The RE Project

Arabic Cover Design Archive: Filling The Gaps In Design History

Written by Samira Bouabana. Published on 30 December 2021.

As a graphic designer, I am interested in the who’s, when’s, and why’s of the design world as in the esthetics and tactility – and any aspects associated with the development, realization, and documentation of design. As part of my research and praxis, I developed an interest in design history, and particularly in the blind spots of design history.

My present mindset was coined by the initiative ‘Hall of Femmes’ that I founded in 2009, jointly with Angela Sperandio. As the owners of a small design studio, we had a personal need to know more about the women in design who came before us, for us to understand where we were heading. We couldn’t find these women in design history books, nor had we learned of them in design school. Internet search engines weren’t very helpful either. We started to list every single female name we could find while going through old design yearbooks from the 1960s to the ’80s. We started to contact the designers who were by then between 60 and 84 years old. We interviewed them and started to publish the ‘Hall of Femmes’ book series. We understood that we filled a gap by appearing in libraries, reading lists, or in front of juries awarding design prices.

Backed with this good experience, I considered researching another aspect of my identity. I am a Swedish-Tunisian living in Sweden, where the only news from the SWANA (Southwest Asia / North Africa) region are about politics or about religion. As I rarely see expressions of the culture here in Sweden, and certainly no reference to the contemporary design culture. I also experience a knowledge gap in design history when it comes to design produced outside of a Western sphere. Rooted in my personal interest, I detected another blind spot of design history that I consider as important on a professional level. I am looking for a design world that is more interesting and fun, with greater diversity in expressions and references.

I began my research at the online store Ya Habibi Market, where I found a hat stating “Make Arabic Great Again”. This seems to spot a present spirit. All around the SWANA region, there seem to be people searching for a new definition of what Arabic identity could be. Several new design studios, brands, and magazines aim to be part of the international circuit with active links to their own traditions and particularities. I follow their social media accounts and start to understand where history and tradition are redefined, whether it is in food, fashion, or design. What I don’t find is research on design history and theory in the SWANA region. The region certainly doesn’t lack design history, but, until recently, a lot is undocumented. I took off to find non-academic, non-institutionalized initiatives that seek to document and discuss the design history in the region.

One such initiative is the ACDA archive, based in Cairo, founded by graphic designer Mahmoud Elhossieny. The archive currently holds 3,500 objects, consisting mostly of books and magazine covers, but also voice recordings, interviews, and sketches connected to publications or their designers. Mahmoud is the founder and head researcher. He is aided by research assistants Omayma Dajani in Palestine, Yemen To’meh in Lebanon, Karim Fouad in Egypt, and Sophia Alami in Morocco. Mahmoud Elhossieny left the advertising industry to search for the identity of Arabic design. He started the ‘Arabic Cover Design Archive’ in Cairo to make design history in the MENA region available for everyone.

The website of the ACDA archive – soon to be launched – will be open to the public. Until then, the collection is shared through Instagram posts. Occasionally, the archive invites designers to talk about selected covers. In the archive’s posts, they focus on analysis and context, through written text and image. One can find more analyses about Arabic design culture on the archive’s sister project, the digital platform ‘Design Repository’.

When I met Mahmoud on screen, I was eager to know more about his thoughts and motivations behind the archive. During our conversation, Mahmoud is in his home in New Cairo, the satellite city to Cairo built in the 2000s. He told me that he will go soon to Lebanon to work on the archive from there. On the wall behind him are vintage Egyptian film posters, visual proof of Egypt’s special status as the film center of the Arab world. Somewhere in the house, his big dog Koji is barking.

SB: You’re a graphic designer who worked for a long time as a creative director at the ‘Egyptian Advertising Bureau’ in Cairo. What does the journey from the advertising industry to opening a design archive look like?

ME: I took a break in my working life after ten years in the industry to pursue a master’s in communication design in London. Coming back from there, where the design culture is so rich and overwhelming, I felt like a stranger in Cairo and started to question my identity. What was it like to be an Arabic designer? Is there even such a thing? I started roaming the streets of Cairo and ended up at flea markets and street markets. I was looking for clues.

