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Arabic and Iranian Typography Show Unites Middle East

A woman who grew up in Syria and a man with Persian roots walk into CalArts. Jump ahead six years: They’re now passionately united in their goal to inspire a widespread design movement. Maece Seirafi is a Los Angeles-based graphic designer with an avid interest in both Latin and non-Latin type. She developed her love of letterforms in Damascus, at an early age. In her sophomore year of her MFA program, she connected with fellow student Pouya Jahanshahi, currently a designer, filmmaker and educator. His focus is on what he calls “hybrid visual culture,” which was the basis of his grad thesis.

Each are from opposing sides of a region that’s long been ripped apart by religious fanaticism and deadly political power struggles. But together they developed a concept they now apply to their design called “the third space.”

And their first step in spreading their concept and achieving their goal is having curated a new Los Angeles gallery show that just opened, titled Local Not LocalThey’ve united a group of Iranian and Arabic designers under one roof, with the Arabic alphabet as their commonality. The exhibition includes local and Middle East client work as well as self-initiated projects.

It’s at the Levantine Cultural Center, which presents artistic and educational programs dedicated to non-violent approaches to cross-cultural understanding and problem solving. Here’s how the center’s director, Jordan Elgrably, explained to me why he opened his space to this exhibit:

“For me, hosting this show was both an artistic and political decision as well a deeply personal one, because for the longest time I’ve had both Arab and Iranian friends. I never liked the political divide between Iran and its Arab neighbors, and always felt that we all have much more in common than we differ. Local Not Local is demonstrative about the ways in which artists from both sides of the equation meet in the middle, what Maece and Pouya refer to as the third space.”

The closing reception is coming up on August 28, and will be open to all. Maece and Pouya also be conducting a lecture that evening, titled Arabic and Iranian Typography: Fast Forward.

For now, you can read our interview below. They discuss cultural challenges, influences, and inspirations and explain their plans for spreading their movement. And of course, Maece and Pouya also talk about their love of typography in its many forms.

Top: Pouya Jahanshahi: Persian Beauty, 2011. “Perhaps amongst all artifacts, the Persian carpet best signifies the Persian culture, a symbol of timeless value, and a work of art that exudes beauty and elegance. This poster is built to resemble a carpet frame, with threads that weave the central typographic form of the word ‘Gileem,’ which means Persian rug. It’s a metaphorical reference to the the hybrid culture that exists amongst Iranian diaspora: Western forms and Latin words are mixed with Persian writing to communicate the content. Bringing forth a pragmatic dimension, a street map identifies prominent carpet stores in Tehrangeles.”

Pouya Jahanshahi: Teherangeles, 2011. “Tehrangeles is a neighborhood of West Los Angeles. It’s home to the largest community of Iranian Diaspora. Here, the metaphorical form of a Persian carpet – as a map – celebrates the structures that host various generations and dimensions of Iranians culture in this unique geographic area. On a typo-linguistic dimension, Persian and English typographic forms are fractured and melded together. This refers to the hybrid language heard all along the Tehrangeles vicinity, at times referred to as ‘P-English.’”

Michael Dooley: How would you describe Arabic and Iranian design culture in LA?

Pouya Jahanshahi: The multicultural texture of Los Angeles is undeniable. However, when it comes to the specific presence of design – and more specifically Arabic and Iranian graphic design – the arena seems relatively uninhabited.

Maece Seirafi: We actually would have thought such a culture was non-existent, had it not been for some of us coming out of art schools such as Otis, CalArts, and Art Center, and making an effort to address what contributes to defining Arabic and Iranian design culture in LA. It seems like it was only between us grads and friends of ours from art schools talking amongst ourselves, between classes, aspiring to create cultural projects and exhibits on the matter.

Pouya and Maece flank Ed Fella. All inset opening night reception photos by Amir Manesh.

The fact is, many designers here have clients that speak Arabic and Persian. Therefore, there’s a constant need to address the cultural concerns of our clients, whether it’s a poster for a cultural event, websites, branding projects, font design, books, catalogs or whatever else.

