ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Yusef Alahmad as part of our Artist Spotlight.
Yusef Alahmad is a graphic designer and artist based in Washington, DC. He completed his MFA degree in graphic design at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco in December 2016. His thesis explored graphic design standards and intellectual property rights in Saudi Arabia. Yusef is currently an independent designer, alternating between graphic design projects and art commissions. In 2017, he was the inaugural artist resident at the King Abdulaziz Center for Culture (Ithra)’s Majlis residency program in New York City. His work has been exhibited at numerous institutions worldwide, including the Arab American National Museum (AANM) in Dearborn, MI; the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) in Salt Lake City, UT; the Art Museum of the University of Memphis (AMUM) in Memphis, TN; the MISK Global Forum in Riyadh; Saudi Arabia; and at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai, UAE.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your design practice and the main themes you return to in your work?
Yusef Alahmad: My work is split between graphic design and art with some overlap in between. My graphic design work is mainly focused on bilingual (Arabic and English) design for branding and publications such as books, magazines, and art exhibition catalogues. I enjoy the graphic design process because it involves a ton of research, logic and problem solving, and it satisfies my need to create order out of chaos.
To create a balance, I like to juxtapose this rational design work process by creating artwork that is experimental and personal without adhering to the limitations that come with most client-based work. My artwork process generally combines digital and manual tools. It starts by as a sketch on paper, which is then refined and colored digitally and then produced as screen prints, digital prints on paper or canvas for large-scale work, laser engraved wood panels, or as objects like skateboard decks and rugs.
A common theme in my work involves experimental Arabic typography and geometric patterns with repetition and mirroring to convey a sense of depth, motion and energy. I sometimes use semi-legible Arabic words or phrases in my work, but I mostly prefer to portray them as abstract shapes, to highlight the beauty and elegance of the forms away from linguistic meanings and sounds. Some of my visual cues and themes were inspired by my upbringing in Saudi Arabia. I like to use traditional elements and cultural iconography and portray them in non-traditional ways.
AE: In your 2016 MFA graduate thesis from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco, you explored graphic design and intellectual property rights in Saudi Arabia. Can you share some of the main themes and findings from your research? Have the results of your findings shifted since?
YA: After spending several years studying graphic design in the U.S. I noticed a drastic difference in how art and design were generally viewed and treated compared to Saudi Arabia. The hierarchy of arts in Saudi Arabia was different from other parts of the world; it prioritized writing, poetry, and music over all other forms of expression. In my opinion, this made Saudi culture less accessible to outsiders who don’t speak the language.
I started the first part of my thesis by exploring what factors affected graphic design in Saudi Arabia and compiled my findings in my first book Pixelated Kingdom: Graphic Design in Saudi Arabia. The factors varied from education, access to materials, outsourced design work, and more. Another major factor was a disregard for intellectual property.
From those findings, I focused the second part of my thesis on intellectual property by writing and designing my second book, All Rights Not Reserved: Intellectual Property Laws in Saudi Arabia. This book aimed to address the issue in two parts. First, by offering a brief history on intellectual property and explaining some of the main concepts of intellectual property in a simplified and digestible way. The second part included all the IP laws in Saudi Arabia, organized in an easy to read format, to be used as a field guide for designers and visual artists.
Thankfully, in the last few years, there has been a shift in the development of art and design in Saudi Arabia. There are a few reasons why, but a major contributing factor has been that the Saudi government invested heavily in many initiatives that support visual expression — such as developing public works of art around the country and art initiatives like the Misk Art Institute and Riyadh Art. Also, in regard to graphic design in the country, many Saudis studying graphic design—and other creative fields—abroad have graduated and returned to the country and set up shop. Another development has been that there are now clear and strict laws against IP infringement, with easy and accessible ways to file disputes.
AE: What has been one of the most exciting design projects you’ve had the opportunity to work on and why?
YA: My favorite design projects are ones that involve either art, music or fashion. One of the most memorable was designing for the Bridges Art Tour in the U.S.
The Bridges Tour was a cultural diplomacy initiative between Saudi Arabia and the United States, organized by Ithra and produced by Culturruners, a program by Edge of Arabia. The tour involved a series of talks, events, and Saudi contemporary art exhibitions across 10 cities and 13 states from 2016 to 2018.
The tour began in Texas, with a large scale exhibition at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston, TX, before traveling to the Gonzo Gallery in Aspen, CO; Minnesota Street Project in San Francisco, CA; Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, ME; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), CA; the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, MI; the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City, UT; the Art Museum of the University of Memphis & Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis, TN; the Corcoran School of Art & Design at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.; and the Brooklyn Museum in New York.
I worked on designing exhibition catalogues and promotional materials like posters, invitations, and social media posts and also participated in some of the shows and talks as an artist.
It was a privilege working with established art institutions, curators, and Saudi artists during this project and attending most of the exhibitions and meeting many of those involved behind the scenes in person. It was an unforgettable experience.
AE: Despite being based in Washington D.C., you regularly work with clients and institutions in Saudi Arabia and the region. In your opinion, what do you see as some of the advantages and obstacles of working there?
YA: Since I live on the East Coast, I have access to all kinds of vendors, printers, and printmakers for production. Another advantage is getting to attend art and design events, in addition to an amazing selection of museums and exhibitions. The inspirations I get from living here fuel my practice.
I get to have the best of both worlds. Working with clients based in the Arab world gives me the opportunity to develop bilingual works focused on Arabic typography. Pre-Corona, I traveled frequently to the region too. However, some of the disadvantages of being located here are that the time difference can be tricky—especially with all the Zoom meetings now, the distance can make it difficult to receive print and material samples quickly on a tight timeline, and producing artwork in the U.S. and shipping it overseas can be pricey.
AE: What are you working on in the studio at the moment? Do you have any shows or projects coming up in 2021?
YA: At the moment I’m working on a bilingual art book as well as branding, marketing, products, and a catalogue for an upcoming contemporary exhibition opening later this year at the Ithra museum in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. I have some other client projects I’m not at the liberty to discuss yet. On a more personal note, I’m also curating a collection of branded products and aim to launch an online store next year.
YUSEF ALAHMAD ONLINE: