The Daily Heller: An Overdue Arab Design History Book (Part 2)

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With waves of interest and scholarship swelling throughout the world for Arab lettering, type and typography, this book, A History of Arab Graphic Design (American University in Cairo Press) by Bahia Shehab and Haytham Nawar, is an integral resource for students and designers from East and West. A broad historical narrative has not been available until now. Shehab, a professor of practice at the American University in Cairo, and Nawar, associate professor of design and the chair of the department of the arts at the American University in Cairo, together agreed to teach a new history course on Arab design—but they insisted on the use of an encompassing text. Since nothing was available, they researched and wrote A History of Arab Graphic Design, which AUC published in 2020.

I asked (via email) Shehab and Nawar to answer questions about the content and why it took such a long time for such a book to be published in the first place. This is Part 2 of our interview. (Read Part 1 here.)

The authors are also slated to speak at the Type Directors Club and other venues in the spring.

What are the main influences on the work you address? Are there national distinctions or design vocabularies that are obvious to you but not the untrained eye?

When it comes to influences, there is a predominance of the Islamic visual language that can be seen reappearing and reemerging with time. Several artists like Helmi El Touni and Mohieddine el-Labbad were inspired by Islamic art, the art of the book, and the complexity of the relationship between Arabic script and images. In addition to Islamic influence, there are visual elements specific to each civilization. For example, in Egypt, some designers borrow elements from Ancient Egyptian visual language, and in Syria and Iraq, they were inspired by Sumerian and cuneiform. It is interesting to see the different historical references integrated into today’s visual language. Also, some designers use vernacular art as a reference in Egypt and Palestine, or African art in the Maghreb.

Over the past 20 years, there has been considerable interest and development of Arabic type and typography. What accounts for his surge of interest in books, magazines and the web?

Generally speaking, in the last 20 years, there has been interest in Arab type and typography but also in Arab design at large. This is due to a generation searching for a new visual identity that represents their culture in a globalized world. Language and the way language looks is a reflection of identity. In the early ’90s and after the Lebanese war, new design programs developed in Lebanon and others in the region followed. This gave rise to young designers who were now exposed to, and forced to become part of, a global design culture. They had to find answers for new Arab visual representation and they are still developing solutions. Design is in our everyday and is at the forefront of this representation of local history and cultural heritage. We think that creative producers are the real cultural ambassadors of nations.

In Philip B. Meggs’ book A History of Graphic Design, he divides his chronology into stylistic manifestations. Do you see similar distinctions or any period styles?

We are still working on finding these patterns. We think that as we collect more data we will be able to trace more stylistic developments. But there were definitely waves linked to political and social events that led to an increase in creative production across the Arab world. During the 1920s till the ’50s and even ’60s for some countries, as Arab nations were decolonizing on the ground, artists and designers were looking for a new visual language that represented them and that was different from that of the colonizer. So there was a wave of historical visual references during that period, whether ancient Egyptian, Phoenician, Sumerian, or others. During the ’60s and the ’70s, as governments of nations like Egypt, Syria and Iraq started sending their artists to study at universities in Russia and Europe, they also came back with visual influences that were clear in their work. Some artists went to China during this time, and this had a lifelong influence on their work. We are still scratching the surface here, so we are hoping to find more threads as more data comes in.

Is there an Arabic Modern, Postmodern, New Wave?

This is a trick question as it references art and design from the Arab world again through a Western lens. The debate is ongoing but we can safely say that as the world was developing ideas on Modernism, Postmodernism and other major movements, there were definitely Arab artists and designers who were reflecting on these same ideas in their work. In addition to that, there were local concerns that were beyond and different to what was being developed in the U.S. and Europe. As mentioned earlier, a search for an individual identity linked to heritage, whether ancient, Islamic, Coptic, and many others was ev
ident. There was also a look at forgotten local and vernacular languages and a revival of that. So the question is not whether there was, but what else?

Excellent point. What would you say you learned as researchers that is your most profound discovery?

The continuity of ideas about human dignity, independence, and identity in spite of dislocation, colonization, invasion and social upheavals was very fascinating to witness. It was beautiful to see how emotional designers would get when talking or sharing their work with us, and in some cases even when they refused to do so. Some of the most productive and experimental designers were also cultural activists and concerned citizens who cared deeply about their nations. We also discovered that the idea of graphic design is yet to be well-understood in the region. Due to the lack of institutional and governmental attention and support, some designers viewed their design work as a commercial practice, not as important as art, for example. In addition to this, because of colonial history and oppressive regimes, some designers were afraid to show and/or publish their work due to past socio-political tensions around certain topics, and they did not want their name to be linked to certain events. The discoveries were so many—the artwork, the human stories of these designers, their relationship to each other and their reactions to political and social events unfolding during their time. One of the things that we are still looking for is the history of female designers of the region.

What do you want readers to take away from your book? How should it be used in the Arab world and in the Western world, too?

We hope that the book will become a cornerstone for the canon in the region. It is mainly targeting students of art and design, emerging designers and artists, art and design historians, and anyone interested in the history of visual culture in the Arab world. Concerning the Arab world, we would like for this book to fill a generation gap. It should serve as an educational tool for our students and for the coming generations to learn about the richness of their heritage and history. We would also like to shift the narrative on the global history of graphic design, and we hope to inspire scholars from different regions to also contribute to this global history that has been Western- and Eurocentric for a long time. In general, we would like for the general public—the people who are not artists or designers by education—to realize the importance of design and acknowledge the link with cultural heritage.

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