Preserving Syrian design history and graphics in the Arab world: Meet the Syrian Design Archive

Founded by Kinda Ghannoum, Sally Alassafen and Hala Al Afsaa, the nonprofit documentary project celebrates a little-known design history among the global canon.

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Date
11 May 2021
Reading Time
8 minute read

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In 2020, Kinda Ghannoum set herself a personal challenge. The Syrian-Polish graphic designer had been studying Arabic graphic design for a while, but wanted to know more about design specifically from Syria and the designers that helped shape its cultural vision. Information on the topic proved difficult to find, and what could be accessed was also limited in its content. Upon realising this, Kinda set out to find a way of putting Syrian design history within reach of the public consciousness. A mammoth endeavour, she quickly understood the work was beyond one person. She pulled together a small but agile team in Sally Alassafen and Hala Al Afsaa to unearth its glorious design history; the Syrian Design Archive was born.

In only eight months, the Syrian Design Archive has amassed thousands of followers, introducing them to a wealth of Syrian print artefacts. A nonprofit project, the archive is not only a celebration of the unique cultural heritage of the Middle Eastern country, but it is also a preservation of Syrian design heritage in an age of rapid technological evolution. Documenting a range of printed matter from street signs to stamps, books, flyers and more, the archive includes numerous historical trajectories of note. From lensing the evolution of Arabic typography to the cultural examination of Syria’s colonial past, the collection provides a fascinating insight into a country that has all-too-often been earmarked by bad press only.

GallerySyrian Design Archive: International Fair of Damascus Posters, Design: Abdulkader Arnaout

GallerySyrian Design Archive: International Fair of Damascus Posters, Design: Abdulkader Arnaout

Speaking of her creation, Kinda tells us: “We have the names of great artists in fine arts, but any student who wants to explore information about Syrian designers will not find any.” To counter this, the archive records anything designed by Syrian designers – knowledge that may have been lost in the war along with a lot of other data and culturally rich material. Tickets, posters, magazine covers and books are documented in turn, slowly piecing together a picture of the country’s graphical arc. Kinda continues: “In general, any initiatives for documentation come from an external source or the personal effort of the artist themself. There are archiving initiatives for Syria, but they are incomplete and they are not available to everyone. Our mission is to create a place where people can find all the information and history about the Syrian graphic design formation.”

Born and raised in Syria, Kinda recalls a creative upbringing fuelled by her artistic family. Her early years were laden with Arabic art, architecture and calligraphy which led her to study architecture at Damascus University. Nursing a love of art and design alongside her degree, it wasn’t until she participated in Startup Weekend (a weekend-long programme) that a spark for graphic design cropped up. Taking matters into her own hands, she shifted her career to focus on graphic design and branding, enveloping elements of Arabic type, pattern and geometric ornaments into her practice. It’s seen her create award-winning work for several international books, NGOs in Syria and the Obama Foundation, just to name a few. Now, she lives in Antwerp where she’s studying for a master’s in visual arts with a further focus on Arabic identity and branding.

As for Sally and Hala, Kinda met them both while studying architecture. Both born in Damascus, Sally has a keen eye for Arabic type which she is prone to snapping with a camera while perusing the city’s streets. The only creative in her family, she spent her childhood painting or sculpting clay and today works at an architecture studio in her home city. Hala, on the other hand, draws creatively from her multi-national heritage and likes to explore “what brings us together as humans”. Questioning what is culture, what elements shape identity and what makes us different, Hala’s practice (like Kinda’s) has pivoted from architecture to graphic design. Since 2017, she’s volunteered with many NGOs and social innovation projects as a visual designer, working to build peace and empower youth to achieve a positive impact in their communities.

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Syrian Design Archive: My Experience in Poetry (Tajroubati Alshariye) by Abdel Wahab Al-Bayyat. 1968, Cover design: Abdulkader Arnaout.

