When I initiated this piece, I had expectations of culling out what was at the core of my own altruistic mission, to help put a face on the people who are today’s enemies of choice, namely Arabs and Persians. So, I turned to the culture-makers—artists, designers, writers and dancers, both native and ex-patriot—to ask them some simple but pointed questions about whom they are and what they are doing.
When the answers came, I felt myself disappointed. Didn’t anyone want to save the world? I mulled it around in my head for a few weeks, wondering if I should publish this, if it was befitting of the mission of Designers Without Borders, if it would make a difference.
But it had dawned on me that I could not solely determine what will make that difference, or even what defines “difference.” Here are people, genuinely occupied by what moves them, each in conversation with and beyond the issues affecting the Middle East and the larger world.
They touch spheres beyond themselves and often beyond their immediate communities. It is partly by choice, partly by calling, and tied together by strings of fortune. So I choose to share what has been shared with me, what moves these individuals to do what they do and make what they make, and I hope that it might ruffle the feathers of some official mouthpieces, or at least quench someone’s curiosity about what goes on in and around that political hotbed, that cradle of civilization, that whipping post whose voice has been hijacked and interpreted by too many forked tongues.
This is the first installment. I am expecting more answers to come, and will share them as they do.
Nadine Chahine, type designer
Michael Bray, artist and educator
Nourah Alammary, art director
Edo Smitshuijzen, graphic designer
Chae Ho Lee, designer and educator
What is your background / How did you get where you are today? What was your path? What has surprised/concerned/motivated you along the way?
Nadine Chahine: I studied Graphic Design in the American University of Beirut. There I had the luck to take an Arabic typography course with Samir Sayegh who is the unsung hero of Arabic typography. I learned a lot from him, and decided to pursue this interest. I went for a Masters in Typeface Design in Reading, UK and my focus was the relationship of the Arabic and Latin scripts. The result was my Koufiya, which is the first Arabic+Latin typeface designed by the same designer at the same time.
Nadine Chahine, Koufiya typeface
Right after graduation I attended ATypI Vancouver where I met Bruno Steinert who was then the Managing Director of Linotype. I invited him to attend my talk and he was impressed enough to say: “If you are ever looking for a job, come to me! ” I was already scheduled to go back to teach at LAU in Beirut but I soon enough wrote to him and he offered me a 6 months training at Linotype. The German visa took a long time to process and in the meantime I was offered a job to teach type design in Dubai. I ended up doing both and in 2005 I moved to Germany. I only knew 3 words in German so the first period there was very tough. One month into my training I was offered a full time position and this is where I still am.
Michael Bray: I was raised in a small city in rural Alberta, went to the University of Alberta with the intention of becoming a figurative painter and graduated as an abstract sculptor. I was married then divorced, which helped me realize that the question I need to answer is what do I sincerely want out of life. This led to the choice to move to Cairo, Egypt. I wanted to see the world instead of reading about it or seeing it mediated through television. This choice altered my life in ways I could not have imagined. My work began as formalist abstraction and over the years has become more social commentary and figurative. The circle closes, but it feels more of an upward spiral to be honest.
It was a long and winding road. I knew fairly early that achieving a goal is only worthwhile if you appreciated the journey as well. Through being true to my desires, I feel I have evolved to where I am naturally. Going to Egypt then Lebanon opened my mind, allowed me the time and experience to test values and ideas, and all of this has made me a better artist and educator. I pursue both of these careers in Dubai.
Michael Bray, The Problems That Become Our Own
My path is to follow my instincts and not become too anxiety-ridden about the day to day. Location can be inspiring, but it’s the people you surround yourself with that add the richness and texture to life. I tend to enjoy spending time with people I can learn from, so my path seems to flow with that in mind. I also believe in hard work inspired by a sincere passion, but keeping an open mind while doing so. If I did not maintain flexibility, I would have become a figurative painter initially, which I know would have been a mistake. By trusting myself, I learned how to become an artist. The medium and subjects can and do change as my life does, but seeing as an artist is what is constant. This maintains my work and enriches my life on this planet, which is worth a great deal.
I was often surprised that some people who have very little would cherish their opportunities, while many of those who had too much would complain about their seeming lack of opportunity. A continual concern has been the enormous gap between what we say and what we do. The Western world wants to spread democracy, yet it does not accept the election of Hamas, in what was the most open and fair election in the Middle East, during a time when the election process in America was dubious to say the least. This is one example of many that concerns me about our future as a species. As far as motivation goes, I find that people who combine ambition and humanity make me want to be a better person; that along with my one-year-old daughter.
