Sheikh Ahmed Adina Refaat was shot
02:56
on December 16th, during a demonstration,
03:00
leaving behind three orphans and a widow.
03:03
No to burning books. The Institute of Egypt was burned
03:07
on December 17th, a huge cultural loss.
03:10
No to stripping the people,
03:14
and the blue bra is to remind us of our shame
03:17
as a nation when we allow a veiled woman to be stripped
03:20
and beaten on the street, and the footprint reads,
03:24
"Long live a peaceful revolution,"
03:28
because we will never retaliate with violence.
03:30
No to barrier walls. On February 5th,
03:34
concrete roadblocks were set up in Cairo
03:37
to protect the Ministry of Defense from protesters.
03:41
Now, speaking of walls, I want to share with you the story
03:47
of one wall in Cairo.
03:50
A group of artists decided to paint a life-size tank
03:52
on a wall. It's one to one.
03:57
In front of this tank there's a man on a bicycle
03:59
with a breadbasket on his head. To any passerby,
04:02
there's no problem with this visual.
04:05
After acts of violence, another artist came,
04:08
painted blood, protesters being run over by the tank,
04:12
demonstrators, and a message that read,
04:17
"Starting tomorrow, I wear the new face,
04:20
the face of every martyr. I exist."
04:23
Authority comes, paints the wall white,
04:27
leaves the tank and adds a message:
04:30
"Army and people, one hand. Egypt for Egyptians."
04:32
Another artist comes, paints the head of the military
04:37
as a monster eating a maiden in a river of blood
04:41
in front of the tank.
04:44
Authority comes, paints the wall white, leaves the tank,
04:47
leaves the suit, and throws a bucket of black paint
04:51
just to hide the face of the monster.
04:54
So I come with my stencils, and I spray them on the suit,
04:55
on the tank, and on the whole wall,
04:59
and this is how it stands today
05:02
until further notice. (Laughter)
05:04
Now, I want to leave you with a final no.
05:06
I found Neruda scribbled on a piece of paper
05:10
in a field hospital in Tahrir, and I decided to take a no of
05:13
Mamluk Mausoleum in Cairo.
05:19
The message reads,
05:21
[Arabic]
05:23
"You can crush the flowers, but you can't delay spring."
05:29
Thank you. (Applause)
05:33
(Applause)
05:37
Thank you. Shukran. (Applause)
05:46
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the speaker:

Bahia Shehab - Artist and historian
TED Fellow Bahia Shehab sends an important message through her street art in Cairo: “You can crush the flowers, but you can’t delay spring."

Why you should listen

A Lebanese-Egyptian artist, designer and art historian, Bahia Shehab studies ancient Arabic script and applies it to modern-day issues. She is the Creative Director with MI7-Cairo, working on projects relevant to cultural heritage. Shehab is also an associate professor at the American University in Cairo, where she has developed a four-year Graphic Design program focusing on the discipline in the Arab world. In addition, Shehab is a TED Fellow and a PhD candidate at Leiden University in Holland.

Shehab notably created a De Beers campaign, which won an International Advertising Association gold award. Her installation A Thousand Times No was displayed at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, and was published as a book by The Khatt Foundation.

But most recently, Shehab has taken her art to the streets of Cairo, stenciling images in support of her country’s revolution.

More profile about the speaker
Bahia Shehab | Speaker | TED.com