• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: An Overdue Arab Design History Book (Part 1)

A History of Arab Graphic Design (American University in Cairo Press) by Bahia Shehab and Haytham Nawar is an essential new textbook for students and graphic designers from East and West. Over the past two decades, Arabic type and typography has been well-chronicled through books, exhibitions and conferences. Yet a broader historical narrative has not been available until now.


Shehab is a professor of practice at the American University in Cairo, and her latest publication You Can Crush the Flowers: A Visual Memoir of the Egyptian Revolution marks the 10-year anniversary of the uprising. Nawar has worked at the Ionian Centre for Art and Culture in Kefalonia, Greece, has taught at the School of Design in Hong Kong, and is currently associate professor of design and the chair of the department of the arts at the American University in Cairo. Nawar was also a Fulbright Visiting Artist at the School of Visual Arts, and visiting scholar conducting post-doctorate research at the ArtSci Center of UCLA.


The two educators agreed that to teach a new history course on Arab design, they needed a solid text … but there was nothing available. So, they researched and wrote A History of Arab Graphic Design and published it.


As the world becomes a smaller place and graphic design becomes a larger profession and de-colonized cultural force, design histories from non-Western (American and European) countries are on the rise. This volume arrives not a moment too soon. There are many stories to be told about the origins of letters, characters, scripts, as well as posters, advertisements and all other forms of print design. It is about time that the canon of the "old Eurocentric white guys" is supplemented by books such as this.


There are some stylistic and conceptual crossovers, but the differences from time period to time period and nation to nation reveal profound distinctions that contribute to great multicultural moments.


I asked (via email) Shehab and Nawar to explain the rationale for their history (organized by decades after a pre-1900 chapter). Also, I wondered why it took such a long time for this comprehensive history to be published in the first place. The entire interview will be presented over two consecutive days this week (today and tomorrow).


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



Your book A History of Arab Graphic Design appears to be modeled to an extent on Philip B. Meggs' A History of Graphic Design, even down to the 'A' in the title. Do you believe that this is just peeling off the first layer of Arab design?

Of course, Meggs’ history is an influential reference; the fact that most history books on the topic are quite Western-centric in their discourse was reason enough for us to feel that the narrative has to shift. The 'A' was added by our editor Nadia Naqib, who agrees with us on the fact that A History of Arab Graphic Design is the first book on the topic, and it is only our take on it, and we hope to read future works by scholar colleagues who will hopefully reflect on our book and build on it. As we like to mention, the content of the book represents only one-third of the material we have. When the book was published, more people showed interest in contributing to our second edition of the book. We are receiving even more content from countries that we did not cover extensively in this edition (e.g., Algeria, Sudan, Yemen, UAE).

How long have you been working on this book, and where has your support come from?

The idea for the book came about 10 years ago when the course with the same title was developed for the graphic design program at The American University in Cairo by Bahia, but we had no textbook to teach it. It took our research team and us over two years of hard work to collect the data. Then, another year for co-writing, which was more than we initially expected because of the amount and diversity of content that we had gathered. This book is only the starting point and, in a future edition, we hope to include more material. The American University in Cairo supported the project financially in the form of a research grant, in addition to the great resources that are available at our Rare Books and Special Collections Library. Many designers, artists and collectors were very generous in donating their work and providing information and oral histories. The families of deceased artists and designers also provided some of the work and narratives. We tried to reach people via emails and commissioned students and young professionals to help us collect data, visit archives and conduct interviews. A lot of people contributed to making this book possible, and we are very grateful to the enthusiasm and hard work that was put along the process.



Arab calligraphy has, over the past decade or more, been covered in other volumes, so what—if anything—new did you discover about this history?

In this volume, we explored the contribution of Arab calligraphers to the field of graphic design, especially in modern times. We look at calligraphy as part of the vernacular culture. The examples we show focus on print media, shop signs, street signs and other applications. The main new idea presented in the book is the continuity of a design visual language from Islamic cultural history to modern and contemporary design applications. Calligraphy was an integral visual element in a glorious past; it was interesting to trace the d/evolution of the script through mediums—its humble transformation into typeset molds, then its journey into the typewriter and later transfer sheets, and finally into the digital world. It was like witnessing the rise and fall of nations across decades simply by the shape of their script.



You use a chronological approach, and the second chapter covers 1900–1919. What occurred at this time to trigger the beginning of Arab graphic design?

The late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century witnessed the foundation of art education in the Arab world. This was one of the factors for the development of generations of Arab artists and designers. Education in the field played a major role in allowing professions in art and design to flourish. In the same period, several magazines and newspapers were formed, opening opportunities for these graduates to be hired in publishing houses and practice what they had learned. The demand for designers in different aspects resulted in calligraphers, art directors, cover designers and other “design”-related crafts to surface. It was a flourishing time in the history of Arab periodicals and it coincided with the emergence of educated talents. On top of this, the Egyptian cinema and theater industry was also flourishing and demanding artists and designers from the region. Similarly, the publishing field was prospering in Lebanon.


I won't go chapter by chapter, but each era does have defining characteristics. Did Arab graphic design develop in parallel or separately from Western design?

The relation between Arab graphic design and Western graphic design is complicated. In the book, we tried to show the link between the work of designers and the socio-political events that were unfolding at their time in addition to the geopolitical situation. This being said, history witnessed a long tradition of colonialism in the region, which justifies the complicated Arab-Western relation. From a pedagogical perspective, the design is tied to the community and its different problems. Hence, you cannot separate design from society, politics, economy and culture.

The Arab world is rather large and diverse. You work and live in Egypt. Was there a preponderance of design produced in any single country, or was it about all equal?

Out of the almost 80 designers documented in the book, 40 are from Egypt. This speaks to the scale and weight of Egypt as a regional knowledge generation center. Lebanon, Syria and Iraq all had thriving intellectual, social and political realities. Finding material was not equal in every country. Obviously, because we are Cairo-based and because, historically, Egypt has been a cultural center with several creative industries thriving, a lot of the material is from Egypt. Work from West Asia in countries like Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria is also well-represented, but some countries were very difficult to access. We have low representation from countries like Libya, Algeria and Yemen due to the difficulty of travel to these countries. We also have no representation from the Arabian Gulf, keeping in mind that we chose to stop documenting in the early 2000s; it is definitely a different landscape now. The North African countries that were colonized by the French had design work that did not contain the Arabic language, thus we had to eliminate it for now. It was a difficult decision not to include designs by Arab designers who utilize the Latin script only in their work, but we thought it best, and simply as a selection tool.


CONTINUED TOMORROW: PART 2





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