SB: What did you look for at the flea markets, and what did you find?

ME: When I was browsing through books and magazines, I started seeing all the covers. I felt a seductive breeze from the past. I thought I saw traces of an Arabic identity, a sense of seduction from the past, as well as a connection to the vagueness of a fragmented identity. I could see it was all around me. That’s when I decided to leave the advertising world completely because I had found what I wanted to do: make this material accessible.

SB: I have been working on a project focusing on women’s role in design history, the project was titled ‘Hall of Femmes’. It started as a personal need to see someone that I could relate to within my profession. I recognized that narrative in your story, about how you felt lost and searched for an Arabic design identity. Do you think these kinds of perception changes, adding to history, including new perspectives, must come from a personal identification with the problem?

ME: Of course, I think so.

SB: Why is it important right now to have an archive for Arabic design?

ME: We have a knowledge gap about our own history that needs to be bridged. An archive can contribute to the development of a theory that can help us conquer and connect to that history. I thought that pattern would emerge of different schools of thought. A pattern that might answer the question of what it is to be an Arabic designer. This is a collection of historical artifacts, but it could just as well be thought of as a collection of starting points, explanations, sources, or histories. I’m interested in the histories these covers can tell and not only the covers themselves.

SB: What kind of history is that?

ME: We see our work as a kind of visual archeology, to dig out a small part of a bigger history. Books and magazines are not just designs. We don’t collect beautiful designs, we collect history. It’s compressing time and space and could be a portal to other times and places. It can help to understand not only design but also people, their dreams, ideas, and fears.

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SB: Why do you think there is a need for an independent archive besides state archives?

ME: There are archives that are connected to universities and state institutions, but not everyone has access to these. The institutions carry political and social baggage, and we didn’t want to be a part of that. We wanted to provide a free space accessible for everyone, where the visitor does not feel intimidated by the exclusivity of such institutions. If I can dream, I hope that our archive would put pressure on other archives to open and to understand the importance of digital documentation. It’s a political question for me. To lock up historical material limits who has the possibility to do something with it. It slows down knowledge production in our region.

SB: Is that why it’s important that your archive is digital?

ME: Yes. Another reason is that it can be visited from everywhere. Another one is the economy. We don’t have the costs that a physical archive has. With digital, the pieces are documented regardless – we’ve ensured that they will exist for at least twenty to thirty years.

SB: What’s your biggest challenge right now?

ME: To build the webpage. We’re working on that right now. It’s one thing having the material, another to make it accessible and easy to navigate. That, and funding. Right now, we have some resources, thanks to different foundations in the region, for me to be able to work on it for a while. But with more money, we could cover more areas.

SB: Who do you hope will use your archive?

ME: We hope to be an asset for anyone who can’t access already existing closed archives. So far, universities have approached us to create courses around the material. That makes me extremely excited! It’s not common that design courses are centered around Arabic design. Usually, they are very “Western” oriented. We also hope to contribute to more knowledge about the designers behind the covers, both famous and not so famous, for example, women designers. On the design repository, for example, there is an article about Samiha Hasanim, to mention one.

SB: A comprehensive book about Arabic design history was recently published ‘A History of Arabic Graphic Design’ by Haytham Nawar and Bahia Shehab published by The American University in Cairo Press in December 2020. What does it mean that there are several ambitious projects about Arabic design history right now?

ME: There has been a dominant narrative about how design should look. I think there’s more to add to the history and the design area. There is a need for more research projects that show other types of ideas so that our collective understanding of what design can be broadened. A lot of things need to happen at the same time so that design can be influenced and formed by other areas.

SB: How do you relate to theories about decolonizing the design field?

ME: I am trying to maintain a healthy skepticism and distance from overusing the term ‘decolonization’. You can see that in many circles within and outside of the design context, just about anything now is being forcefully bent to relate to or fit under the term decolonization. In some of these circles, the term is being used interchangeably with statements that victimize the East and render it passive, which I reject totally.

