Bahia Shehab on A History of Arab Graphic Design

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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Over at Al-Fanar, ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey has a look at a new textbook of graphic design, co-authored by Haytham Nawar and Bahia Shehab: A History of Arab Graphic Design. However, here was more to the conversation with Bahia Shehab — which took place over voice notes than fit in the interview:

Below is more of our discussion about the origins of the book, the gaps in the archival materials, and what Shehab would like to see next.

Bahia Shehab History Arab Graphic Design

What brought you two together in creating / assembling this book? What distinct or overlapping skills, experience, and personal histories do you each bring to the project?

Bahia Shehab: What brought us together is I developed a program in 2011, it was launched, and this course was already in the syllabi, I had planned on offering the course, but there was no textbook to teach it. But the course was already in the graphic-design program system. So when Haytham came on board as a faculty, we discussed the possibility of collaborating. When we met it was hilarious because when he visited my library, he was laughing, and he said, When you come to my house you will understand, and we discovered that our libraries were almost identical. We were already interested in the same things, and we finally met at AUC, and I think we were both getting ready separately to work on this book, and eventually when we met we found it was a great excuse for us to work together on this book.

Why here, why now? Were you thinking at all about your students — and what young graphic designers need — when writing and assembling the book?

Bahia Shehab: Once we discovered that we have this common interest and we are interested in teaching this course together, and writing this book, we applied to an AUC grant and we got funding, and we started visiting different countries and interviewing and documenting the work of different designers, and because we needed to teach this course and we had no textbook, so we were hoping that this would be a textbook for our students and any educator who is interested in teaching on the history of Arab graphic design, for them to have a reference to work from. This was the main reason why we got together to create he book. The course was the nucleus, but our shared interest in the same topics drove the process. 

What is the essence of the phrase “graphic design” as you use it? Google tells me that it’s design that is working in a mode of visual communication? Is there a good definition I should be using?

Bahia Shehab: The phrase graphic design is becoming flexible, and the world of design is evolving right now. So a designer is not simply the person who deals with the graphics, or the visual communication of a medium, but also they are people who think of user experience and how this visual outcome is communicating with its audience and if it’s accomplishing what it needs to accomplish, so the role of designers is evolving but the term “graphic design” is mainly about visual communication. 

Most artists at the turn of the twentieth centuries, used to work as graphic designers, designing calendars, packages, posers, etcetera but there was no clear description or a need for the role of a graphic designer, and with industrialization and the world wars, the need for mass communication rose and the craft of graphic design started developer.

What is the relationship between graphic design and art? Is the relationship between Arab graphic design & Arab art different from, for instance, American graphic design & American art?

Bahia Shehab: It’s roughly the same as that in Europe or in the United States, whereby designers were also actually artists who you considered graphic design the commercial that they used to make a living, .This is why many of the designers that we interviewed did not really document their design work because to them this was just work. Some of them were actually established artists. 

In the introduction, you note that initially you had intended to focus on Arab graphic design as it’s practiced in Arab countries, but then had decided to expand to the Arab diaspora as well. What boundaries did you eventually put on the project? Work in the diaspora that also influenced work being done in Arab countries? What effect did it have on your project to shift to look at diasporas as well?

Bahia Shehab: This also reflects the reality of the Arab world, because many of the artists and accomplished designers now reside outside of the Arab world because of political conditions, whether the Palestinian situation, the Lebanese civil war, the invasion of Iraq, the destruction in Syria, so we found this repeating narrative in almost every country we went to, whether for political or social conditions these artists migrated and settled in other countries, and their work was essential for the narrative of the region, so it was impossible to write the book without their work being included. So looking at Arab design could not really be limited to the geography of the Arab world any more because of the political conditions of the region, thus we included the designers of the diaspora, and this was actually liberating because we were no longer limited from Morocco to Iraq, and we could interview anybody whose work we found influential and important for the narrative overall.

What are the major gaps both in archival materials and in ways of thinking about different aspects of Arab graphic design?

Bahia Shehab: There are major gaps in archival materials that are absurd so I don’t know where to start, actually, because many of the designers did not keep their work, and there are no governmental institutions to care about this work enough to keep it. We don’t even have a design museum, let alone a design archive. It’s not a priority for the governments, I think, 

Are there misconceptions that need to be “peeled away” before we can look at Arab graphic design? 

Bahia Shehab: There are no conceptions to start with! We need to educate people on what is Arab design. I graduated twenty years ago, and when I went out on the market, some people didn’t understand what I’m doing. My students, twenty years later, are still facing the same problem. People do not know what graphic design is. So before we talk about misconceptions, we need to talk about conception, so we need to really educate the masses on the need. There is an awakening, things have importoved since I graudated, but there’s still a lot of room for development.

Why did you decide you wanted to focus on profiling individual designers and their work? (Although it’s brilliant to know, for instance, the face & story of the man who designed those early Sindibads.)

