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French Version

Design contest cultivates a homegrown winner

'Creative Lebanon' selects advertising campaign to project youthful image of the country to the world

How do you represent a culture through design? How do you package a culture through product? How do you capture a culture through publications? How do you sell a culture to clients ?

The second phase of "Creative Lebanon" - a project kicked off last spring by the British Council in Beirut and the Association pour le Design et l'Architecture au Proche Orient (ADAPO) - cut straight to the chase with its questions. And it offered up one rather surprisingly apt answer in selecting Joe Abou-Khaled and Vincent Repasse's "Lebanese Homemade" poster and postcard campaign as the winners of a competition geared toward promoting a younger, more vibrant image of Lebanon abroad through contemporary design.

Phase one of "Creative Lebanon" consisted of a jam-packed two-day conference in March, with lectures by London- and Beirut-based artists, architects, academics and more. Though an overall illuminating affair, it digressed on occasion into the building blocks of identity politics and unearthed a good deal of uneasiness with the idea of exporting young talent from a country that offers little support for culture, youth or otherwise.

Phase two pared down its scope - just three lectures and the opening of an exhibition, which unveiled the winners of a competition that was announced at the end of phase one. Gone was the existential hand-wringing, the loaded rhetoric, the wrangling over definitions and the miffed retorts that designers shouldn't be held accountable for putting a good face on the country's ills anyway. This time around "Creative Lebanon" was blunt and direct.

Three speakers from London returned to give more focused presentations. Designer and art director Rana Salam illustrated successful examples of packaging culture through food products and restaurant graphics. In her lecture "Shop Shop Shop," she looked at signage for such London eateries as Noura and Fakhreldine, Wagamama and Momo. She broke down her visuals into the shaabi (for pop culture), the chic and the super chic. Her assessments were biting, not unlike a critique session. And her approach was challenging to the overwhelmingly student audience.

"Look at this," she said, showing the facades of Lebanese restaurants on London's Edgeware Road. "There's no real thinking behind it. Someone is trying - very hard - to be a graphic designer. The Lebanese are a bit schizophrenic anyway, but does this say to you, the typography? It's totally schizo."

Having studied and made a successful career for herself in the U.K., Salam was encouraging about the local design scene.

"There is so much happening with design. There is a lot of local talent, but Lebanese companies are not using it. They would rather go to a design company in France."

Of her illustrations, she added, "We could produce the same thing. I mean pasta is pasta, hummus is hummus. It's about how you present it, make it look expensive, make people want to buy it to put on their shelves. ... It's about embracing Arab culture, not at all trying to be Western."

Writer and editor Malu Halasa sounded a similarly hopeful note. Using a wide variety of visual material, she urged for the telling of stories through the presentation of pictures. Coursing through Nigerian hairstyles, Russian prison tattoos, Istanbul security guard uniforms, Isfahan portrait photography, Richard Avedon and the Vietnam War era and the explosion of progressive fashion magazines that hit newsstands worldwide in the late 1990's, Halasa emphasized "local stories with global dimensions ... the stories of real life ... the stories that linger, that have real power, that people will remember. Those are the stories that mean something and reveal real culture."

A founding editor of the fashion magazine Tank and a co-editor of "Transit Beirut," an anthology of new and experimental writing, Halasa offered a frank provocation to the crowd. "You guys should start your own publications!" Later on, she added that whether publications are glossy or photocopied, they are a method of "communicating what you're about." And even if those publications are temporary and ephemeral, "It's the attitude they engender at the moment they are being created" that lends them power and relevance.

Rounding out the triple-punch of package, publish and sell was architect and professor Peter Higgins, who teaches at Central Saint Martin's in London. Higgins's talk, "10 to the Power of Two: How to Sell and Idea," encouraged young designers to take risks and risk failure. "Be tenacious, gain confidence and don't always try to claim ownership of an idea, as long a collective dynamic produces the best idea," he said later.

Higgins, who has worked at the threshold of several design disciplines, focused on the execution of ideas, how to respond to a generic design brief with a challenging project and how to collaborate successfully without losing heart.

All this, however, was just the warm-up. The second phased of "Creative Lebanon" was subtitled "The Results," and the main event was the unveiling of prototypes that had been entered into the competition. The most staggering thing about the opening of the exhibition, which remains on view at the American University of Beirut's department of architecture through Friday, was the fact that, of the 50-plus people who registered to compete, only six groups - just 13 people - followed through.

