14th Edition

The international jury of the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture this year decided to honor two young artists, Bahia Shehab from Egypt, and Faouzi aka eL Seed KHLIFI from France, for their significant and multi-faceted contributions to innovating authentic ways for using Arabic calligraphy in street art.

Both artists employ calligraphy as an artistic vehicle to protest against injustice, to open dialogue and to trigger transformation in both the political and social scenes in the region and internationally. The use of calligraphy depicts both artists’ passions for the artistic use of Arabic language, and their wit in transmitting fast messages to the people.

In the case of Bahia Shehab, her method depicts the role street art plays as a fresh tool for the young to build networks for active change and to voice their objections.

eL Seed on the other hand, uses his creativity to introduce international audience to the rich depiction of calligraffiti to initiate interactive exchanges in the realm of cultural exchange and dialogue.

Bahia Shehab (b. 1977) is an Egyptian artist, designer and art historian studying Arabic script and visual heritage. She is associate professor of professional practice of design and founder of the graphic design program at The American University in Cairo where she has developed a full design curriculum mainly focused on visual culture of the Arab world.

Her artwork has been on display in exhibitions, galleries and streets in Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Morocco, UAE and the US. The documentary Nefertiti's Daughters featuring her street artwork during the Egyptian uprising was released in 2015. Her book A Thousand Times NO: The Visual History of Lam-Alif was published in 2010 and the artwork by the same was shortlisted for V&A’s Jameel Prize in 2016. She is a 2012 TED Fellow and a 2016 TED Senior Fellow. Bahia was selected as one of BBC’s 100 Women for two consecutive years, in 2013 and 2014. The American University in Beirut honored her as distinguished alumna in 2015. Since its creation in 2001, Bahia Shehab will be the first woman ever from the Arab region to receive the UNESCO Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture. 

As a street artist and political activist, Bahia’s works work brings to the forefront issues pertaining to political and economic injustices, as well as, personal and gender-based violations. Her project “No, A Thousand Times No”, a series of graffiti images centered around a thousand ways of writing “No” in Arabic. She collected the samples from the archives of all countries subjected to Islamic rule at some point in history. She made stencil prints and posted them on the murals of Cairo. Each stencil recounts an incident, a position, a demand, or a protest. They stood out as posters and avatars designed to educate, critique, ridicule and comment on the political situation. 

As an engaged artist and researcher, Bahia sees that art is a tool for change. It is a method of communication in order to pull people out of their comfort zones and provoke them to engage in action against their unjust reality. She advocates street art as way to build networks amongst youth both in the street and online. She comments that with the use of the internet street art is transmitted from the streets into the virtual space, thereby spreading messages faster and engaging more people. Bahia’s work subtly transmits overt calls for all sectors of society to come together and unite around a simple request of bringing justice to all.

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Faouzi aka eL Seed KHLIFI was born and bred in Paris to Tunisian parents, eL Seed did not learn to read or write Arabic until his late teens, but when he did his renewed interest in his heritage had a profound effect on his innovation of a unique style, which he calls “calligraffiti”. His vivid method is a mix of calligraphy and graffiti, where he translates and writes verses inspired and/or extrapolated from people’s stories, poetry and popular culture to communities all around the world.

Disseminating messages of peace and beauty is at the gist of his works, yet spectators from all cultures are not obliged to decipher the intricacies of the letters weaving these images. The beauty of calligraffiti according to him is like music; it roams the world and penetrates through walls without the imperative use of mind. Nevertheless, when the intended message is deciphered viewers experience another level of connectedness to universal meaning. eL Seed succeeded through this method to create a dialogue with the viewers and to confront stereotypes on Arabic culture.

el Seed transmits his own experience though calligraffiti as a French citizen living in the Suburbs of Paris and belonging to the younger generation of the French-Maghrebin. He uses this style to challenge the existing narrative around Arab and Islamic culture in Europe.  He resorts to his personal experience as an artist of Maghrebin background. He recalls that in one of the festivals on street art in France, he was asked to draw on a wall his calligraffiti. Just as he embarked on drawing on the designated wall, the person living in the house objected fiercely when he found out that the artist is about to use Arabic language. As a result, el Seed withdrew from the festival only to be called-on again to draw on the wall facing the house of the man who originally objected to the use of Arabic calligraphy. Remembering that the message he portrays is that of bringing cultures together in an atmosphere of love and harmony where a healthy dialogue is nurtured, el Seed concluded the ordeal by drawing the phrase “Open your Heart”.

eL Seed’s art circulates all around the world, from the Favelas of Rio to the slums of Cape Town, to the Pont des Arts in Paris to the Minaret of Jara Mosque in his hometown of Gabes in Tunisia.

Most recently he created a sprawling mural in the Manshiyat Naser neighborhood of Cairo that spans 50 buildings and can only be viewed from a local mountaintop. Intending to honor the historic garbage collectors of the Manshiyat Naser neighborhood, the piece reads, "Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eyes first."

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