This year’s prize pays tribute to the calligraffiti practice of two young artists from Egypt and France.
Awarded for their ongoing work in promoting Arab culture in the world.
On 24 March 2017 artists Bahia Shehab from Egypt and eL Seed from France were announced as winners of the 2017 UNESCO Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture. Both artists use calligraphy in street art to transmit political messages and to evoke change. In this 14th edition, Shehab is the first woman from the Arab region to receive the award.
The prize is an initiative of the United Arab Emirates and is awarded to two artists who, according to the prize, “have made a significant contribution to the development, dissemination and promotion of Arab culture in the world”. Each year one artist is selected from an Arab country and one from any other country.
Since 1998 the UNESCO Director-General and a panel of experts in the field of Arab Culture select the winners, and so far 22 laureates have been awarded the prize. Past winners have included researchers, artists, philosophers, authors and translators.
The prize money of USD60,000 is divided between the two winners. This prize is an affirmation of several years of work in the area of promoting discussion and dialogue around Arab art and culture.
The jury this year consisted of Hiam Abbass, a specialist in Middle East film, mathematician Ahmed Djebbar, Amadou Mailele, a politician and diplomat with a background in arts, sociologist Gema Martin Muñoz and Farhan Nizami, a scholar in Islamic Studies.
Egyptian artist, designer and art historian Bahia Shehab (b. 1977) is a calligraffiti artist whose project No, A Thousand Times No developed out of the Arab Spring. Shehab comments that as a quiet person her contribution to the protests was not to shout out, but it was paint on walls. Through her art she spoke out strongly, saying no to military rule, emergency law and no to violence against citizens. No, A Thousand Times No centred on the multiple ways of writing “no” in Arabic, drawing from archives of countries that experienced Islamic rule throughout history. From this research she made stencil prints that she posted on the streets of Cairo.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Shehab explained:
When you loose hope with everything around you, you go down to the street. Your only hope is the people. This is who you paint and work for. It’s their minds, you try to influence.
Shehab also speaks out on issues such as gender-based violence. One of her key images was a blue bra, referring to a young woman who was publicly dragged and beaten by members of the Egyptian military in Tahrir Square in December 2011, during which she was exposed. Shehab uses this image as a reminder of the shame of that event.
eL Seed (b. 1981) was born in Paris to Tunisian parents, although he did not learn to read or write Arabic until his teens. His calligraffiti style emerged from this renewed study of the language. His style mixes poetry, calligraphy and graffiti to communicate messages of peace and beauty. As he explained in an interview, “the script reaches your soul before it reaches your eyes” and is therefore able to communicate even when the viewer cannot understand the Arabic script. He believes the beauty of the calligraffiti can transcend cultural barriers in order to connect to universal meanings.
In an interview with Your Middle East, eL Seed explains how he develops the text in his work:
I try to bring something relevant to a place where I paint, so the phrase will be something inspired by the people I am around, or the feeling I get from a certain place. I think that throughout all my work I try to talk about topics that are often ignored or overlooked.
eL Seed uses his personal experience, as a French-Maghrebin living in the Suburbs of Paris, in his work. He draws inspiration from people’s stories, poetry and popular culture, combining it with his self-taught style as a street artist. By creating his work in the public sphere eL Seed brings into question stereotypes about Arab and Islamic culture in Europe.
- Four artists win the 2017 Sharjah Biennial Prize – March 2017 – the Sharjah Biennial Prize 2017 winning artists hail from Africa, Europe and the Middle East
- Vilcek Prize 2017 for Fine Arts awards immigrant artists – February 2017 – the 2017 edition of the Vilcek Prize for Fine Arts goes to Jamaican-born artist Nari Ward
- Jameel Prize 4 announces shortlisted artists – January 2016 – London’s V&A has announced its shortlist of 11 artists and designers for the upcoming Jameel Prize 2016
- The puppeteer: Wael Shawky’s ‘Cabaret Crusades’ and other stories at the Mathaf and MoMA PS1 – July 2015 – Egyptian artist Wael Shawky opens up a dialogue on religion and history with two major exhibitions in the Arab and Western worlds
- French-Tunisian graffiti artist eL Seed on his Arabic roots, “Lost Walls” and reclaiming purple – interview – June 2014 – Art Radar interviews Tunisian graffiti artist eL Seed to learn more about his journey to Tunisia’s most forgotten and remote areas
Subscribe to Art Radar for more on art prizes and awards