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From Cigarette Packs to Intifada Posters: The Graphic Design Archive Challenging the Region’s Gatekeepers

in conversation with the ultimate treasure hunters!

Over a much-anticipated Zoom call, I sat down with Mahmoud (Moe) Elhossieny, the founder of Arabic Design Archive (ADA). Originally a graphic designer as well as a writer,  Elhossieny now describes himself as an “archivist” as well.

After studying graphic arts in Cairo, graphic communication design in the UK, and gaining experience in advertising along the way, Elhosseiny launched the Arabic Design Archive, driven by a desire to research and publish on, you’ve guessed it, Arabic graphic design.

Through ADA, he aims to preserve the history of this specific form of art by addressing “the limited historical resources around Arab design and accessible archives concerned with its history,” per the initiative’s website. Founded in 2020, this crowdsourced archive aims to challenge the state’s control over historical materials in the region. Essentially, the project redefines how we preserve and perceive the past and recognizes archiving as a non-linear act– two crucial elements in building a truly critical, decolonial, digital collection.

To honor his and ADA’s work in spotlighting the region’s history, we sat down with Elhossieny to learn more about his career, the organization’s ethos, and the team’s curating process.

Can you tell me about your background, and what led you to creating the Arabic Design Archive?

“I first started the Design Repository, a publishing and research platform that would eventually evolve into the Arabic Design Archive. Over time, the more we worked with people, met them, and traveled around the region, we realized how we could expand to all sorts of graphic design-related material– and not just books, but also photographs, videos, and anything about Arabic Graphic Design.”

Could you share some examples of Arabic design that ADA has discovered, whether it’s ads, books, or posters? 

“Graphic design is almost like the visual voice of politics, and that’s applied across all countries, everywhere, all the time. So it depends on where exactly you are talking about, because the region is quite large. But the most significant ones were about the rise of the Palestinian resistance, Arab-Israeli wars, and the rise of Arab nationalism…”

Palestine (1989); Collection of The Palestinian Museum Digital Archive

I found your archiving process really interesting when I was reading about ADA. You have this unique approach of inviting community-members to contribute their own material. As we know, it can be quite challenging to access official state archives or niche collections, especially in places where archives are strictly controlled by states. How has your model helped ADA grow?

“We’re technically built on people’s contributions. We wouldn’t be able to be where we are now because we neither have the resources nor the time to do all of the things that we’ve done so far.

In the past, the people who had interesting collections would be introduced to us. We would then communicate with the collection owners and see what we could do to digitize what they had. We have team members located in different regions who volunteer their time and expertise. Not everyone can perform the digitization process to our strict standards which include accepting only high-resolution scans and refusing damaged items, unless they are exceptionally rare.

If a collection meets our criteria, our volunteers will meet with the collection-owner, build a relationship with them, and gradually digitize their material over time. We have managed to complete this process multiple times, mainly in Morocco and Lebanon, as these are the main countries outside of Egypt where we have active team members. Recently, we have even added a team member in Tunisia.

In addition to our core work, we expanded our efforts by launching initiatives such as the Archive Alliance Initiative(AA), which has also been very beneficial, with the help of various institutions*. Unfortunately, some institutions, at least in the region, are very reluctant to share their material with us because of many reasons. People in the region are a little bit paranoid, generally speaking. And most of our alliances have been with Western institutions and the Palestinian Museum Archive, which is, I guess, the only one in the region that has generously contributed its collection to be also displayed on the website.”

What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered since you launched? 

“A challenge we’ve been faced with is resources. We need to process each item we receive, which requires hiring people, but we don’t have access to much funding. There’s a major issue with funding non-profit cultural initiatives in the region. This challenge, however, also comes with an opportunity of its own. It forces us to think outside of the box, and be creative with how we approach funding.”

An Evening with Abdel Halim Hafez (1974); Collection of Mayas Ayash

Can you tell me more about how your submission process typically works? I imagine it more as an ongoing dialogue and partnership with the people who are helping to build up your archives rather than just one-off donations. What does that back-and-forth look like in practice?

“In the past, we used to receive items just through email after posting about our criteria for selection, scanning, and digitization. But, this was a very dry process and didn’t yield as much as we had hoped. Over time, we realized that it’s much better to have personal relationships with the people who own collections. This allows us to learn a lot more about the pieces and the person behind them. We can understand who they are, their interests, and the story behind how the collection came together.

The more unique and unusual the collection, the more interesting the person who owns it tends to be. There’s often a common thread or theme that runs through the collection, and it’s only by meeting the person that you can truly piece that together and understand its context. They can really tell you the story behind the pieces because they know it so well, whereas, if we just take a bunch of books or posters, for example, we might miss out on some important information.”

Given your focus, what are some of the red lines, or considerations, you have when adding new pieces to the archive? Are there any types of items you definitely won’t include (in terms of themes)? 

“I’ll be honest, we don’t have any hard red lines defined yet, we’re still in the process of figuring it out. The role of the archive is to document history, not necessarily to provoke people. So we’re grappling with how to handle cultural sensitivity– whether the archive should care about what people think, or if our job is to simply preserve our region’s historical record.

One example that comes to mind is some past publications from the region that had a bit of a “soft porn” sex-ed vibe to them. These were mostly published in Lebanon, which is interesting as it speaks to the cultural landscape of the time. So that’s the kind of thing we’re still thinking through– how to approach materials that could be considered culturally insensitive, without compromising the archive’s purpose.

There’s also something very authoritarian about dictating what content should or shouldn’t be shown. It’s challenging to navigate this while trying to avoid falling into the trap of becoming like state archives, where there’s an intentional omission of certain historical events and facts. There’s a fine line between being responsible and being overly restrictive, and it’s a delicate balance to strike.”

Al Kachkoul, Issue 370 (1928): Collection of Antique Cairo

What kind of information or facts about design and archives did you come across that aren’t widely discussed?

“I would say that most people don’t realize how Orientalist the past was in terms of its visuals and symbolism. When people now feel some kind of nostalgia towards design they’re most likely thinking about orientalist designs which were probably run by and made by either foreigners or people using foreign visual vocabulary. The only authentic Arab contribution to these designs was often limited to the calligrapher, who would provide the Arabic text.

Arabic as a language was much more dominant in designs than it is today. But for the rest of it, you can’t really argue that it’s authentic Arabic design. So that’s one observation that I think is interesting, and the more I see it, the more I’m actually curious about it and the more I want to collect it.”

*The Arabic Design Archive’s AA was launched with the aim of repatriating lostrts of history from the realms Arab art and design. Through extensive collaborations with archivers, collectors and museums,across the world this alliance seeks to negotiate the return of digital copies from the  20th century that originated in the SWANA region but were displaced  during colonial times or after.
Credits lead picture: United Arab Republic Stamp (c.1970); Collection of Mahmoud El-Hossieny

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