Installation view of BAHIA SHEHAB’s “At the Corner of a Dream” at Aga Khan Centre Gallery, London, 2019. Courtesy Aga Khan Centre Gallery.

At the Corner of a Dream

Bahia Shehab

Aga Khan Centre Gallery
United Kingdom Palestine Egypt Lebanon

Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008), the Palestinian resistance poet, is held up as the progenitor of the country’s national consciousness. His words have become a core component of contemporary Arab culture, articulating exile and advocating peacemaking based on his faith in a universal humanity. Bahia Shehab, well versed in his poetry, borrowed one of Darwish’s phrases for the title of her first solo show in the United Kingdom at London’s new Aga Khan Centre, “At the Corner of a Dream.”

These evocative words, and many more of the poet’s verses, are the building blocks of Shehab’s artistic practice. She lifts those lines, which resonate with her experiences in post-revolution Egypt, using them as graffiti tags that are memorialized and expanded upon in her short films. In a dark, circular chamber, five of these films played on loop on curved screens. The black-and-white Erasing Memory (2019) opens the sequence with shots of bare brick walls; a female figure representative of Shehab moves from one screen to the next, briskly spraying Arabic text onto the walls as sounds of protest chants play in the background. Subtitles offer translations of the graffiti: “No to Discrimination,” ”No to Backwardness,” ”No to Hatred.” These expressions are quickly censored by a nondescript man who chases down the text markings and systematically paints over each phrase in white. Initiated at the time of Shehab’s own participation in Cairo’s Tahrir Square protests of 2011, this work arose from a need to provide visual representation to her voice both as a means of resistance and to lend permanency to her ideas as the revolution subsided and ultimately failed.

BAHIA SHEHAB, Erasing Memory2019, still from HD video: looped. Courtesy the artist.  

It is for this reason that Shehab has continued to articulate herself through graffiti-like works on various walls away from the repressive environment of her native Egypt. (However, her wall painting in London, made in the run-up to this exhibition, met with a similar fate to those in the film narrative: it was removed within 24 hours.) My Country is (not) a Suitcase (2019), a split-screen, four-channel vignette filmed in Beirut, expounds this sense of invisibility and the challenges of finding a place where one is heard. On each screen, different groups of items are diligently packed into tired-looking suitcases: an array of fresh vegetables layered on top of each other; children’s clothing neatly folded; books stacked; and a series of spray paint cans arranged in rows. The varied contents, acting as specific reminders of home and as items for new destinations, are taken by Shehab to reflect different forms of collective trauma as a result of displacement and relocation. Her monologue accompanies these scenes of foreboding upheaval, vindicating the associated emotions and tension: “Every time I pack my bag I pack my anxiety . . . I pack my hopes . . . I pack my passport . . . I pack my tears.”

BAHIA SHEHABMy Country is (not) a Suitcase2019, still from HD video: looped. Courtesy the artist.  

The suitcases imply a destination. Yet, Those Who Have No Land, Have No Seas (2019) is a reminder that this is often elusive for those displaced by political circumstance. An appealing aerial shot of predominantly Western tourists baking in the sun while luxuriating among inflatable beach balls and bright rubber rings at the edge of a pool transitions into views of a watery expanse. The film moves vertically along the water as if travelling with the pool’s swimming lanes, as light ripples pulsate from a constellation of orange, floating life jackets surrounding a black mass. The smooth passage along the water subsequently flashes back to the bathers, with the camera lens flickering between scenes until the screen freezes on the black matter, which is revealed to a human body splayed and face down in the pool.

BAHIA SHEHAB, Those Who Have No Land, Have No Seas, 2019, still from HD video: looped. Courtesy the artist.
BAHIA SHEHAB, Those Who Have No Land, Have No Seas, 2019, still from HD video: looped. Courtesy the artist.

Shehab does not imbibe in subtlety. The films presented in this exhibition confront the common inertia to human injustices, and when shown together in quick succession, build a case for the continuation of peaceful protest and activism. This is made all the more potent at a time when public demonstrations wage globally, from Lebanon to Chile to Hong Kong. 

Bahia Shehab’s “At the Corner of a Dream” is on view at Aga Khan Centre Gallery, London, until January, 5, 2020.

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