In addition to client work, we find ourselves conducting workshops at universities and cultural organizations, and also initiating personal projects on the side, to raise awareness about the Arabic and Iranian design culture that exists here in LA.

However, when we spread our call for submissions we were surprised to see just how many Arabic and Iranian designers were yearning for this awareness. Designers such as the San Francisco-based Yusef Al-Ahmad have been quietly pursuing their practice while thirsting to be united with artists and designers of similar passion for Arabic typography.

Jahanshahi: Furthermore, in the recent years non-profit organizations are expanding their horizons and initiating projects within this specific arena. The most prominent of all is perhaps Farhang Foundation and their various initiatives, including their annual Persian New Year Banners design competition and the Iranian Short Film competition, amongst others. On a different level, LACMA has recently developing a comprehensive collection of Middle Eastern contemporary arts and design.

I must say I feel a flourishing of blossoms is about to take place in Los Angeles sometime very soon.

Sam Anvari & Pouya Jahanshahi, in collaboration with Peyman Hamed: The Love of Arabic, Ottoman, and Persian Calligraphy event poster (screen print, metallic on matte grey), 2012. Anvari: “The Runi poem, ‘Sun’s beauty is the answer for its own existence,’ forms the figure of a whirling Dervish, referring to dance and perfection and the beauty of existence.”

Dooley: What inspired you to create Local Not Local?

Seirafi: Throughout my graduate studies at CalArts, typography was such a large component of the graphic design MFA program. It exposed me to various languages and typographies throughout the design culture. I’ve always wanted to explore innovative ways to incorporate my cultural identity into projects of some shape or form.

The turning point for me was investigating bilingual fonts that were being developed in Amsterdam by the Khatt Foundation where they initiated the Typographic Matchmaking Project. Five renowned Dutch type designers were matched with five Arabic type designers. The main focus of this project was to design the Arabic equivalent of existing Dutch fonts. To name a few: Gerard Unger was paired with Nadine Chahine to produce the Arabic equivalent of Unger’s font BigVesta. And Peter Bilak was paired with Tarek Atrissi to produce Fedra Arabic.

And after being introduced to Pouya my second year at CalArts, I understood his fascination with Iranian graphic design, as it matched my deep interest in Arabic graphic design. We had several discussions revolving around the future of Middle Eastern graphic design, about current political events that have been influencing the region and the design landscape of the Middle East, and about what Arabic and Iranian typography meant to the overall bigger picture.

The meeting point between all our conversations was our shared cultural passion for the Arabic script, which is used in both the Arabic and Persian languages.

The Local Not Local team, from right to left: Sam Anvari, Paymon Pojhan, Pouya Jahanshahi, Maece Seirafi, Milka Broukhim, Reem Hammad, Ebrahim Poustinchi, and Kourosh Beigpour.

Jahanshahi: The most passionate discussions were always about the beauty of the form and function, as well as the untapped potential of the Arabic script.

Seirafi: That was what formed the idea of a “third space” in design. Therefore, we decided that the idea of focusing on Arabic and Iranian typography made and produced in California was a worthwhile investigation.

Jahanshahi: Whether it was the traditional design history textbook by Philip Meggs or a simple survey of design exhibitions taking place in the US, there was a clear absence of the non-Latin voice; the seeds for Local Not Local were thus planted.

Seirafi: It happened for me during my MFA thesis, where I created a bilingual font system that was readable in both Arabic and English. I noticed that there was a need. And it was not just for my sake, but also for audiences who were interested in learning more about contemporary Arabic typography. The thought of having an Arabic typography exhibit was always in the back of my head.

Jahanshahi: I have to take you back to my days at CalArts as well, where I was not only focused on experimenting within the extended spectrum of media that was becoming available to graphic designers through the Integrated Media program, but also on developing a personal visual language, one pertaining to a transplanted designer such as myself.

It was in this realm that I found myself working with Maece on various levels, often past midnight hours – when most things get done at CalArts – in our cozy Graphic Design MFA studios.

Maece Seirafi and Pouya Jahanshahi: silkscreen poster, 2014. Jahanshahi: “The logo type is comprised of the English, Arabic, and Iranian translations of the name of the show.”