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Syrian Design Archive: Poster for the Kazakhstan Classical Dance Group, Cultural Program of the 33rd International Fair of Damascus, 1986. In 1986, 24 years after he designed the Robert Joffrey Ballet poster (above), Arnaout was commissioned by the ballet's director to use the same design to promote the Kazakhstan Dance Group's performance.

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Syrian Design Archive: Syrian Arab Airlines 1969. Found by Gklavas

Together, the three co-founders use their respective interests to contribute to the Syrian Design Archive. “Our main goal is to share the richness found in these various art forms,” says Sally. “To us, the best art pushes you to see the world through someone else’s eyes.” For anyone with a Western-leaning design education, the Syrian Design Archive does exactly that. Though unable to read the elegant Arabic text, anyone can appreciate the hand-drawn variation of the beautifully written script. Sweeping ligatures are elongated with a stylistic flair. In some cases, the script is altered to indicate a poignant symbol, while in other designs, ascenders and terminals are exaggerated to enhance the visual rhythm of a word. Poeticism is heightened by its calligraphic features.

Arabic script is the second-most widely used writing system in the world by the countries using it. The third most widely used if you’re counting the number of users, after Latin and Chinese scripts. It is read from right to left, which immediately affects the viewer’s understanding of an image. For anyone used to reading Latin script, we understand text, let alone image, by turning left to right. However, when it comes to understanding the artworks in this archive, we must do what we are not used to and look in the opposite direction. The entire construction of the images in the archive are built to be understood from right to left, so whether there’s a scene of children playing or an abstract amalgamation of shapes, the story is backwards from what we might expect, as a consequence, saying something entirely opposite to what we might have imagined.

The collection not only allows members of the public to view its artworks but also invites its audience to be involved in the archiving process. If anyone owns any printed paraphernalia and is happy to share it with the Syrian Design Archive team, Kinda, Hala and Sally are eager to hear from them, allowing the design collection to grow and develop with the help of interested parties. The platform may have stretched substantially in less than a year, but it hopes to expand further to one day evolve into an official website and maybe a book afterwards. That way, if anyone finds an interest in the folds of Syrian design history, the platform will exist to answer any burgeoning questions.

On the said platform, readers would be able to access all kinds of information involving Syria’s design history. Information like the fact the first university graphic design department graduated in 1977 under the supervision of one of the country’s only documented graphic designers, Abdulkader Arnaout. In the team’s meticulous research, Arnaout’s story is only one of two discovered (The other person being Professor Mouneer Alsharaani) through publishing houses in The Netherlands and a book in the American University in Egypt. While there is copious information on Syrian fine art – a medium that’s flourished over the centuries due to the chronology of great civilisations leaving clear visual traces – there is scarce equivalent when it comes to graphic design. In part, because most designers (including Arnaaout and Alsharaani) classified themselves as artists by profession.

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Syrian Design Archive: Poster for Maarad al-Funun al-Tatbiqiya (The Applied Arts Exhibition). The National Museum. Damascus, 1962. Designed by Abdelkader Arnaout

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[From left to right:] 1. Poster for Al-Tinnin (The Dragon) by Evgeny Schwartz, Al-Hamra Theater, Damascus, undated, Designed by Abdelkader Arnaout, 2. International Fair of Damascus Posters, Design: Abdulkader Arnaout, 3. Burhan Karkoutly 1978 English text: Palestine lives, Arabic translation: The Palestinian revolution lives, 4. Arabic Art Exhibition In Support Of Intifada 2001, Design: Mouneer Alshaarani.

“Syria is a country of rich history and culture,” says Hala. “It is also a country with a broad range of cultural activities in modern history such as printing, journalism, theatre and art. Those factors put together, positively affected the graphic design practice in Syria and gave it a rich visual heritage.” An example of this is Arnaout’s designs for the 10th Mediterranean Games held in Lattakia, Syria, in 1987. Arnaout created unique symbols based on the cuneiform of the Ugaritic alphabet, an ancient writing system of an extinct Northwest Semitic language dating back to 1300 BCE. The language was discovered in Ugarit, an ancient port city in northern Syria known today as Ras Shamra, famous for its ruins inscribed with the Afro-Asiatic language. Ugaritic is renowned as one of the greatest literary discoveries, essential in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform, as well as helping clarify Biblical Hebrew.

