Walking into Holy Shift!, an exhibition for projects by senior graphic design students at the American University in Cairo (AUC), I was greeted by Al-Manseb, a dynamic board game where players strive to start initiatives in various political and governmental sectors (health, education and agriculture) according to the game’s rulebook: articles from the Egyptian constitution. The project, by Aly Baracat, conveys the clever interaction between politics and play that I found to be prevalent in the majority of the works on display.
captionFor several years now, students have had the opportunity to showcase their graduation projects at the Sharjah Gallery on campus, sharing their work with an audience that extends beyond their professors and classmates. This academic year, the exhibition brimmed with projects that creatively retrace, reconfigure and excavate narratives of diverse human experiences and histories. True to its name, it offered a refreshing shift towards conceptual projects rooted in social and political realities that challenge mainstream modes of knowledge production and dissemination using imaginative, piercing and often playful designs.
As students worked on their projects, they were mentored by three professors: Ghalia Elsrakbi, Director of the Graphic Design program; Nagla Samir, Associate Professor of Practice; and Haytham Nawar, Assistant Professor and Chair of the Department of the Arts at AUC. Students are encouraged to draw on both theory and practice as they utilize the design skills they’ve acquired throughout their degree to engage with real-life phenomena. According to instructors in the department, the graphic design program at AUC has been taking a different approach to the curriculum in the past two years, with instructors focusing more on conceptual ideas, rather than just practical skills.
Elsrakbi says that: “In the past two years, [instructors] embedded theory and specific topics that we want students to be involved with somehow in our classes. We encourage our students to start questioning their role as designers in different kinds of topics.” She reflects on the purpose of encouraging students to pursue conceptual projects: “Students are not necessarily trying to find or solve something, but they are questioning and trying to bring different perspectives to a topic. It is not about pretending they have answers, but at least we can put topics and perspectives on the table in a way that’s accessible so we can start to talk about them.”
Students were free to choose their own topics for their thesis projects without having to stick to a specific theme. After projects began to take shape and gain clarity, they were grouped into different clusters that respond to the types of projects students created: social design, educational design, cultural design and data visualization. Each cluster transports visitors to a different world with its own distinct language, and yet somehow the works in each group organically intersect with the others. Viewing the exhibition in that particular sequential pattern was mentally and sensorily stimulating, giving rise to a host of complex questions while also a satisfying sense of curatorial completeness.
One feels like they’ve walked into a futuristic DNA lab when they first encounter Lana Kurdi’s Breeding the Super Generation plastered onto the wall in the data visualization section. Complete with fluorescent superhuman features and body parts being bred in test tubes and Petri dishes, Kurdi seems to be imagining the future of gene editing science in her wall art. The first installation tells the audience what they need to know about CRISPR, the latest technology in the world of gene editing; a world map breaks down legislation around the practice and numbers tell us how many human embryos have undergone CRISPR (spoiler: 1!) and how much (or little, actually) it would cost to design your own baby with CRISPR as opposed to other more expensive methods that existed before it. The second installation features futuristic machines drilling cool-toned beams of light into human arms, eyes and brains that are in the process of being enhanced into the next super generation’s body parts. Whether you want a “super fit,” “super bright” or “super fighter” child, it seems that CRISPR has got you covered. The writing on the wall seems quite clear; gene editing is very much a slippery part of our future, if not our present.
Kurdi asserts that the gene-tinkering offerings she chose to feature in her project are inspired by current scientific research and what the respondents of a survey she conducted said they would use on their children. “When I started the project, I intended to feature fictional modifications, then I realized that it was much more important to tackle what was already very popular! Can you imagine the differences between genetically modified and non-modified kids in the future? The social inequality?” Kurdi muses. The superhuman feature, she says, was inspired by the news that Russian President Vladimir Putin is funding new research on CRISPR, mentioning the possibility of and was previously talking about engineering soldiers who would feel no pain, which he compared to atomic bombs. The superfit feature, meanwhile was based on an experiment that is already going on with mice, which aims to cure dwarfism. “But then is dwarfism even a disease? We don’t have a global agreement on what is a disease and what is not. We are gradually going back to eugenics.”
Meanwhile, in the social design cluster, Salma Elkafrawy’s Khebra: On the hymen, grounds us back in the pressing social issues of today. It is a coming-of-age gift to young girls in the form of a book that provides a friendly and body-positive alternative to shame-drenched directives that girls often receive at the onset of puberty. In her reclamation of the stigmatized term khebra (which literally means “experience”), often used to shame sexually-active women, Elkafrawy does not shy away from bold portrayals of the female anatomy. Bright and vibrant colors reign supreme in Elkafrawy’s diverse illustrations of female reproductive organs. Her designs depict the different shapes and sizes of hymens and vaginas and she stresses how there is not — and should never be — a way to judge whether a woman has had sex before or not. With designs of an angel-doctor refusing hymen reconstruction surgeries to women who don’t seem “repentant” to him and of men acting as judges of their wives’ “respectability,” Elkafrawy’s designs critique hegemonic molds of female sexuality that are manufactured at the chilling intersections of moral policing, medical patriarchy and religious power.
