Design culture: Warehouse421 showcases the winners of the 100 Best Arabic Posters contest
Haya Bakhasab never imagined that a project from her student days at Dar Al Hekma University in Jeddah might be selected by judges in the first competition to recognise poster design in the Arab world.
So when the winners – which will be on display at Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi from Tuesday, November 15, until February 9 – were announced during the summer, she did not even bother to check the results.
“I only decided to submit something at the very last minute,” says the 22-year-old designer, who learnt of her inclusion in the top 100 entries from a friend. “I’d seen the competition advertised on Instagram, but wasn’t going to enter – then I realised that I already had something I could submit.
“I really wasn’t expecting to get into the top 100. I was shocked.”
Bakhasab’s entry was a linocut – an image carved into a piece of linoleum, which is then inked to make prints. Although it was her response to a 2014 student assignment, the work could have been custom-made for the competition.
Bakhasab’s portrait is of a woman whose hair contains a quote “I told my dreams to come and they rose”, from the Lebanese-American artist, poet and writer Khalil Gibran.
Not only was the poster designed and produced in the Arab world, it was created within an academic context and was less than three years old, all of which were among the key criteria for entries – although commercial and self-promotional posters were also allowed.
“We didn’t want to limit the competition to people who only use Arabic,” says Ahmad Saqfalhait, acting head of graphic design at the German University in Cairo and a co-founder of the contest. “If the work was published in an Arabic-speaking country for Arab people, that made it legitimate for submission.”
Originally launched as a not-for-profit student project by Saqfalhait and fellow academics at the German University in Cairo, the aim of 100 Best Arabic Posters is to celebrate contemporary visual culture in the Arab world while encouraging designers in the region.
“We wanted to offer our graduate students a live project to work on after they had completed their Bachelor’s [degree],” says Saqfalhait. “So we divided the students into groups to develop the concept for the competition, the logo and its visual identity, while another group worked on the website and another on the communications strategy and media production.”
The competition received more than 1,200 submissions from 17 countries, which were whittled down to 100 winning entries, from 75 designers. The international judging panel included Lebanese-Egyptian artist, designer and art historian Bahia Shehab, and Paris-based Hervé Matine, one of the founders of the annual Poster for Tomorrow competition.
“We want to document the visual language of how people who live in this region communicate locally and regionally, so that when people look back they will be able to see how it developed,” says Saqfalhait, who has been working with students in the region since 2011.
As well as the exhibition – which was staged in Jordan as part of Amman Design Week in September, and will travel to the RiseUp Summit in Cairo next month – the winning posters have been collected in a 152-page book produced to accompany the Warehouse421 show. 10 of the posters are available for sale in limited editions of 50, priced at Dh150.
“Posters are the most affordable means of visual communication and this competition reminds people of how strong and beautifully-crafted posters can be,” says Saqfalhait.
Also among the 100 winners is The Source of the Yoghurt Street, a light-hearted poster designed by Waraq, a Beirut-based artistic and cultural non-governmental organisation that supports, promotes and connects artists and designers in the Arab region.
The poster depicts the ingredients of a popular Lebanese dish, shishbarak, but doubles as a portrait of the people who live on the street where Waraq has its headquarters – Nabeh El Laban Street in the Beirut neighbourhood of Mazraa. “It’s a portrait of our neighbours and the neighbourhood as well as a kind of free-form recipe that illustrates the key ingredients of the dish,” says illustrator and animator David Habchy, one of the founders of the Waraq collective.
For Habchy, competitions such as 100 Best Arabic Posters not only offer a platform to encourage students and celebrate the visual culture of the region, they also help to raise the standard of the practice and discourse of design.
“If you want to set the standard for design in the region or to have critical thinking about design, its very important to have more competitions like this because we don’t have many critics or people commenting on published work,” he says.
“Designers need to compare their work with other artists and to see the highlights of what’s being produced in other countries because it’s interesting to see what’s being created out of the same ingredients, if you like.”
In that spirit of comparison, Warehouse421 is displaying 100 Best Arabic Posters alongside a rehang of Community & Critique, an exhibition of work by this year’s graduates from the Salama Emerging Artists Fellowship.
• 100 Best Arabic Posters runs from Tuesday, November 15, until February 9; Community & Critique runs from Tuesday, November 15, until November 27