From Rihanna at Barnbrook Studios, to a queer Arab archive: Marwan Kaabour’s graphic design is incredibly bold

After going viral earlier this year for their powerful posters on the Palestinian struggle for decolonisation, Marwan talks us through their incredible portfolio.

Date
9 November 2021

The visual style of London-based graphic designer Marwan Kaabour is impressively expansive. From designing the Phaidon Rihanna book to creating viral political posters, Marwan’s eye adapts beautifully to whichever project he’s working on. Born and raised in Beirut, Marwan tells us he’s simply “always been fascinated by visual culture” as a child, even when they were building a magazine for classmates at age 12. “I made them all pitch in to pay for the photocopies,” they add. “That must have been my first graphic design project.” But, as mesmerising as Marwan’s current portfolio is, design wasn’t always on the table for them. “I used to be a child actor, and so my original plan was to study theatre and performance, but I think I was worried about living my entire life in poverty,” they say. “So, I also applied for graphic design.” It’s a pang of bittersweet irony many relate to – hopping from one creative profession to the other, blissfully unaware of all the underpaid and overworked perils every medium entails. To be honest I wasn’t 100 per cent sure what graphic design entailed by that point, but I knew it had enough components to get me interested and by the end of the first year at university I was sold.”

Today’s Marwan is a far cry from the one at university, still experimenting with the medium without much knowledge of its impact on wider society. Across his body of work, every piece feels deliberately infused with a part of himself. “As basic as it might sound, I was always mostly excited about the medium’s ability to communicate with the masses and tell stories,” Marwan says. “This ability can be used in favour of mass consumerism, but when flipped on its side, it’s an incredibly strong tool to tell different sorts of stories, and to shed light on important issues.” Transmuting complex subject matters of “impenetrable texts” into art and design is what fuels Marwan. One shining example is a series of typographic visuals they created earlier in the year “during the latest Israeli assault on Palestine” which shook social media and society at-large. “Those visuals were able to massively facilitate accessibility to facts and information that people were too afraid to engage with, which helps improve people’s understanding of complex issues,” Marwan explains. “The visuals went viral and were being shared by thousands and thousands of people, from Bella Hadid to [DJ and electronic musician] LSDXOXO.”

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Marwan Kaabour at Barnbrook Studio: Phaidon: The Rihanna Book (Copyright © Barnbrook, 2019)

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Marwan Kaabour at Barnbrook: Phaidon: The Rihanna Book (detail) (Copyright © Barnbrook, 2019)

Marwan’s embrace of the “eclectic approach” can be in-part traced back to their time working for Barnbrook Studios. “It was absolutely dreamy,” they tell us. “I remember learning about the work of Jonathan Barnbrook and the studio back at university, and I was compelled by the political and socially engaged work they did, and continue to do.” Marwan was lucky enough to intern there in 2012, citing it as their “dream job” under Jonathan. “Jonathan put a lot of trust in me and gave me creative freedom and authorship, which is rare in the industry,” Marwan says. “The studio is pretty small, so the designer ends up getting involved in project management, production, sourcing material, and liaising with the client.” Eventually staying there for seven years, it’s safe to say Marwan accrued an immense amount of knowledge from the studio. It’s evident in how grateful he remains towards them. “I was able to see a concrete example of a successful design studio that has a strong moral compass and takes its ethical responsibility very seriously,” they add. “And of course, I had the honour of working with Rihanna, the V&A, Art Basel, Somerset House, and Banksy amongst others.”

Of course, the talents of Marwan do not simply stop at his ability to collaborate with a client. His own personal digital platform, Takweer, launched in September 2019 “primarily as an Instagram page” that works to “find, share and explore queer narratives in Arab history and popular culture.” By utilising the format of Instagram, Takweer accumulates a growing archive of these narratives. “It came out of a personal frustration of the lack of accessible resources and references that speak about the queer Arab experience,” they explain. “It is also meant to challenge the dominant narrative of Arab and Muslim communities being intrinsically and historically homophobic, sexist and backwards.” Takweer is now a space that allows for queer Arabs within the region and queer Arabs in the diaspora to come together and discuss these issues. “Takweer is a space where I can use my skills as a storyteller and graphic designer to give visual form to stories, histories and anecdotes that might otherwise go unnoticed, or forever relegated to inaccessible academic texts.”

From Takweer, Marwan has received “overwhelmingly positive feedback from queer Arab individuals all over the world,” which cements the project as their most “personal and imitate” to date. “The second step is to develop projects with more focus, which I have begun with the very first Takweer publication that is now underway,” Marwan adds. “The Queer Arab Glossary is a publication that attempts to compile, explore and understand the lexicon used to refer to people from the LGBTQIA+ community from across the Arabic-speaking world.” Such a genuine infusion of passion, curiosity, and discovery has come to be Marwan’s forte. From Takweer to his graphic design, it’s always those three components which lie at the forefront of his vision. “The question I always ask myself is: what do I want the viewers to feel when they look at a piece of design? Rather than what looks the nicest,” he says. “Of course, you want to end up with sexy and visually appealing work, but it falls flat for me if that’s the end of it.”

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Marwan Kaabour: The Speculative Queer Arab Family Tree (Copyright © Marwan Kaabour, 2020)

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Marwan Kaabour: Phaidon: Middle Eastern Sweets (Copyright © Marwan Kaabour, 2021)

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Marwan Kaabour: Takweer: All hail the sissy boy (Copyright © Marwan Kaabour, 2021)

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Marwan Kaabour: Takweer: Celebrating Trans Arab Women (Copyright © Marwan Kaabour, 2020)

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Marwan Kaabour: Takweer: Celebrating Trans Arab Women (Copyright © Marwan Kaabour, 2020)

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Marwan Kaabour: Defund Israel, Defend Palestine (Copyright © Marwan Kaabour, 2021)

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Marwan Kaabour at Barnbrook: Disobedient Objects catalogue, V&A (Copyright © Barnbrook, 2014-2015)

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Marwan Kaabour: Lotic: Power (Copyright © Marwan Kaabour, 2018)

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Marwan Kaabour: Israel: Gay Rights with a Side of Apartheid (Copyright © Marwan Kaabour, 2021)

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Marwan Kaabour: Journal Safar: Insecurity Checkpoint (Copyright © Marwan Kaabour, 2018)

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Marwan Kaabour: Inky Cloak: Earth/Air/Fire/Other (Copyright © Marwan Kaabour, 2021)

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About the Author

Joey Levenson

Joey joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in May 2020 after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.

jl@itsnicethat.com

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