No longer overlooked in the UAE? Graphic design gets a UAE biennial, thanks to Fikra

The Sharjah-based design hub Fikra, founded and directed by Salem al-Qassimi, has been assiduously building a presence as one of the UAE’s guiding lights in graphic design. In addition to its commercial design studio, it runs a co-working space, a café, a design library, a gallery and a studio-based residency programme at its Sharjah office.

Its latest addition is the Fikra Graphic Design Biennial, the inaugural edition of which is scheduled for November 2018.

The event is the first of its kind in the region (why? ) and the aim obviously is to promote graphic design both as a discipline in itself and as an integral part of contemporary civic life. Says the PR blurb: “The Fikra Graphic Design Biennial centres on graphic design as a profession and practice, and its evolving and broadening nature. The Biennial is an international platform for professionals and the general public that facilitates an environment for innovative and radical ideas related to the field as well as presenting the nuances of the discipline, communicating its importance, varied media, and multiple roles.”

Salem Al-Qassimi

The Biennial team has been named as Salem Al-Qassimi as Director; artist and designer Maryam Al Qassimi, who heads Fikra’s active Design Studio; and another Fikra team member, Eleonora Cervellera, as “Head of Programming and Partnerships”. There’s also an advisory committee of notables from the region – top typographers Pascal Zoghbi and Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès are cited – and the Fikra Graphic Design Biennial will be curated by three more big names from design: Prem Krishnamurthy, Emily Smith and Na Kim (above).

They’re all interesting, but Prem Krishnamurthy especially so. He’s the New York based design multitasker who runs a multidisciplinary design workshop called Wkshps, organises an occasional panel discussion series called Perchance  featuring only guests with names that start with the letter P,  teaches on the side, and recently established K, — a yearlong “workshop for exhibition-making” in Berlin

Emily Smith is an educator, designer, and researcher who deals in “the intersections between graphic design, visual anthropology, and choreography”; she’s Head of Communication Design at the UE/BTK University of Art and Design in Berlin. Na Kim is an award-winning graphic designer and typographer who works between Seoul and Berlin.

Today’s graphic designers are both artists and facilitators …

The three curators managed to assemble a common statement about their goals: “Although it forms nearly every medium, message, and communication we encounter, graphic design is often overlooked as the mere commercial production of visual surfaces for existing ideas. The Biennial looks at the expanded field of graphic design, in which designers play a crucial role in tasks as diverse as entrepreneurial development, content generation, image-making, strategic thinking, form-giving, project distribution, life-cycle planning, and policy creation.

“Today’s graphic designers are both artists and facilitators: through their sustained presence, expertise, intuition, and insight, they help to shape products and processes alike.”

Salem Al-Qassimi emphasised the provenance and the branding in his own comments: “We at Fikra are excited to launch the first-of-its-kind international graphic design biennial in the region created for professionals and the general public.

“The event aims to communicate the importance of graphic design as a practice and helps understand it better. More importantly, I think that it is crucial to have a representation of this region in the discourse related to graphic design practice across the globe. It is equally important for us to carry forward our ideas, culture, and narrative.”

Now that sounds promising – we fervently hope the scope will be international but with a definite regional edge. Graphic design has not achieved the prominence here that say fashion and product design have achieved. Yet some of the brightest and best graphics of the last 30 years have evidently been influenced by or created in the Middle East.

It is crucial to have a representation of this region in the discourse related to graphic design practice across the globe …

Maybe it’s because the boom in graphics has been led by advertising and print, both of which have been better established in the West – and it’s taken time for importers of Western products to see the merits of using local designers rather than simply importing the existing promotional visuals. In the Gulf the preponderance of expats doesn’t help; they have been brought up in a visual ecosystem that businesses here wouldn’t want to risk alienating, so the original ads and the Western layout styles still predominate.

But times are changing, and the sooner the better. The regional audience deserves a regional design vocabulary, one that draws on the traditions of the past and adapts generic rules and styles when it needs it. There has always been Islamic focus on graphics; for instance, calligraphy and decorative motifs have long provided an artistic alternative to the depiction of sentient beings that is effectively prohibited across most of Islam, and they are established and effective methods of conveying visual information.

Even with international recognition for the likes of Dia Al-Azzawi (better known these days as a gallery artist, but a designer at heart) and the typographer/poster maestro Abdulkader Arnaout, there’s still a sense that graphic design is undervalued.

There are several good models that the Fikra Graphic Design Biennial could look at for inspiration. Most are part of a wider design festival, but the daddy is the Czech Republic’s International Biennial of Graphic Design in Brno. It has been running since 1963, always features some of the best international graphic designers, and will run from 10 May to 26 August with a broad remit “to present the most interesting works of contemporary graphic design created in 2015–2017”. (Incidentally, Na Kim was one of the curators for Brno 2012.)

Now, Fikra isn’t going to be competing with Brno any time soon. For a start, the Czechs have institutional support: Fikra appears to be funding and operating its biennale from its own resources, which presumably is one reason it isn’t called “the Sharjah Graphic Design Biennial”. In fact we’re told that the Biennial will be held across “several locations in the UAE”, so maybe an emphasis on Fikra’s hometown would be misplaced anyhow.

We don’t have specific dates yet, but presumably there will be some coincidence with Dubai Design Week; that runs 12 to 17 November.

And we congratulate Fikra on avoiding the temptation to call it a biennale.

Poster for the 38th International Fair of Damascus, 1991, by Abdulkader Arnaout. Courtesy Khatt Foundation



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