Nourah Alammary: My father, a doctor who is the definition of a realist, and my mother, a new age, spiritual artist who I feel is a reincarnated guru, are total opposites. This combination made me see the world with mixed emotions. Another big influence in my life has been my nanny, a Filipino woman who came to work and live with us a year before I was born, and has been since then a mother to me, and a source of ever flowing strength to be all that I can be. Art has always been a large part of my life in all its forms: from crayons, finger painting and clay in kindergarten to movies, dance and music throughout my life.
My path so far has been one with many turns; nothing ever happens to me the way I plan it. 7 years ago, when I graduated High School, I thought I would be a special education teacher, married with 2 kids and working on my PhD. Six years ago I thought I would be a strong Manager with a Business degree in Management. Five years ago I decided to be an artist after visiting Florence during a study tour week in Italy. Two years ago, when I finished university, I wanted to be a famous art director in Riyadh. Today, I want to live one day at a time and just what tomorrow brings.
The one thing that keeps popping up in my life every now and then is my faith. Every time I drift, I find a project, or documentary, or class that somehow opens up a new chapter in my quest to learn about Islam.
I think one of my biggest concerns is that people have generally become shallow and just indifferent to what’s going on around the world.
Edo Smitshuijzen: I’m a graphic designer. Making my career in one of the most sophisticated design countries in the world, I was attracted to an environment where design awareness has to be built up almost from scratch. I was lucky enough to have had a career during a period in time and working in a country where graphic design really made a change. I saw similar opportunities – although on quite a different level – in the Arab world.
Edo Smitshuijzen, Arabic Font Specimen Book
I am where I am today solely by following my passion – and I was certainly helped by working with colleagues to learn what I could do well (better) and what others could do better than I could. This process really helps to focus and to get the best out of yourself. If you fail to have passion for it, art and design are not your thing, just find another profession. For the rest, coincidence – like meeting specific colleagues, or being in specific circumstances – and especially being at the right time at the moment – are quite important in where you will end up being, I’m afraid. Chance plays an important role.
Chae Ho Lee: I was originally interested in the sciences but after taking a few design classes I realized I wanted to change my major. I liked working with type and images and creating work that served a purpose on a daily level. My design classes were the most rigorous and allowed me to incorporate the ideas and knowledge I acquired from my other university classes. I’m surprised that so much of our lives are affected by design and how much disposable design is out there.
You mention disposable design. Do you mean objects that have short life spans or little value? Do you think that this needs to be changed? Why? How?
Chae: Disposable designs are not just objects that have a limited lifespan but are easily replaced and lack a unique cultural and social purpose. There’s enough room for all different forms of design I just wish designers would control more of their own content and see themselves as not just part of the creative process but a link in coming up with a project and researching ideas.
Why do you make things?
Nadine: I have an obsession with designing letterforms! It’s a form of meditation for me. I love to design, and it brings me a sense of completion that is quite hard to be replaced. The images and ideas in my head are like impulses that I have to act upon and I’m not relaxed until they get out of my head and onto paper. Type design is different from Graphic design in that all non-commissioned work is your own vision of what your visual environment needs. I look at the streets in Beirut and I know that we need a new voice of expression. This drives me on.
Michael: That is what human beings do. We also seem to enjoy destroying things, especially if they belong to someone else. I feel that the verbs “making” and “building” are very positive and give a sense of psychological and emotional peace, satisfaction, and joy.
Nourah: My artistic projects since college have decreased. But I usually make something when it’s made to be gifted, such as a set of glasses I’m designing for my best friend. I am working on a logo for her and an identity that describes her personality. It’s a birthday gift. I also do small projects like sketches, or arts and crafts projects.
Edo: For only one reason: you cannot imagine yourself NOT making things. There is no other reason. Creators only create things because they have an irresistible creating itch that needs scratching. Creating is a very selfish act.
Chae: I don’t think I make things. I improve things. Everyone makes things but few people work on improving what’s already out there. We have enough “stuff” in the world. What we have needs to be improved.
Is art/design/music/literature relevant to your community? I.e., does it matter? How/Why?
