“We go with projects that make us weavers”: Studio Kawakeb on educating through its politically-engaged portfolio
The founders demonstrate their impressive roster of skills by talking us through four diverse projects: an animation film, a visual identity, an interactive workshop and an “audio-visual experience.”
- Elfie Thomas
- 25 January 2022
Studio Kawakeb shares its name with a cinema located in Nowayri, Beirut. Kawakeb also means “planets” in Arabic; a belly-dancing Lebanese actress famous in the 60s also stakes a claim to the name. The obvious joy that the Studio Kawakeb team gets out of explaining the multiple histories behind this word provides an apt reflection of the studio’s general creative outlook. With a strong commitment to collective design processes, this multi-talented team seeks out briefs which challenge them to work at the interface between design, animation and education.
Hussein Nakhal, Christina Skaf and David Habchy founded the studio in Beirut in 2015. Last year they expanded the team, taking on the talented Lea Oueidat as senior graphic designer, animator and illustrator Shawki Berro and illustrator Lynn Atme. The sheer creative range of the work Studio Kawakeb has produced over the last six years is mind-boggling. However, a few important factors connect the projects in their diverse portfolio. “We go with projects that make us weavers, workers with many threads,” Hussein says. Christina adds that working with clients which believe in a “collaborative” process of design is crucial. “We resist projects that draw rigid frames around our practises,” David chimes in. “We enjoy tickling preconceived images to generate new fictions that resonate better with our daily lives."
The multi-layered crises experienced by the people of Lebanon in the past few years have inevitably had a profound effect on the Beirut-based studio. When choosing briefs in this “disquieting” context, the trick is to find a balance between work that provides sufficient creative challenges while ensuring financial stability and sustainability, Christina explains. The team’s work is always “rooted in social realities”, and they dedicate many of their projects raising awareness about socio-political issues. For example, their beautiful animation film All Hands are Working Hands is a reaction against the “abusive and racist” migration sponsorship system in Lebanon. The Kafala system is a labour system, which traps migrant workers by tying up their legal residency into a contractual relationship with an employer or sponsor. In 2019, Amnesty International commissioned the team to produce an animation to accompany their report on the Kafala system, entitled Their Home Is My Prison.
The team produced a rotoscope animation which features various sequences of hands engaged in mundane activities, “such as the hand of a waiter in a coffee shop, [or] the hand of a nurse working in a hospital”, says Hussein. The team chose everyday scenarios which would feel “familiar to Lebanese society", he continues. However, the closing sequence of the video is unfamiliar and thought-provoking. It shows “a general security officer handing the passport of a domestic worker to their sponsor (kafeel)”, David explains. By including the transaction of a passport, which epitomises the entrapment of migrant workers within the Kafala system amongst familiar everyday scenarios, the film highlights how this exploitative practice has become “normalised” within Lebanese society.
In 2020, the team got the chance to use their strengths in animation to test the boundaries of graphic design and film-making. Liliana Chlela asked Studio Kawakeb to design the identity for her album SAFALA, including the album cover and a video clip for one of the tracks. Unable to settle on a single track, the team decided to develop an audio visual experience for the whole album. Looking back to an archive of film they had recorded around Beirut between 2012 and 2020, they sampled together “fragments of illustration, moving images and typography”, Hussein explains. Approaching the design in fragments, “seemed like a soothing process for an album with a very experimental and daring noise experimentation”, says Hussein.
One of Studio Kawakeb’s first major projects, which the team are understandably proud of, came about when they were asked to design a visual identity for the seventh iteration of the Beirut Design Week, under the theme of “Growing Sustainably.” “Over the span of five months, our studio conducted a research process that questioned the sustainability and eco-friendliness of graphic design practises in Lebanon, and how we could both devise a sustainable creative process, and develop an identity that put our research findings at the centre of the visual communication, ” Christina explains. After this intense period of research, the team decided to create the visual identity using left-over paper recycled from the previous Beirut Design Week in 2015. Collaborating with one of the only paper recycling initiatives in the country named Papyrus Atelier, the team worked on producing invitations, posters and booklets “that would waste the least amount of ink, consume the least amount of electricity and that would be recyclable”, Christina continues. The project challenged the team to think critically about their creative process and has had a lasting impact on how they work today.
Studio Kawakeb’s admirable dedication to sustainability is complimented by a keen interest in sharing knowledge through design. Back in 2015 the team designed a series of workshops for Rachel Dedman’s At the Seams exhibition at Dar El Nimer. Dedman curated a diverse collection of Palestinian material culture in order to reflect the “political potential of craft and clothing”. In response to this theme, Studio Kawakeb coordinated its project Through the Wall. Aiming to engage young minds with the vibrant embroidery heritage of Palestine, the team introduced a perforated wall into the exhibition space and invited participants to use it as a “stitching board.” Christina continues: “participants collectively stitched the mural, and transformed authentic motifs into stop motion animations.” What stands out about Through the Wall is its strength both as an educational tool and a symbolic project. David explains, “the wooden wall in the workshop stood as a metaphor for apartheid." Thus the needles and threads which weave their way through it symbolise the power of collective resistance.
Studio Kawakeb: Guerilla Comics (Copyright © Studio Kawakeb, 2018)
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.