When asked about how she came to choose her subject, Elkafrawy says: “Shit starts going downhill from coming-of-age. Many girls feel ashamed and disgusted by their periods. My schoolmates used to say ‘Ugh I feel disgusting; I got my period today,’ and I internalized this too. There is also a lot of shame regarding how the vagina looks, but it is just an organ. Why do we perceive it as ugly or smelly? It’s only natural.”
Another book-based project, albeit a very different one, was Mariem Abutaleb’s attempt to visualize folk songs from Sharqiya and Port Said in the cluster of cultural design. In an impressively fresh and dynamic approach to archiving, Abutaleb combines audio, video and text to tell the story of an art form that is often overlooked by official archives and the mainstream art scene. Flipping through the large white book on display, which constitutes the textual component of her archive, there are narratives of the cities, their inhabitants and the different types of folk songs they are home to. The book also includes pages of intricate black-ink hand-lettering of song lyrics where Abutaleb incorporates visual elements extracted from the lyrics; elements that are rooted in the cities’ ecology. Flowers, fishing nets and sea waves are part and parcel of Abutaleb’s calligraphy and speak of the environments that fostered the songs as they were created.
To archive folk sounds, Abu Taleb utilizes creative technology to give her audience the chance to interact with the archive and to experience the art form in real-time. One could pick up one of the many hand-lettered cards and place it on a black velvet frame equipped with a sensor, to hear the corresponding song through the headphones provided. Adding to this sensory experience, Abutaleb also shares the interviews she conducted in Sharqiya and Port Said with folk artists, playing on iPads hung on the wall. When asked about her decision to combine diverse media in building her archive, Abutaleb responds that it was important for her to offer the audience a special memory of folklore by combining each song and its corresponding lettered design. “The idea is to move away from the traditional on-and-off controls, so we can represent the meaningful relationship between the material itself and the human interaction that enhances the audience’s experience of it,” she elaborates.
More music was to be found in the educational design cluster, where Maya Tadros ventured into the world of alternative pedagogy for the differently-abled with Résonne (French for “resounds”), an interactive teaching tool designed to teach dyslexic learners how to read and play music using a small white box and brightly-colored pegs of different shapes. Mounted on the exhibition’s cream-colored walls, the box houses circular slots where different pegs are lodged and each peg produces the sound of a unique music note when pressed; a baby blue triangle for a Mi and a coral pink circle for a Sol, and so on. Tadros creates a visual language of music using three shapes and seven colors and includes a playful auditory element where her audience can compose and hear their creations as they fiddle with the tool.
Reflecting on why she chose to focus her project on dyslexia and music, Tadros says that “when it comes to teaching dyslexic learners how to read music, I found that instructors just focused on familiarizing them with music notes or correcting them when they made mistakes in reading sheet music. Nobody thought of creating a new language to engage them in the process of learning music in a way that suits and bolsters their abilities.” In this sense, Résonne offers an alternative technique to teach music for differently-abled people who want to experiment with music’s creative potential and to learn how to play an instrument. Instead of abandoning an instrument they enjoy, dyslexic learners have an opportunity to stay the course with a music language tailored to the learning methods they grasp best.
Tadros’ project was certainly not the only one tackling accessibility for differently-abled individuals. Part of the social design cluster, Hana Elkhawanky’s inAccessible: Mapping a different need depicts the difficult journeys of individuals with physical paralysis as they navigate through everyday mundanities, like getting a table at a restaurant or getting paperwork done at a police station. She creates complex maps and icons that represent the physical and emotional roadblocks they have to maneuver to do the simplest of errands, in addition to giving concrete suggestions on how to make public spaces more accessible to the differently-abled.
Treading along similar lines, and also in the social design cluster, Rana Abdalatif’s Enable aims to create an accessible and independent grocery shopping experience for people with visual impairments by creating tactile icons that provide them with necessary product information. Taking another approach to a similar issue in educational design, Sarah Azzab’s Chromo is a playful animation tool designed to teach sign language to kids, with the help of a friendly animated little blue chromosome.
While it was definitely refreshing to be offered that glimpse into the students’ minds and the diverse political issues that concern them and their creative processes, there is still a lot to examine concerning the bureaucratic and logistical framework that governs such an exhibition, as well as its accessibility.
As is the case in the majority of art programs around the world, students must fund their graduation projects — and all other projects throughout their four years of study — out-of-pocket. This a double-edged sword that guarantees independence but can often burden the students financially, even if many of them come from families that are well-to-do, given the high fees of an elite university like the AUC. In previous years, students also had to finance the exhibition set-up and installation, but Elsrakbi says that this year was the first time that the design program financed the exhibition’s production and installation, as well as any woodwork or metalwork that could be done on campus.
The fact that the AUC campus is heavily securitized and located in New Cairo, a privileged suburb, raises questions as to who can easily access and interact with the work of the students. Nonetheless, these annual exhibitions can be considered a step in the right direction. One hopes that, at some point, the degree of social engagement apparent in the students’ projects will also be translated into how and where these projects are exhibited and experienced.