Bahia Shehab and Haytham Nawar
American University in Cairo Press, 2020
Over the last few years, the interest in Arab graphic design has burst onto Instagram, with entire accounts dedicated to book cover design, postal stamps, typography, and more. In part, it’s emerged because Arab art is inaccessible—even with online museum collections, data and descriptions are all in English—whereas graphic design is all around, on a storefront in Cairo or in a poster designed in Tunis. For this reason, A History of Arab Graphic Design, from practitioner-scholars Bahia Shehab and Haytham Nawar, is timely, confronting the growing thirst for knowledge of Arab visual culture.
A History of Arab Graphic Design is easily the best introduction to the history of modern Arab visual culture on the market today. It lacks the jargon of exhibition catalogues, leans heavily on visual sources, and dismisses some previously held assumptions about Arab art, such as Islam’s prohibition of representational images in artwork. The difficulty of Shehab and Nawar’s task should not be understated. The archive in the modern history of the Arab world is a tricky subject regardless of what sort of history is being written, made more challenging by scope: the Arab world is vast. Even the term “Arab world” is tricky, where “Arab” fails to capture the true nature of the cultures and racial identities found in countries where Arabic is commonly spoken; Arab identity is contested because the term “Arab” can exclude many people. There are other questions of representation, as the focus of historians working on the 19th and 20th century tends to be Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine, as is the trend of mainstream media. Art history has been better distributed and Shehab and Nawar follow suit, bringing in North Africa, Iraq, and Sudan.
Shehab and Nawar wrote Arab Graphic Design because they themselves teach design, at the American University in Cairo, and could not find a compact text for their courses. The bulk of Arab Graphic Design is set in the 20th century, though the first chapter focuses on the mainstays of Islamic Art—architecture, manuscript illumination, ceramics, and calligraphy—to make the subtle argument that Arab graphic design as a field is inextricable from the long material and visual histories of the region. This follows arguments made by Arab art history: for example, calligraphic abstraction—a style which emerged in the 1950s onwards—was often fueled by the practice of Arabic calligraphy. Continuing in chronological fashion, Nawar and Shehab also bring in themes like exile, identity, and the challenges of adapting Arabic to different technologies developed for Latin script. They also include biographies of different designers and profiles of institutions critical for the development of graphic design: these were often universities, like the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad, the University of Tripoli’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Media in Libya, and the Applied Arts School in Cairo.
The importance of this is not to be understated: as Nawar and Shehab note, many key figures of 20th-century graphic design have been neglected by 20th-century histories of the Middle East and North Africa. But perhaps more critical is that Nawar and Shehab make the point that these are the same institutions and many of the same key figures behind critical movements in Arab art. This is perhaps the central but unspoken argument of the book, that Arab graphic design is Arab art, with many of the same central figures, like Osman Waqialla, Mohamed Melehi, and Dia Azzawi; they not only produced fine art, but contributed to poster design and typography. Many became pop culture figures in themselves. Egyptians across different social strata know the work of Armenian-Egyptian artist Chant Avedissian—whose early work was in marketing and is known well as perhaps the greatest pop art of the Arab world—even if they don’t necessarily know his name. Beyond his work in the 1970s creating visual identities for Egyptian companies, his influence is felt in popular design in Egypt today, where a similar aesthetic can be found on coasters and phone cases. But Shehab and Nawar, through their focus on power structures and institutions, also encourage us to think beyond the artist, the lone genius: it is only through collaborative work that graphic design could take the forms it did and continues to, even today.
Arab Graphic Design will have an impact on multiple fields, but I hope it reaches the students for whom Shehab and Nawar write. The price is prohibitive for students in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, but hopefully, it will be translated, the translator will be fairly compensated, and thus, it will be more accessible to Arabic speakers. Afterall, it was made for students; it’s clear even in the book’s design. The pages of A History of Arab Graphic Design are coarse, not glossy like most art books. Students will be able to write in this one, to argue with the text, to dream a little.