Seirafi: I’ve always been fascinated by the exhibitions and competitions being held in places like Berlin, Amsterdam, and the Middle East that celebrated the Arabic and Iranian works of extraordinary designers  such as Tarek Atrissi, Reza Abedini, and Pascale Zoghbi. Their works also raised awareness about the technical and educational tools to help young designers with Arabic type design.

Jahanshahi: Certainly, initiatives across the globe brought our awareness to the dormant potentials of the Arabic script, whether it was Abedini’s new perspective on Iranian typography, or Khatt Foundation’s collaborations with Latin type designers, it was clear Arabic script was entering a new realm.

Seirafi: It was actually a Berlin based exhibition called Right to Left: Arabic and Iranian Visual Cultures that inspired me to commit to the idea. The show explored the current happenings in the Middle East in regard to visual culture and society. It displayed over 100 posters, installations, and artwork of over 40 artists and graphic designers. I thought, “Why couldn’t an exhibit like this happen here in the U.S.?” The number of Arabic and Iranian designers going to art and designs schools is increasing. With large communities based in California, it was a notion worth exploring in the form of an exhibit that celebrated their works and brought attention to the ever growing community of Arab and Iranian creatives.

Jahanshahi: The undeniable fact that we were both visual communicators residing in the melting pot of Los Angeles, yet our passions and creative urges were rooted in a cultural heritage and an ancient script in a different time and place, that’s what crystallized the notion of our occupation of the third space.

My questions that led to my share of the Local Not Local concept were simple ones: Who else occupies this space? How can their passions and their art be exposed to the rest of society?

Seirafi: Narrowing the focus to Arab and Iranian typography, Local Not Local was our investigation to analyze the identity of what it meant to be a Middle Eastern designer based in California and how that design practice has been cultivated.

Maece Seirafi: Pointillist Zoomorphic Horse (pen and ink), 2014. “This zoomorphic pointillist approach was something I cultivated at CalArts with hybrid methodologies in typography. This process includes illustrating letterforms and the zoomorphic integration of Arabic letterforms and their curvaceous nature. The horse reads: “If there exists a home devoid of books, it is a home without a soul.” Each of the animal forms in my series is composed of a quote in Arabic using the technique called Zoomorphic calligraphy. Instead of using traditional ink with a bamboo stick I decided to experiment with pointillism, with areas of dark and light to emphasize depth within the form.”

Dooley: What were your main challenges in building the show?

Jahanshahi: The fact that this was a show initiated by two graphic designers – not curators – certainly presented challenges. I would add as a major challenge in my own mind was the question of “reach.” That is, did we collect all the work that deserves to be in the show? Of course, the short answer is, “No.” But the objective was not to be the “complete collection of….” but simply to bring attention to a specific collection and their unique aspects.

Lastly, the importance and the challenges of locating a venue must be mentioned. If it wasn’t for the openness of the Levantine Cultural Center, this show may have never come to see the light of day. What a challenge it was to find an affordable qualified space to display works pertaining to graphic design, even with our CalArts Mafia network in place!

Seirafi: In building the show, we only had a window of two days to install the exhibit. But luckily we had enough help from our friends to make it come to life. When it came to curating, we realized just how many designers and artists have applied for the show, even from outside of LA and overseas.

And sometimes the work that was being submitted didn’t really fit into the context of our show. Our focus was on Arabic and Iranian contemporary typography, yet we were getting submissions that had traditional Arabic or Persian calligraphy. Sometimes we got works that just didn’t push the boundaries of what we characterized as contemporary Arabic and Iranian typography. Therefore, we had to set up a few rules and guidelines for the curatorial process to run things efficiently.

Jahanshahi: The fact that this was a show initiated to two graphic designers – not curators – certainly presented challenges. Thankfully, Louise Sandhaus was kind enough to be our guidance counselor from afar on this path.

Maece Seirafi: Zoomorphic Peacock (lasercut cardstock, framed), 2013. “This self-initiated project, from my eagerness to experiment with tactile typography. It reads: “I Dream Daily.” Many of the animals from this series – tiger, elephant – were used in my wedding reception and became the main theme of our big event.”