Bahia Shehab: We wanted to create a clear lineage, because it’s important for the young designers, because as I said the book was developed for a course that was written for the catalog of the de… The intention is education, and we’re always thinking about how to engage a younger reader, a younger designer, and it was important for us to put a face to the name, and that they don’t just read about a history in general and design in general, we wanted to personalize it, so that they feel that they have grandmothers and grandfathers in design who they can look up to, because I grew up feeling that there’s nobody, and I got the impression that there were no Arab designers, and after this research I was really overwhelmed with how beautiful and how deep, how amazing their work was, and I wanted our students to know that, and for them to emotionally connect with these stories, we really hoped to introduce them to the people and not just the work

How did you select the individual designers that you profile in each section?

Bahia Shehab: Some work speaks for itself, for example someone like Burhan Karkutli, who passed away a long time ago, but just seeing one of his posters, or one of his design works, you’re directly attracted to this amazing unique style. So the first step is finding designers who had very strong distinct visual output, and many of them were politically involved, which makes a lot of sense, and the second thing was what was available, unfortunately, because not all designers had their work documented. So we had to look in different archives, and dig around. We created a much longer list, and some people we found nothing, unfortunately, or we ran out of funding, we couldn’t travel to a certain country, for instance Sudan, Tunis, Algeria, Libya, there’s so much left to discover. This is only the tip of the iceberg. So as usual: time, funding, and what is available. But I’m really hoping that we will have updated editions, so we can keep updating the findings of the book; this is our hope, that it’s an ongoing project.

Where was it easiest & hardest to get information about design? 

Bahia Shehab: The easiest was to interview people, it was very emotional, I did stop at times and cry, many times, especially when I was interviewing designers from Iraq or Syria, it was heartbreaking, even Lebanon, so talking to them was easy, the emotional burden of the story, and telling the story, to me this was very hard. Just witnessing the diaspora and the human narrative that these people went through to flee regimes, to stay true to their causes. To me, that was hard. Information, finding archives, also was a bit challenging. Many designers lost their archives. I had one designer in Syria who sent me pictures of his burnt studio, which was heartbreaking. Talking to the living people was easy but finding the work of those who passed was more challenging, some of them we couldn’t find a lot of things about them, even though we heard from everybody that they were important.

What were some of the main drivers of Arab graphic-design innovation? Does the need to communicate Palestinian resistance play a large role regionally, in design development and vernacular, more than other resistance movements?

Bahia Shehab: Yes of course, there’s a whole chapter on the Palestinian resistance and how it drove designers regionally, but not more than other resistance movements, I think if you look at the Arab Spring, if you look at the 2011 uprising, there was also a great output of visual material, so I think large political movements, historically, always drive this. There were also translation projects, and whenever there’s a governmental endeavor regarding culture, this pushes graphic design forward. So: Technological breakthroughs, historical political events, and government-driven projects.

What were some of the stories or discoveries that surprised you the most as you were assembling this book?

Bahia Shehab: One of them is we discovered, for example, that Burhan Karkutli was living in the same house where Haytham is living right now in Zamalek, or across the street from him, because we found a photo of him on the balcony, in the same place where Haytham is living, so to us this was like a freak accident, it was funny, and the heartbreaking stories of the designers who moved out of their countries, and the fact that I haven’t found many women designers, this was really frustrating for me, there are only four women in the book. Three Lebanese and one Egyptian, and the one Egyptian we only had one or two posters by her, and the three Lebanese were from the later generations, so their work was in the 80s and the 90s. Compared to 76 men.  So to me this was really frustrating. I want to find the rest of the women, maybe one of the books I want to write is, Women of Arab Graphic Design. So the fact that I couldn’t find enough women was, to me, exciting for the researcher, because now I want to find them. The Women of Arab Graphic Design should be coming out next.

What led to your decision to call 1990+ a “rebirth”? 

Bahia Shehab: The reason for the 1990s rebirth is what happened in Beirut and the AUB school, and that created a regional movement. Now, if you look at Arab graphic design globally, the leaders all graduated from that school. There was something happening in post-Civil War Lebanon that really shook visual culture in the region., and we are still seeing the ripple effect of that collaboration at the AUB.

Your introduction emphasizes the need for more work to be done. If you had a fund of, say, 10 million euro, what sorts of projects would you sponsor?

Bahia Shehab: I would set up a design museum, definitely, this is the first thing I would do. We need an Arab graphic design museum. We would create traveling shows that would go to different museums around the world to educate people about Arab graphic design, and Arab history and culture. We would sponsor more research fellowships for more books to be created on Arab designers and the history of Arab graphic design because, as I told you, this I only the tip of the iceberg, we don’t have enough. I think that’s it, my ten million euros are up. Design museum, traveling shows, and conferences and scholarship on Arab graphic design. 

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