x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Qataris get first exposure to design with a graphic point

A poster display in Doha, in its first showing outside the US, champions the partisan art of dissent.

DOHA // Mirko Ilic has worked with the graphic design legend Milton Glaser for years, served as the art director for Time magazine and the New York Times' editorial pages and managed his own firm. With more than three decades in design, he has come to appreciate the power of images, their ability to seduce and persuade, unsettle and motivate. "We love to use graphic design to sell you products or corporate ideology," the New York-based graphic designer said. "Sometimes designers decide they are still citizens of this world, and try to make this world a better place."

A few dozen posters protesting against a variety of issues from around the world went on display on Wednesday as part of Virginia Commonwealth University-Qatar's Design of Dissent exhibition. Curated by Mr Ilic and Mr Glaser, the show presents a small but sharp visual sampler of international public discourse. It is the first showing of the exhibition outside of the US. At the opening reception, Mr Ilic spoke of his respect for the medium and screened a film on the life and work of his friend and mentor.

The 80-year-old Mr Glaser was born and raised in the Bronx. He studied art at New York's Cooper Union and in Bologna, Italy, before embarking on an unmatched career: making countless posters, book jackets, album covers and restaurant interiors that helped define modern branding; co-launching New York magazine; and creating the image I N Y. In recent years Mr Glaser has embraced the political, designing covers for The Nation, a leading liberal magazine, and making buttons that read, Facts not Fear, or W stands for Wrong. "In the 1960s, we were full of naive enthusiasm that love could conquer all," he says in the film. "Here we are in a moment of time where all of that has been blown away, by a dark vision ... our part is to be on the side of the light."

In 2005, Mr Glaser and Mr Ilic put together a book of protest posters entitled Design of Dissent: Socially and Politically Driven Graphics. The book addressed communism, Palestine/Israel, the Iraq war, peace, media, religion and more. In conjunction with the book the duo held an exhibition of the material at New York University's School of Visual Arts, where both remain faculty members. By 2008 Design of Dissent had been translated into several languages and the related show had run in several American cities, including Boston, where visitors included Muneera Spence, the chair of VCU-Q's graphic design department. Impressed to see "graphic design in a new light," as she put it, Ms Spence brought Design of Dissent to Doha.

Mr Ilic noted the host country's diversity, particularly in Education City. "All these people from around the world, that exchange of ideas can only be a plus for young people," he said. On opening night, scores of students, professors and locals strolled through the gallery, sipping tea, nibbling biscuits and pausing to discuss the work on display. One poster, called Blood Bath 2002, shows a tub filled with a deep red liquid beneath the words "Israel Palestine." Another presents french fries shaped into a handgun, highlighting the health risks of fast food. In a third, George W Bush's mouth is smeared with a dripping black liquid, above the question "Got oil?"

"We all understand a picture, an image, so this type of design can be very powerful," said Reem al Hajri. The 23-year-old Bahraini is studying fashion design and graphic design at VCU-Q. "In the West, this sort of work is accepted because it's been done for a while." For Mr Ilic, Qatar's position of strength carries with it responsibility. "Qatar is a wealthy and successful country, and the world can only survive if wealthy countries pay attention to those less fortunate," he said. "This kind of show raises awareness about that. Its good for people to see that some other groups of people are less fortunate and may need help."

Just across the Gulf, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have been protesting for greater freedoms for the better part of a year. Ms al Hajri sees this as one of the few examples of dissent in the region. "There is some here, but not much," she said. "Maybe we were paralysed, maybe we need something, education, to be taught how to do this sort of thing." By the time it closes on 7 March, this exhibition may do just that.

"This show opens our eyes to the world around us and to what people think," said the 22-year-old Qatari Maryam al Humaid, a graphic design student at VCU-Q. "It inspires me to design more about what I think and feel, and maybe a bit more about politics." @Email:dlepeska@thenational.ae