Born in Lebanon, Bahia Shehab has a long list of accolades. She is an artist, designer, art historian, associate professor of design and founder of the graphic design program at The American University in Cairo, the first Arab woman to receive the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture, a former TED fellow and Senior fellow, and while the list could go on for quite some time, you get the idea.
Most recently though, she was an artist in residence at Shangri La. From Aug. 9-22, she studied Doris Duke’s collection of Islamic art and also installed an onsite mural called My People. On Sept. 27, her residency will culminate with the opening of an exhibition in the Arts of Islamic Gallery. Earlier this month, Shehab stopped by the museum to tell us more about the upcoming exhibition.
Tell me about the exhibition you’re installing.
The exhibition is called The Reflections of Shangri La and as an artist and also as an Islamic art historian, it was intriguing for me to look at the collection through the eyes of the woman who has put it together… I noticed that in a lot of the artwork that she collected, there are women but many of them are very small or miniature illustrations. But they do depict the life of women from different dynasties, so you have a woman who is a courtesan dancing in a court or a woman who is sitting in her house having a drink with her cat, a woman who is weaving, a woman who is reading—but they are always hidden and on small artifacts in different parts of the collection. But by bringing them together and having them on display and blowing their size up, you get to really see the life of these women and you can reflect on their daily activities, their social status, the way they dress, how they made themselves beautiful—but it also makes you look at them as women and not as the other, and this a very important message that I’d like the viewers to see. These small women have been blown almost to the size of a real-life human being so when you walk into the room, you are meeting the women of Shangri La, who are the women of different dynasties of the different centuries of Islamic rule.
How many women are going to be featured?
Somewhere between 18 and 15.
What do you want viewers to feel or think when they see your exhibition?
Actually, we are going to install a mirror between the women. So when you walk in, I want you to relate if you are a woman. You would feel empowered by that space, you would feel comfortable, but also you would relate to the humanity of the artwork of these other women from different backgrounds.
How does activism lend a hand to your artwork?
Women. I think women’s rights are human rights but I think we need more of a push for it because we’re always struggling in the workplace, as mothers, as working women. This is a global thing, it’s not limited to one part of the world. Women are not getting equal pay from most of the world. Women are not getting proper maternity leave in all of the world, they’re not getting breastfeeding rights in parts of the world, so basic human rights to me are very important and that aspect, just showing women, other women, and showing them empowered in an exhibition space, that is very important for me.