The biennial is the first platform for international contemporary graphic design in the Middle East. But visitors expecting a presentation of posters, stamps and branded packaging had to re-think their understanding of the discipline. Some works, such as story-led data visualisations of the Syrian refugee crisis by the Cairo and Amsterdam-based collective Foundland were convincing examples of graphic art. But others, such as Manuela Eichner’s installation of enlarged magazine cut-outs and tropical plants, intended as a comment on the recent elections in Brazil, were more difficult to place.
The biennial attempts to subvert the traditional view of graphic design as visual messaging – typography and illustration – produced in response to a brief and under a client’s commission. “Visual communications are part of everything that we see, and this has made the role of a graphic designer much more diverse,” says Prem Krishnamurthy, founder of the New York-based studio Project Projects, who was appointed by Fikra to co-direct the biennial with designers Emily Smith and Na Kim. “Graphic design mediates how we understand culture. This is why we’ve adopted a more self-reflexive approach, as visual anthropologists,” explains Smith, a Berlin-based design professor.
By expanding the definition of graphic design to bring in conceptual work, events and project spaces, the biennial aims to contribute to the development of visual culture and publishing in the Middle East. “Graphic design isn’t just a commercial discipline. It has a civic role and can facilitate other things like entrepreneurship,” says Al-Qassimi.” Yet the launch also coincides with growing restrictions and censorship in the region, which limit the scope of visual messaging. In September, activists in Kuwait protested a banned book list which includes titles such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude and Disney’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid. As for the UAE, how does it define civil society in a country where its citizens make up a tiny minority of the overall population? The picture is further complicated by the fact that many of the UAE’s residents come from politically fragile countries.
This privately-funded biennial takes place in the old Bank of Sharjah, a disused 1970s building in the sleepy city centre, which was repurposed for the event by the Dubai-based TEZ architects. A huge graffito snaked across the front facade of the worn building, with the title 'Ministry of Graphic Design' embossed at the entrance, where the bank’s name once stood. The building’s floors were divided into different 'Departments' with guest-curated exhibitions. Among them, the ‘Department of Non-Binaries’ attempts to show the hybridity of graphic design, bringing in conceptual works from different mediums, and the 'Department of Flying Saucers’ invited four different design studios to host pop-up style exhibitions during the course of the biennial.
By "un-defining" graphic design, the organisers put forward their own definition of the practice. The first is the ubiquitous nature of visual messaging. Addressing this, Stockholm-based designer Benedetta Crippa’s generative sound projection on transparent fabric hung across one of the exhibition spaces. “Communication materials can be present but not always visible, and they modify our spatial relationships,” Crippa explains. While the work feels more like an art installation, Crippa roots it in her own background as a designer: “I am challenging a dominant narrative that good design should be invisible,” she says.
By virtue of this ubiquity, graphic design is a shared experience. In the exhibition’s top floor, the Amsterdam-based Studio Moniker created a participatory installation where visitors contribute to a growing trail of triangle and square shaped stickers named the Dazzle Fungus. “The audience is invited to add stickers to grow the fungus with a confined set of rules. In that sense it works a lot like social media networks,” explains the studio’s founder. Yet, as Krishnamurthy observes, this collective quality of visual messaging has also reached a crisis point. “It has moved from a public space to an individualised one. Content is targeted to a person’s smart device, leading to the culture bubbles that we see today,” he says.
The curators of the biennial also argue that the practice of graphic design is almost ethnographic, covering a range of sensorial experiences. At lunch time during my visit, Osaka-based curator Tetsuya Goto presented spices and food from the local Sharjah market, sharing his thoughts on their smell, taste and visual aspect. “I did not expect to find so many connections to Japan, where I am from, and to Indonesia, where I grew up,” says Goto, distributing chewing gum boxes from the market – an Arabic adaptation of a popular Japanese style of packaging.
But at times, the definition of graphic design felt so stretched that it risked losing coherence. “Each meal, taste, smell or sound provides an opportunity to reconsider graphic design’s relevance to political and social narratives,” says Uzma Rizvi, a Dubai-based anthropologist who curated the exhibition’s talks programme and presented the lunch with Goto. “You’re not just smelling food, you’re smelling philosophy,” she says, passing on a pungent bowl of dried sardines from the market.
The biennial is part of Fikra’s wider attempt to develop an archive for graphic design in the Middle East. The first floor, dubbed the ‘Department of Graphic Optimism’ presented the work of Emirati designer Hisham Al Madhloum, active in the UAE’s foundational years, as well as archival newspaper and magazine cuttings from the early decades of the UAE. “There are no accessible archives, and the conversations are often focused on calligraphy and typography. My students at the American University of Sharjah struggle to find local references. They often rely on Western ones,” says Al-Qassimi. Elham Nadav, a Dubai-born graphic designer and magazine editor whose journal Bayn was presented at the biennial, agrees. “In Philip Megg’s compendium History of Graphic Design, the section about the Middle East begins with the Mesopotamian cuneiform script, the earliest known examples of writing, and Egyptian hieroglyphs,” she says. “And it stops there.”
But this perceived absence of a modern graphic design tradition in the Arab world is inaccurate. The region has a rich history of print culture, and graphic design in the mid-20th century was often rooted in the idea of creating post-colonial national identities, both by independent artists and state institutions. Later, graphic design and visual messaging also played a prominent role in the Arab Spring (a movement that was brutally silenced in Gulf countries), particularly through dissident street art. This fraught relationship the discipline has with nation-building and state power makes it difficult to reference and historicise.
Furthermore, the organisers hope that the development of regional graphic design can help revive book culture in the Arabic-speaking world. “There are many new Emirati writers writing in Arabic,” says Al-Qassimi. “But there are no beautifully designed books in Arabic, and this stops people from buying them.” The reading market in the Gulf is the biggest in the region and the Sharjah International Book Fair, which also ran during the biennial’s opening days, attracted 2.23 million visitors. A few blocks down from the biennial, the first edition of Focal Point, a two-day fair dedicated to art books, highlighted the experiments with calligraphy, visual culture and typography by small printing presses in the region. Yet the region has also seen declining literacy as a result of ongoing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, increasing poverty and the censorship of autocratic regimes, and region-wide book bans.
“A graphic designer wears many hats,” says Krishnamurthy. This quickly became the party line at the biennial. The exhibition convincingly portrays the multi-faceted nature of graphic design, urging its viewers to think critically about the impact of visual messaging on our daily lives. It also shows how the development of a contemporary graphic design practice that is participatory and critically-engaged can contribute towards self-expression, knowledge and reviving literacy in the region. Yet the civic role of visual messaging is challenged in a region where freedom of speech is increasingly threatened. As such, some hats went unmentioned at the exhibition, or maybe they were so un-defined that they were obfuscated, or lost in translation.