The first graphic design biennial in the region opens in Sharjah on November 9. Hosting exhibitions, workshops, performative lectures and meals, the Fikra Design Biennial seems to have an agenda of defying all expectations, whether of biennials or graphic design.
Prem Krishnamurthy, one of the month-long event’s artistic directors, says: “What do you think people will expect when they hear the words graphic design biennial? The typical idea would be you have a bunch of posters, you have bunch of book covers, you have a bunch of physical objects. In fact, there’s only a small proportion that’s been commissioned or is client-based in the biennial.
"Much of it is independently produced, which shows there's a particular way that graphic designers think about the world. We have a kind of freedom, because there aren't so many precedents for graphic design biennials. "Graphic design is in every part of our life now," he continues. "Every time we touch a screen, or interface with anything, we interact with graphic design, but most people don't have a critical understanding of what it is."
The biennial is the brainchild of Salem Al Qassimi's Fikra Design Studio, a Sharjah hub for pushing the boundaries of graphic design. Fikra has invited designers and artists from across the globe to look at the history and current uses of graphic design.
The graphic design shop is displaying disparate facets of design across five floors of the former Bank of Sharjah, a building which is a landmark in the city, having been festooned two years ago by a thorny graffiti work by eL Seed.
The Fikra Design Biennial organisers have gutted the building right back to its concrete walls, transforming it into an exhibition site. The fact that the Bank of Sharjah building is rumoured to be demolished soon, along with the others that face the same esplanade, gives this event a special poignancy.
The biennial is overseen by New York and Berlin-based designer and lecturer Krishnamurthy and two collaborators: the Berlin-based designer and academic Emily Smith and designer Na Kim based in Seoul and Berlin.
The trio devolved the biennial outwards, with an organisation like that of a fake government. Different exhibitions and projects within the biennial are given the farcical, although perhaps not that far-fetched, names of parody departments and ministries.
The Department of Graphic Optimism, curated by Alia Al Sabi, looks at the history of graphic design in the UAE in the 1980s and 90s, through the logos for initiatives such as the Sharjah TV and the Asian Cup Championships. Hala Al Ani’s Department of Flying Saucers invites four international design agencies to Sharjah to lead lectures, parties and pop-up shops for a week each. (They fly in, like flying saucers.)
The Department of Mapping Margins, organised by Uzma Rizvi, thinks about the geographical distribution of graphic design. It makes the much needed, if annoyingly still needed, argument that the world shouldn't be organised via the idea of the centre and margins.
Krishnamurthy explains that, “conceptually, the biennial is somewhere between the [Belgian artist] Marcel Broodthaer’s Museum of Modern Art – the Department of Eagles and Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks”. He pauses. “I think you’ll see where we’re coming from.”
Broodthaers, in the last year of his life, created a fictional museum in which he collected images of eagles as they appeared in different nations. It mimicked the officiousness of art institutions, with their capacity to ennoble any object by virtue of holding within a “museum”, and has remained a beloved touchstone for artists since. Fikra are zoning in on Broodthaers’s insight: that a museum transforms the object within it.
“There’s an utter seriousness about the idea of a structure that can hold many different things,” says Krishnamurthy. “And then on the other hand there’s also a tongue-in-cheek aspect, which is to say once you name a thing, once you label it, you immediately give it a kind of platform. That is what graphic design does.
“How graphic design frames something changes it and how gives it its power.”
This is a collection of designers well aware of how their craft works, and now they are willing to have some fun with it.
Fikra Biennial is in the Bank of Sharjah building from Friday until November 30. More information can be found at fikrabiennial.com