Nadine: Yes definitely. Lebanon is a great cultural hub and an exciting design challenge. That’s why so many great designers come from Lebanon.
Michael: If by community, you mean the people I choose to be part of my life, then yes, very much so. If you mean the place in which I live, being Dubai, then not very much so. There is a strange desire in many people that they should be interested/engaged with cultural pursuits because it somehow makes them a “better” person. Yet, when the option is there, many people don’t make the effort because they are too tired, work too hard, have other “practical” obligations and see culture as expendable. In Dubai, these issues are also caught up in marketability. We have art galleries to sell art but only one place that would qualify as an “art museum”, which is the initiative of a single person, not the government, with its Culture and Arts Authority. We have Art Dubai, which should probably be called the International Art Market in Dubai. Public sculpture seems to consist of either concrete teapots and cups or mobile phone advertisements. So, in short, design is relevant in as far as it helps things get bought and sold, but in terms of improving quality of life, it seems to do very little.
Nourah: In philanthropy art, music, literature is used widely in my community. I can give many examples of how art is used here. The Al Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women, always includes art in whatever charity they are working on, they either plan an event where there would be a folklore fashion show or choreography and the ticket sales would go to a charity. They also have a foundation for children with Down syndrome, where they teach the children arts and crafts, as well as how to make a living, they then sell these items.
Edo: Sure it is, the things you mention are relevant for the community. With all intellectual activities (please add science to your list) we direct our interest and activity to satisfy curiosity, to dreaming, to imagination. Intellectual activities with vague goals make us a human species and will give us our ultimate satisfaction, for the performers as well as for the audience. Unless you are hungry or very sick, humans crave cultural activities. Ultimately, these kinds of activities will make us move forward.
Chae: I think that culture and the artifacts that designers create have the potential to express ideas and emotions that cannot be experienced in any other way. Communities need thoughtful and relevant design but design is often reserved for the wealthy or people who can afford a designer’s services.
Should art and/or design be activism? Why or Why not?
Nadine: There is a great deal of personal expression in both art and design and as such one cannot assume that this creative output fulfill certain expectations. It depends on the artist/designer. Some people do not want to be activists.
In my case, my typeface design is an extension of my cultural and political identity. You can find my views on life as an Arab woman hidden amongst the letterforms. My typeface Koufiya is not just a series of letterforms. I wrote on my blog: “Koufiya is not a typeface. Koufiya is an idea born through a war-torn childhood, a struggling region, and a great passion for design. Culture, politics, and design come together to mesh into a wish for open communication and equal status. Koufiya is about dialogue and harmony among opposites. It’s about co-existence without the loss of individuality and authenticity.”
Michael: I think it certainly can be if the artist/designer feels compelled to address these issues in their work. I think art and design should always be sincere. The artist/designer should always believe in their issues and pursue their individual passions.
Nourah: Yes! it should, because I think art and design can influence and make a change in a more subtle way.
Edo: Art or design does not have a special role in activism, I believe. Everybody has the obligation to contribute to their environment. Maybe artists or designers would feel more compelled to expressing their political views because they expect their talent would be an efficient tool to expressing their beliefs.
Chae: Yes. However, this should be a transparent and respectful dialogue. It’s difficult to include everyone’s voice in a discussion but I feel that the type of activism that currently exists often shouts or seeks to get as much attention as the main stream media. What is needed is a transparency in the issues that are presented rather than rhetoric and less dramatic means in which to focus a public’s attention on an issue.
What first? What 3 things that you would use your powers to change/improve if you had unlimited resources?
Nadine: I hardly doubt that my design skills will get me what I wish for, but if I could, I would wish these:
– Harmony across religious lines. The majority of wars have been due to religious strife. People should learn to be more tolerant of their differences.
– Educational and political reform in the Arab world (naturally including Palestine). Higher literacy, freedom of speech and real democracy.
– In the Arab world, improved protection and support for women’s rights, child welfare, animal welfare and the environment.
– I will also add a fourth, since this is also a must, and that is a Palestinian State. If you go through the universal declaration of human rights, you’ll find that the Palestinians are forcefully denied of most of it. This is just sad and it’s the fuel to the current trends of extremism.
1. Create a functioning version of the United Nations where each state (probably after humans got together and created functioning states with reasonable borders) had a vote and it was a true majority rule with protection of minority rights.