Dooley: Speaking of Louise, how has CalArts in general influenced the form and content of Local Not Local?

Jahanshahi: The frame of mind taught at CalArts – and the perspective that gets introduced to one’s creative psyche – is unlike any other I’ve experienced. It’s not the high-tech labs, the talented instructors and students, or the magical vitamin that’s in the water fountains. It’s the experimental and constant critical nature of creativity that is injected in the mind of a CalArt-ian that makes the difference.

On a separate layer, being exposed to a constant flurry of designers and artists from across the globe allows the development a holistic perspective to design. And implementing these conceptual perspectives into never-ending collaborative activities allows a unique work style to form, one of constant flexibility and extreme criticality.

Also, CalArts has a very collaborative culture, in that our professors strongly encouraged us to collaborate not only within the design department but with other disciplines as well. Some of my best collaborations came from the school of dance. I’d take that knowledge and somehow find a way to apply it to my own cultural design practice that addressed the needs for Arabic design and typography.

Jahanshahi: Also, the close bond between students and faculty/mentors is one that tends to trickle into one’s work as well. While Lorraine Wild’s impeccable knowledge and insight into visual culture and subcultures guided my methodology, Ed Fella’s keen understanding of typography, craft, and cultural nuances carved my formal output. Jeffery Keedy’s critical perspective of typography, as well as Louise’s Mutant Design series, all merged to arrive at the unique choice of content and subject of our show.

Ebrahim Poustinchi: World of Right and Licenses in Publication poster, 2013. Client: Tehran Book Fair. “The interplay between the classic typewriter of the past and the three-dimensional typography of present illustrates the interaction between language and culture throught time.”

Dooley: What would be helpful to know when viewing the designs?

Seirafi: The Middle East is a highly visual culture with an important focus on the written word and poetry. Much of their love of language and poetry gets translated into a visually rich interpretation in local life. And the Middle Eastern culture is a vast melting pot of several languages and ethnic backgrounds. However, what unifies them all is the Arabic alphabet, and at times the Arabic language.

And just like Latin letterforms and Western typography, Arabic and Iranian type design has evolved from a deep understanding and a thorough knowledge of calligraphic penmanship. Arabic calligraphy is a series of elegantly constructed strokes put together to form both functional and highly aesthetic letterforms.

Throughout history, Arabic calligraphy has played a significant role in architectural facades of religious and government buildings, as well as beautifully illuminated manuscripts. It’s similar to how Latin letterforms were illuminated in the Book of Kells, the Arabic equivalence could be seen in the beautifully illuminated Qurans.

Paymon Pojhan: Man Not I (aluminum and fiberglass), 2010. “What pushes me forward in my art is my roots in my homeland and the Persian culture. This sculpture is a direct reflection of that, bringing forth a being that still has the creativity and delicateness in his work, yet the life in a foreign land has not influenced his identity.”

Dooley: Why did you decide to make Local Not Local specifically about typography to the exclusion of calligraphy?

Jahanshahi: An essential aspect of calligraphy is its penmanship, the act of writing – or better said, “drawing” – of letter forms, in a close proximity of one another, that we associate with a set of alphabet – Arabic, Greek, etc. – or script – Blackletter, Naskhe, etc. The medium, the tool, and the physicality of this process are amongst the most definitive aspects of calligraphy.

On the other hand typography – a term born during industrial revolution and modernity – pertains to the creation of visual messages using pre-made, repeatable or adjustable forms – metal type, digital vectors, etc.

Pouya and I wanted to stay away from calligraphy that was traditionally done by hand according to the historical classical styles. This is so we could explore the contemporary side of this discipline and break the notion that Arabic and Iranian typography is only about calligraphy. We could explore the interesting realms of mediums and context that each piece in the show plays in the overall definition of Arabic and Iranian typography.

Visitors won’t see any works done by a traditional calligraphy pen or bamboo stick dipped in ink. Rather, they’ll see a rich variety of mediums ranging from print to textiles to ceramics to ironwork. The overall point is to educate our audience about what Arabic and Iranian typography is in our contemporary age.