This presentation of ‘The East’ contributes to a few issues: first, they deface ‘The East’ as one entity, denying the specificity, traditional richness, and cultural differences of each place. This reduces ‘The East’ to an easily swallowed concept for the Western audience. Second, the reverse of this is also true; this statement renders ‘The West’ as one entity so that it can claim that ‘The West’ is to blame for all of our shortcomings and tuck in many complex problems we have under the term ‘decolonization’, which in my opinion propagates for a sort of uncritical rancor towards ‘The West’ (most of the time) and obfuscates any discourse about other specific problems that we have and how we address them. Not all the problems we have in our societies are caused by colonization.

To answer your question more specifically, in a sense, people trying to reclaim and work towards an understanding of their history tend to be identified as ‘decolonizers’. So, maybe in that sense, I do relate to these theories as the archive project is aiming to provide the raw material that can aid an understanding of that history.

SB: Do you think there is an anticipation that Arab design has to be very different from Western design? That it is “more Arab” the more “other” it is? I refer to how people sometimes think that the work of women designers has to represent something else than, for example, modernism. Do you understand what I mean?

ME: I think I understand what you mean. It is a good point. I think yes, there is a general feeling of dramatic anticipation for Arab design to be different from Western design specifically.

This anticipation is deeply rooted in wider ideas of orientalism that are based on perceiving the East as exotic, different, and oriental. This idea of otherness perpetuates the cultural perspective of dominator-subordinate or the universal-peripheral relation which are characteristic of hegemony.

The subtext of this otherness is to fetishize identity, classify, reduce, and subordinate the other as different and in opposition to the Western established self. This anticipated otherness is not all bad, however, if used to subvert the assumed universalism of the West. It can provide an opportunity to create new norms and new centers.

SB: Many archives are connected to a nation’s history. Your archive collects material from a whole region, countries with totally different histories. Isn’t it difficult with such a big research area?

ME: There’s a saying: books are written in Egypt, printed in Lebanon, and read in Iraq. Ideas have always spread organically in this region and are built on one another. Just like how in a European context, it is hard to pinpoint the exact country of origin of an idea. I feel very connected to, for example, Lebanese people or Tunisians, but also curious about the many things I don’t know.

SB: Language is a common factor in the region. Even if spoken language is different, written text can be read by everyone. Is that a more important limitation than nations?

ME: Language is an important aspect. What is design other than image and text expressing ideas and thoughts? There used to be pride in the Arabic language. But today most higher education is conducted in English. This is something I struggle with since most ideas and references in the design world are in English.

SB: The Tunisian architect Aymen Gharbi said that he draws in French, curates in English, and lives in Tunisia. The language we use for a certain practice becomes closely connected to the work. Does Arabic lack a language for different art forms?

ME: Yes, that’s interesting. Many intellectual thoughts are in languages other than Arabic. This results in no important new theories about culture being developed in Arabic. I hope that the archive will make us reconnect not only to design and history but also to the Arabic language. That’s also why we started the Design Repository. I’m trying to contribute to more texts being published and translated to Arabic. I’m writing all texts in both languages.

Arabic design history starts with written manuscripts and calligraphy. Typographic solutions are very common in our archive. What approach do you think someone who doesn’t read Arabic can have to these covers?

You can love something esthetically without understanding its content. Maybe the expressions are not totally disconnected from something you’ve seen before, so you can still use the lens you would use on Western design to understand the designs. You can still understand aspects of the text anyway, for example, how it’s treated typographically. By being exposed to esthetics from this area you could become more critical and at the same time open to the thought that there could be other ways to do design.

SB: Is there an expectation that Arab design must be very different from a European design canon? The more different, the more truly Arab.

ME: Yes, I think so. That expectation derives from ideas of orientalism, where ‘The East’ is exotic and different. The other was the opposite of the Western. But that expectation isn’t all bad. Not if it could be used to create new norms and new centers.

Many aspects of the interview with Mahmoud Elhossieny resonated very well with the approach that has been fruitful and productive for me: We need a poly-voiced set of documentation, research, and discussion to not be trapped in stereotypes. This will provide us with open access to history and new histories will be added to the ‘history’. We need visual evidence because I believe that it’s through seeing things we can understand.

LINKS The Arabic Design Archive The Design Repository