AUC Discusses “A History of Arab Graphic Design” Book in a Virtual Media Event
The American University in Cairo (AUC) held last Tuesday a virtual media discussion about A History of Arab Graphic Design, the newly launched book by AUC Press. The discussion featured the book's authors, Bahia Shehab, professor of practice and founder of the graphic design program at AUC, Haytham Nawar, chair of the Department of the Arts at AUC, and Michael Duckworth, AUC Press director.
A History of Arab Graphic Design, a 2021 Prose Awards finalist, charts the development of design in the region, beginning with Islamic art and Arabic calligraphy, and their impact on Arab visual culture, through to the digital revolution and the arrival of the Internet.
At the discussion, the authors shared the motives behind their extensive four-year research that preceded publishing the book. Growing up and studying in Beirut post-Lebanon-War, Shehab realized there is a shortage of information on Arab graphic design history. She said: "most of the history of graphic design that we studied is Western, so it was important for me to document our history." As for Nawar, he was always worried that the history of Arab graphic design would fall into oblivion. “If our generation didn't care, there is a great chance we would lose such important material. So, apart from my academic responsibility, I had personal motives to preserve our visual history so that it would be available to the future generations as well."
With over 600 color images, the book examines the work of over eighty key designers from Morocco to Iraq and covers the period from pre-1900 to the end of the twentieth century. Before "graphic design," there were always the designers, as Nawar explained. "We highlighted the designers' role in the region before the birth of the term graphic design, including the early jobbing printers and calligraphy artists. From the 30s onwards, we categorized the key designers into four generations, in addition to another inspirational generation that revived the Arab graphic design, including many designers who are now in their fifties."
The book also includes a vast range of graphic design uses, including books, magazines and newspapers, posters, advertisements, stamps, and signage, which influenced and inspired Arab designers. The authors look at how cinema, economic prosperity, and political and cultural events gave birth to and shaped the founders of Arab graphic design.
Shehab and Nawar visited the archives in different Arab countries and reached out to Arab designers in the diaspora, many of whom had emigrated to Europe and the United States. While they succeeded in including the works of many key designers, they faced different challenges. "At times, some designers were skeptical of sharing their work, others, unfortunately, haven't preserved their work, while some even suffered the destruction of their designs or ateliers in certain conflict zones like Syria, for example," said Shehab.
As Nawar elaborated, "some counties were unfortunately difficult to visit like Yemen, Syria, and Sudan. With the help of researchers living in these countries and through electronic communication, we reached many artists. But we would have had a better input if we could visit these countries."
For the authors, the book is only the beginning. Shehab hopes that the book will inspire others, "the book is a stepping stone for other researchers in Egypt and abroad to explore more aspects of Arab graphic design. We need an army of researchers to cover such rich history," she said.
Nawar is optimistic about the current generation's documentation efforts, "I see that many are now interested in the online documentation of the Arab designs. "We also hope that families of artists who passed away share their work with us to help preserve it. We hope to add more to the book."
About The History of Arab Graphic Design, Duckworth said: "The book is fantastic and visually rich. It will be a magnet and a beacon for other authors and a platform for further research." He believes that this book will prove to be one of the most important books the AUC Press has published in its 60-year history, "because it reinforces in many ways that not only is Cairo the intellectual and cultural center of the Middle East but that AUC Press and intellectuals in Cairo can bring the broader history of Arab cultural achievements in many fields to a world-wide audience."
As AUC Press celebrates its 60th anniversary, Duckworth recalled the notable milestones of the last decades, including the translation of Naguib Mahfouz's fiction and the initiation of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 1996, awarded for the best contemporary novel published in Arabic.
Duckworth also added that AUC Press now has five stores that serve Egyptians and tourists and has recently expanded to Sharm El-Sheikh city and will possibly expand to other Egyptian cities. While AUC Press introduced electronic books years ago, its website will soon introduce online purchasing and physical delivery of books.