Jahanshahi: It should also be noted that it was a conscious decision to expand the definition of the term “typography” beyond its traditional academic description, to include any form of produced “type,” with the purpose of communicating a specific message at hand. Hence, our collection includes dimensional objects and sculptural forms – such as type-sculptures by Payman Pojhan – in addition to traditional print-based medium.

Milka Broukhim: Bank Note design for Iran (12-color ink on archival fine art paper), 1998. “In order to reflect the country’s historical value vs. its political configuration, my intention in creating an Iranian currency system is to emphasize the richness of the country’s art, culture, typography, and architecture for each of its major government eras. The system starts by celebrating the lowest denominator with the Achaemenid Empire – 6th Century BC – which was the first official Iranian government. The typography takes part in engaging with the name of the bank.”

Dooley: And what sort of feedback have you gotten so far?

Jahanshahi: Inquiries from various artists and designers are starting to pour in on how they can become part of this movement and share Local Not Local works with audiences. It’s as if we’ve opened a long-awaited portal, giving permission for others to walk through with us.

Seirafi: There seems to be a curiosity and an eagerness to learn more about Arabic and Iranian typography. We’ve been approached by various exhibition spaces locally and abroad asking if we would consider turning this initiative into a traveling exhibit. To see the knowledge being widespread is something akin to our initiative for both Arabic and Iranian.

Bringing awareness to this discipline not only from a linguistic aspect but also a design point of view has been getting the attention of design academia.

Jahanshahi: In the academic sphere there’s a rising thirst within various local institutions to support such work.

Yusef Al-Ahmad: Fann #2, cover design for Oasis magazine. “Oasis is the premier arts & culture magazine from Saudi Arabia that celebrates cultural heritage and a modern, progressive and young generation that is coming up with new ideas and excelling at them.”

Dooley: So, what’s next for the show?

Seirafi: Many venues, locally and abroad, have expressed an interest in hosting this event at their respected exhibition spaces, universities, and other cultural centers. So Pouya and I will be looking into turning Local Not Local into a traveling exhibit. And we’ll be working on a book.

Jahanshahi: Our visions and hopes also go beyond this specific exhibition, and on to other states around the nation: to expand upon our initial objective of bringing forth beauty and the value of the multi-cultural landscape the we reside in, with focus on typography as the primary visual language of expression. I foresee titles such as Local Not Local New York, etc.

Seirafi: We want to inspire a design movement that addresses the definition of a hybrid design practice, one that answers to a local audience by bringing forth their cultural roots to serve as their creative motivation.

Kourosh Beigpour: Scientific Meeting of Iranian Theatre Posters conference poster, 2013. Client: the Iranian Theater Poster Designers Society. “the poster was printed in Tehran for a conference about Iranian theater posters.”

Dooley: And what’s next for each of you, personally?

Jahanshahi: Other related projects brewing in the background include an independent documentary, In-Betweeness: The Visual Language of Iranian Graphic Design. It would expose the story behind the metamorphosis of Iranian graphic design since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

I’m also a member of the curatorial team behind Beyond Borders, a project with the objective of bringing the first-ever exhibition of Iranian contemporary graphic design posters, hosted by AIGA, to the U.S.

In our more immediate locale, Tehrangeles Portal is a collaborative locative-media project, inviting global and local users to explore and interact with the often unseen layers of the Persian culture in Los Angeles.

Seirafi: On personal scale, I’m about to embark on is a project called Handmade Arabic Typography. It explores the various making-methods and cultural contexts of handmade type.

Also in the works is a bilingual cookbook that experiments with food, typography, and cultural vernacular of the Middle East.

Last but not least, I’m about to launch my design studio called Lettermake that focuses on type illustration and hand-lettering. It will be a bilingual studio focusing on Latin lettering as well as Arabic.

Reem Hammad: Singing Vases (stoneware underglaze), 2014. “These vases are a part of a series I created to celebrate spring, in color, spirit, and song. Carved out of each vase are stylized Arabic letters forming a different word that relates to music.”

Shilla Shakoori: Eternity (canvas fabric stitches), 2013. “This piece is based on a Rumi poem: ‘We are not from here, and not from there; we are from nowhere, and to nowhere we go.’”

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