2. Cut global military budgets by 90% and place that money into education, health care and sustainable food production to address the issues of survival amongst the human population.
3. Create a version of regulated capitalism where those who work hard do receive their reward, but make sure the rules are applied equally everywhere, so developing states can have the change to develop and participate.
Nourah: Education. People’s perception of Islam. And tolerance.
1. Care for our natural environment
2. Income equality on a minimum level
3. Access to health care provisions on a minimal level
Chae: I would document all the languages that are dying in the world and improve the art and design education students receive before they enter an institution of higher learning. Those two are more than enough. Culture, ideas and unique ways of thinking and looking at the world disappear when a language dies and a language dies every 14 days. I see so many students that come into my class who don’t know anything about the significance of the industrial revolution, the arts and crafts movement and the Bauhaus. History repeats itself and students need to be able to recognize their connection to the past and challenge themselves to find sources of inspiration outside of movies and TV shows.
What are you working on right now? Why?
Nadine: I can’t comment on my work at Linotype. For my PhD, I’m doing legibility studies for the Arabic script. I’m hoping the results would improve reading conditions, especially for children.
Michael: I have just committed to an exhibition with a colleague at a gallery in Dubai. My work will focus on the individual human, a one-to-one experience where the viewer will be faced with an anonymous person who has suffered and lost. We have become cynical and desensitized to the pains of others through media and films, which make violence commonplace. I dream that we have the ability to overcome this mindset and one day develop into a more mature version of the human species that is truly the shepherd of the planet. We will probably bring ourselves to the brink of annihilation before this happens, but if enough of us have the will, it may just happen. I try to remain an optimist…
Nourah: I am working on getting a Masters, because I want to continue with a PhD and eventually teach.
Edo: I’m trying to start a small publishing house for (contemporary) Arabic design. Why? The Arabs don’t seem to be willing to take the initiative themselves, while I feel it is a very interesting subject.
Chae: I’m interested in looking at how minority cultures survive in majority cultures and how design impacts these cultures. I’m writing quite a bit and have focused a lot more on community-oriented projects. Mono-culture and a lack of cultural diversity scares me. I’m working on book projects that promote local and native Hawaiian language usage. I’m writing and presenting research on Native Hawaiian language newspapers, the viability of edutainment objectives in commercial environments and the use of oral sources and participant observation methodologies in the design classroom.
Nadine Chahine is an award winning Lebanese type designer with a special interest in Arabic typography. She studied Graphic Design at the American University of Beirut and MA in Typeface Design at the University of Reading, UK. During her study at Reading, she focused on the relationship of the Arabic and Latin scripts and the possibilities of creating a harmonious relationship between the two. She taught Arabic type design as a visiting lecturer at the American University in Dubai and at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. In 2005 she joined Linotype, Germany, as the Arabic specialist and has been living in Germany since then.
In September 2007 she started a PhD program at Leiden University and her focus is on legibility studies for the Arabic script. She has won the Dean’s Award for Creative Achievement from the American University of Beirut in 2000, and an Award for Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club in New York in 2008. Her typefaces include: the best-selling Frutiger Arabic, Palatino Arabic, Koufiya, Janna, Badiya, and BigVesta Arabic.
Michael Bray is an artist and educator working in Dubai. Previously, he lived and worked in Beirut and Cairo after having left Canada some 10+ years ago. He works in sculpture, drawing, and sometimes painting. His teaching method is to have students identify what sincerely motivates/inspires them and then grow with that in mind.
Nourah Alammary was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the youngest of 5 children. Her parents are both educated, cultured and animated individuals. She went to school in Riyadh, then received her BFA in Visual Communication at the American University in Dubai. She would like to summarize her life in three words: “born, awakening (my current and continuous state) and action.” She is a female Saudi Art Director, who is still figuring out how to find her place in History.
Edo Smitshuijzen was educated as a graphic designer at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. He was a partner till 1996 in what became one of the largest design studios in the Netherlands. Thereafter, he partially focused on graphic design in the Arab World caused by his marriage with a Lebanese woman (Huda AbiFares). His book ‘Arabic Font Specimen Book’ was published in early 2009.
Chae Ho Lee teaches graphic design at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His work spans advertising, exhibition, identity, publication and web design. He has worked for a number of prestigious advertising agencies and design studios in the Pacific rim, New York City, and Dubai.