In Arnaout’s designs for the games (held nearby Was Shamra) the designer forged unique symbols inspired by the monosyllabic ancient written language. This work is a clear example of Syrian design minimalism, where few graphic elements are used to deliver a clear and direct message. It’s a signature aesthetic seen throughout the Syrian Design Archive, regardless of the time period – one that centres on the striking power of Arabic typography which is as visually decorative as it is communicative.

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Syrian Design Archive: One Night (Lelia waheda) by Colette Khoury, 1961, Cover design Abdulkader Arnaout

Left

Syrian Design Archive: Mouneer Alshaarani, 2001 Arabic Art Exhibition In Support Of Intifada (The Palestinian Resistance) 

Right

Syrian Design Archive: Abdulkader Arnaout 1969, Usbu Al-Funun al- Shaibiya al-Awwal (The First Folk Art Week). 

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Left

Syrian Design Archive: Mouneer Alshaarani, 2001 Arabic Art Exhibition In Support Of Intifada (The Palestinian Resistance) 

Right

Syrian Design Archive: Abdulkader Arnaout 1969, Usbu Al-Funun al- Shaibiya al-Awwal (The First Folk Art Week). 

Above

Syrian Design Archive: Abdulkader Arnaout 1969, Usbu Al-Funun al- Shaibiya al-Awwal (The First Folk Art Week). 

Kinda, Sally and Hala further acquaint us with Arnaout’s minimalist work, citing his 1969 design for Usbu Al-Funan al-Shaibiya al-Awwal which translates as The First Folk Art Week. Speaking of the pared-back design (“and that’s what we like in his work the most”), Kinda points out detailed decorative elements – “zakharef” ornaments – which represent the traditional shapes of Damascus’ art heritage. The designer crafts the zakharef ornaments into four symbols of geometric, abstracted forms, adding bright colour to further attract the eyes of a viewer. For the three co-founders, Arnaout’s work is highly recognisable for its unique hand-rendered typography. It’s this which sets him apart from his peers, along with his careful balance of white space, colour and form.

Elsewhere in the archive, the founders take us through Mouneer Al Shaarani’s poster for the 2001 Arabic Art Exhibition in Support of Intifada (The Palestinian Resistance). The type presented in this poster derives from a style coined by Al Shaarani, a style he called Kairouani calligraphy or Kairouani Kufi calligraphy; based on one of the Islamic calligraphy styles. “In this poster,” says Hala, “we’ve noticed the dominance of the calligraphic mass over the formation of the poster’s void.” Using the colours of the Palestinian flag, the calligraphy reads “Ma’akoum” which is Arabic for “we’re here with you”. The statement is centralised in a message of solidarity, uniting other Arab countries with the Palestinian resistance in a graphic composition. “This poster, in our opinion, succeeded in delivering a clear and strong message in a balanced way,” adds Sally.

Lastly, the trio takes us through the work of Burhan Karkoutly, a designer whose work radiates with a “deep and strong belonging” to the Palestinian cause. A German-Syrian graphic artist, Karkoutly’s work was made to address many humanitarian causes, which Kinda suggests, “made him an activist against all types of oppression”. His style is pointedly monochromatic, intricate in its winding depictions of foreground and background, levelled in varying thicknesses of lines. It’s not only his detailed style that the founders admire but “the way he uses different elements as a metaphor to deliver his message”. Kinda finally goes on to say: “What caught out eye in this particular poster is the way he chose to reflect resistant Palestinian women, and the role they take as women in their everyday lives or as front row fighters.” With this, she rounds up our interview, with a poster that expresses aspects of traditional Palestinian art styles, cultures and beautiful decorative forms.

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

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.

jo@itsnicethat.com

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