The competition was open to architects, writers, photographers, filmmakers, sociologists and designers of all stripes. Working in groups of two or three, anyone under 35 years of age, Lebanese nationals or permanent residents, was eligible. The projects were reviewed by a nine-member jury, including Salam, Halasa and Higgins, along with Mind the Gap's Karl Bassil, CD-Theque's Tony Sfeir, AUB's Howyda al-Harithy and Ramez Maluf from the Lebanese American University, among others. At stake was a trip to London on the British Council's dime to present the winning work in a suitable public forum.

So why did so many people drop out? "It was clear that there had been a possible crisis of confidence for some of the groups," says Higgins. However, "this exists for all of us."

"It is true that there is not a big competition culture [in Lebanon] where people are left on their own to work," says Lyne Sneige of the British Council. Sneige admits she was surprised at the low turnout, but along with Sophie Skaf and Yasmina Skaff of ADAPO, she is eager to root out the reasons and evaluate the process critically in hindsight.

"It is important for us," says Sneige, "as one of the objectives of the project is to build teamwork, leadership, commitment and professionalism in young people."

Adds Skaff: "It is interesting for us to understand the mechanisms and behavior of the young design community in order to pinpoint the problems and work around them in promoting Lebanon through design."

That said, even if there had been a more crowded playing field, it's likely that the winning team of Abou-Khaled and Repasse would have still come out on top. "Lebanese Homeland" consists of three posters replicated on postcards that visitors can take away from the exhibition for free. Coupled with a clearly stated creative brief, "Lebanese Homeland" is clean, professionally executed and done with a youthful edge and keen sense of humor. It is, in the words of the jury statement, "self-searching, humorous and stylish."

It is not insignificant that both Abou-Khaled and Repasse work. Abou-Khaled is an art director for Impact-BBDO and Repasse is an art director for Euro-RSCG. Both 27, they met while they were studying advertising at the Academie Libanaise des Beaux Arts.

"It's an advertising campaign," says Abou-Khaled. "This is our project from A to Z - the line, the body copy, the creative rational and the creative brief. With an ad, you should get it or not. The message has to be clear visually and through the typography. We're made to act very fast in this field. We were aware from the beginning that an ad campaign would be the best way to transform or create an image of the country. We realized we'd have to sell Lebanon through its society and its culture."

For all Beirut's cadre of architects and furniture designers, the success of "Lebanese Homemade" speaks to the strength of the city's advertising community, especially in terms of cementing a coherent visual style that can communicate and compete globally. "I would add the strength of the young advertising community," says Sneige.

Some of the other entrees came from students or recent graduates and this showed in their work, which often come off as half-baked. There were exceptions, such as Bassam Zeino and Bachir Khoury's "Beirut Lost and Found," using animation, graphics and a killer soundtrack. But overall the pickings were slim.

It's also interesting that the one group that gave Abou-Khaled and Repasse a run for their money - "Corniche al-Manara" by Nadine Bekdache, Rand Eid and Nour Saad - also used postcards (as well as stamps). Clearly, young designers faced with the challenge of showing Lebanon to the world are still drawn to the old-fashioned yet relevant idea of slapping an image onto a moveable piece of paper. Postcards are a mass medium, after all, similar to the street-level pop culture success of sticker and stencil campaigns such as the those proliferated worldwide by Shepard Fairey of Obey/Andre the Giant fame, Space Invaders or Banksy.

But what's most impressive about "Lebanese Homeland" is its honesty. It doesn't package Lebanon as a fiction, a fantasy or a hyberbolic claim (like "Beirut: Ancient City of the Future"). The word choice is sly without being vitriolic or sarcastic.

As Halasa suggests, "Young people in Beirut are formed by modern ways of technology and pop culture. They are living that life even though they don't always show it in public." She believes the urge to show that life in public will come, and that it won't just be the elite, and it won't just be kids on a club's dance floor. "The art discourse in Beirut is huge. And the sexy, edgy stuff? Young people here have it in droves." Most profoundly, she believes it is an issue of transparency. "The Arab world has been hiding for so long. But young people believe in transparency. It's only the regimes that don't."

"Creative Lebanon: The Results" is on view in AUB's department of architecture, one floor up from the lobby, through Oct. 22. For more information, call +961 1 740123

Beirut,10 25 2004
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
The Daily Star
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