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Alumnus Maece Seirafi on Co-Curating Local/Not Local

Local/Not Local: Arabic & Iranian Typography Made in California
Saudi Gazette

Local/Not Local, is an exhibition showcasing Arabic and Iranian typography, created by various Middle Eastern designers based in California. These designers pay homage to their cultural roots through their design practice and reveal that Arabic and Iranian typography has a place in California through community based projects, collaborations and works with various clientele.

The initiative started off with a team of ten designers for the first two shows. Reem Hammad from Syria, Yusef al-Ahmad from Saudi Arabia, Sam Anvari, Milka Broukhim, Paymon Pojhan, Ebrahim Poustinchi, and Shilla Shakoori from Iran including Maece Seirafi and Pouya Jahanshahi participated during both shows. Due to popular demand for the third show, seven more artists and designers were added to the list including Paul Batou from Iraq, Noha Khashoggi from Saudi Arabia, Christian Nahas and Nouha Sinno from Lebanon, Navid Ghaem Maghami, Farzad Kohan, and Maryam Naghshineh from Iran.

Local/Not Local was first held at what used to be called The Levantine Cultural Center now called The Markaz in Los Angeles. The show traveled to the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. For the third destination, the show was held at California University from October 20 – December 3, 2015.

Local/Not Local was curated by Maece Seirafi and Pouya Jahanshahi.

Maece is a Syrian-American art director and designer, owner of Maece Seirafi Design studio based in Los Angeles, California. “I was born in San Francisco, raised in Damascus, where most of my love of letterforms, art, and design was cultivated from a very young age,” said Maece.   Pouya is an Iranian – American graphic designer and scholar, owner of XpatStudio based in Oklahoma that focuses on the development of culture related design projects and documentaries. “I was born in Tehran, Iran, and left Iran in 1983 during the peak of Iran-Iraq war, to accompany my family to London and then to California. Since September 2004, I reside in Oklahoma where I am an assistant professor of graphic design at Oklahoma State University,” said Pouya. Saudi Gazette spoke to Maece and Pouya who initially met as grad students at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).


SG: What is your background in designing?

MS: In 2005, I graduated from Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles with a BFA in Communication Arts. Arabic calligraphy and Latin letterforms were a strong central theme throughout my work at Otis. I established my own design studio in 2005. After an extensive Type Design class at Otis with the late type designer Leah Hoffmitz, bilingual identities in typography furthered my interest to pursue my MFA at the Graphic Design program at the California Institute of the Arts in 2007. I studied under the guidance of several talented design visionaries such as Louise Sandhaus, Lorraine Wild, Ed Fella, Michael Worthington, and Jefferey Keedy. I took that knowledge and applied it to my design studio were I can experiment and explore the nuances of Latin and non-Latin typography, applying that creative thinking process to branding projects for clients. My design studio focuses on branding for local non-profit organizations, cultural art institutions, and lifestyle content. There is a curatorial eye for cultural experiences lending themselves to educational institutions, commissioned calligraphic pieces, and cultural events that raise awareness about certain causes.

PJ: As a child in Iran, I used to be known for my illustrations. Once in America, my initial focused on the Medical or Engineering fields, following the traditional path that all Iranians students tended to pursue.  It was my 2D instructor in college who encouraged me to explore other possibilities for a creative career. After earning my BFA and MA at California State University of Fullerton, focusing on Semiotics and Motion, I practiced as a graphic designer and art director in various media, exploring the possibilities that lay in the relatively young realm of graphic design. Eventually I moved forth and earned my MFA in Graphic Design and Integrate Media at California Institute of the Arts, surrounded by my influential faculty. Lorraine Wild and Ed Fella guided me to the nuances of design and culture. Louis Sandhaus, Scott Zukowski, Michael Worthington and Jeff Keedy influenced me on a daily basis, questioning the place of graphic design in the spectrum of form and culture.

SG: Can you give me a clear picture of how and when “Local/Not Local” was launched?

MS: Before it was even called Local/ Not Local the idea was cultivated during my grad school years from 2007-2010, while trying to focus on Arabic typography for my thesis. Observing how much experimentation has culminated throughout the Middle Eastern region inspired me to pursue this idea further. Pouya who was also at CalArts pursuing his MFA would have various conversations about Iranian Typography and hybrid cultures. Once we graduated in 2010, we thought, why not refine this idea into something more meaningful and relevant to our geographical location as well as our identity. Further fine-tuning our concept Local/Not Local: Arabic & Iranian Typography Made in California was conceived in August of 2014.

PJ: Indeed our story started in the nooks and crannies of CalArts, with a thirst of showing contemporary works of Iranian and Arabic Typography Graphic Design to the masses. I recall, specifically, when I looked at Philip Megss’ History of Graphic Design, there were a total of six pages focused on International Graphic Design, signifying lack knowledge in this field. Hence our focus started local, with our own work, and our neighbors, and their colleagues in California. It didn’t too take long however for us to realize there is indeed a thirst amongst the American audience for this very exact concept. People from all ethnicities would gather and interact with the works being displayed and more importantly with each other, sparking future collaborations and interactions.

SG: Who is your target audience? What is their response so far?

MS: Our target audience is both the Middle Eastern community and the American community. The idea was to bring together this cultural wealth to audiences who weren’t aware of the creative side the Middle Eastern diaspora has to offer. Their response is very positive in wanting to learn more about the alphabet that they haven’t seen in the form of various applications from posters, ceramics, skateboards, apparel, books and paintings. There is definitely a very keen interest in the Middle Eastern community to partake in more design centric exhibitions and workshops they have created on their own.

PJ: Another perspective on our “audience” can be brought forth with the initial understanding of the wonder that can occur under umbrella of arts even if only for an instance.  It is in this realm that an audience may arrive from furthest points of perspective, and yet when glancing at the expressive, historical and communicative aspects a piece of beautiful typographic design, a new layer conversation starts: one beyond politics or ideologies. From this perspective if I dare say, our audience is literally any human being with a curios urge of exploration, and thirst for peering into the vastness of global visual cultures.

SG: Is it important to express creativity and culture through Arabic typography and calligraphy? If yes, why and how? What is the significance?

MS: Calligraphy and typography are one of many mediums but very important for the visual and cultural landscape to the language as it serves as the backbone of communication. Whether its motion graphics, graphic design, information architecture, UI all disciplines need to understand the importance of creating beautiful and legible typography. The significance is seeing how it has evolved from traditional calligraphy to a more contemporary form that addresses today’s aesthetics.

PJ: It is a known phenomenon that a culture’s history and values are always reflected in the arts of that culture. The beauty of Latin type, the aesthetic of the Japanese Kanji brush stroke, and the curves of Iranian Nastalique script, all reflect nuances and aesthetics of their own realms of origin. Hence, in the present global village, and the tensions that arise out of the fear of the unknown, visual forms of expression are accessible gateways to building, understanding and appreciating such contrasts. Needless to say, typography is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all visual forms – henceforth its potential for influence end expression, the largest as well.

SG: How does “Local Not Local” benefit the society?

MS: It is important in sustaining the need for language in the diaspora as it could slip away if its not handled with the utmost attention to detail for next generations to come. Therefore raising awareness about the Arabic language through a design thinking scope would bridge the gap between elders and ourselves who speak the language fluently and the generation who years to learn it. It also serves an important need for Middle Eastern designers who can become consultants to local companies asking for their expertise in language and visual communication.

PJ: On a cultural level, shows such as Local / Not Local can be considered truly as gateways, peering not the beauty and the variety that exists in this land of immigrants  and perhaps a small stroke towards appreciation as opposed to fear of the gems that reside in our contrasts.