What’s in store for the future of Arabic visual culture? Archief Cairo on communicating across borders
Meet the Cairo-based collective capturing the city and its ancient typographic through all five senses.
- Jyni Ong
- 22 February 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Archief Cairo is a multilingual lab for research, preservation and communication, based in the Egyptian capital. Established in 2018 by Hana Neuman, Maram Al Refaei, Sherine Salla and Ryan Vicente Lee Grees, the group met at Cairo’s German University. Ryan was lecturer to both Hana and Maram, and Sherine joined the collective at a later date. It started out as an attempt to discover Cairo’s non-academic design scene from a micro-perspective using the street. Focusing on the vernacular of the every day from stickers on cars, street sounds, shop signage and even rubbish on the ground, Archief Cairo began as a documentation of the city through all five senses.
“Cairo is like an antique shop and so is its creative scene” Hana tells us on the city’s rich creative sector. She notes that if you are looking for something in particular, you may not find it, “but if you you let yourself be drawn into the overflow of perceptions, you will be surprised and find something you may not have expected.” Over the past few years, the group has noticed a rise in designers popping up on the scene, contributing to Egypt’s increasing creative community centred on Arabic type.
There are an abundance of archives which also influence Cairo’s design scene, a nod to the country’s bountiful history stretching back to its ancient civilisation. “So the scene is eager to understand its own identity and either reinterpret it in a modern way or mix with other cultures,” explains Maram. In turn, much of the present style is imbued with signals to the past, which in some ways, makes it easier for designers to find their own style. “We are not friends of strict demarcation,” adds Sherine, “we believe that our task as communication designers is to create communication across borders, be it across countries, continents and above all, across cultures and languages.”
It is for this reason that Archief Cairo was born, a way to express the group’s endless inspiration found on the streets and give a voice to the people on it. As well as creating its own work, Archief Cairo also acts as a small library, having collected a range of interesting artefacts that embody the atmosphere of the eclectic city. At first, the group analysed and archived such found Egyptian objects which took the form of plastic bags, notes and products; just to name a few. Over time however, a designer’s instinct kicked in, forcing the group of four to reinterpret what was found, giving rise to publication or identity projects that arose in consequence.
“From the street, we found more and more interest in unknown, forgotten or almost disappearing knowledge,” says Ryan. And using this intention as the steering force of Archief Cairo, the collective has embarked on a number of explorative projects, most recently reviving the art of letterpress at the French Institute of Oriental Archaelogy which houses the only letterpress with hieroglyphics in the world. Unfortunately this project has been put on hold due to the pandemic. In other work, Archief Cairo has created the new identity for the 100 Best Arabic Poster Competition amongst giving workshops, lectures and publishing printed matter on its ethos.
With all its projects, concept is at the core of the work, particularly the attempt to capture Cairo’s energy through design. Copywriting, illustration, layout and graphic design all come together through the use of Arabic type, a written language which is as picturesque as it is communicative. “Arabic calligraphy is already a kind of illustration for us,” says Ryan, “so we don’t necessarily need pictures.” He goes on to say of Archief Cairo’s visual language, “like the streets of Cairo, we also have a bit too much of everything.”
For the collective’s identity for Hundred Best Arabic Posters, the challenge for the team of four revolved around how to breathe new life into an identity that’s regenerated annually since 2016. Eventually, they come up with a visual system which pays homage to the loud and vibrant streets of Cairo; an identity which tastes and feels like the bustling city. Venturing to districts which are quitessentially “Cairo-like” including Attaba, Downtown and Maadi, the group gathered and digested the visual experience which poured into a distilled range of posters, posts and creative avenues. The end result is an original identity which draws inspiration from old Egyptian comic books, a style which encapsulates an old Egyptian way of connecting with people, through stories and folklore.
In another project, Archief Cairo interrogate Arabic-Islamic manuscripts and their relationship to contemporary graphic design in a new project Makhtout. An Arabic word meaning manuscript, the word مخطوط can also be inferred as ‘lined’ or ‘written by hand’ when used as an adjective. Initiated by Sherine Salla at the beginning of 2020, the project is a response to the Eurocentric design education taught on Egyptian design courses, and highlights the lack of Arab design history taught too. “What this initiative aims to do is inform designers, especially Arab, about the history and design principles of Arabic-Islamic manuscripts, while inspiring them to seek their own cultural heritage – and material beyond the mainstream design canon – as a source of inspiration,” says Hana. “It experiment with the possibilities of utilising such design principles in contemporary design contexts,” she finally goes on to say on the project which has facilitated several workshops with Arab designers so far.
In a rapidly globalising world, Archief Cairo engages Arab designers to consider what Arab visual culture could be in the future. Through Makhtout, designers have analysed and re-interpreted pieces of Arabic graphic design history for new contexts, and in the future, Archief Cairo hopes to do this through using new mediums. Currently, it is working towards establishing more of a print culture in city, working together with Cairo Print Club which focuses on screen printing and risograph printing. And to top it all off, with more social and research projects on the horizon, “we just want to have fun.”
Archief Cairo: Hundred Best Arabic Posters, 2020 (Copyright © Archief Cairo)
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.