Sharjah gains a new graphic design biennial set inside a former 1970s abandoned bank
Standing in the middle of a strip of crumbling 1970s building blocks in Sharjah, the UAE city’s former bank building is currently seeing out what could be its last days. The authorities plan to have it demolished as the seafront area is cleared to make way for a new restoration project that promises to reinstate the city’s historic quarter. However, a temporary but ground-breaking Fikra Graphic Design Biennial hosted by local graphic design studio and education platform, Fikra, may just see its fate reversed.
For the next month, and potentially longer, the derelict building is playing host to the work of over 40 designers from 20 countries which is currently arranged across five of the building’s floors. With an interior overhaul courtesy of Dubai-based T.ZED Architects, the bank building has been transformed into a fictional Ministry of Graphic Design with rooms organised by six themes defined as departments. These imaginary offices include the Department of Graphic Optimism, The Department of Dematerilaising Language and The Department of Mapping Margins.
Inside the abandoned former Bank of Sharjah
Clearly signposted with sober gold plaques, the departments nod to the building’s own administrative past as a bank as well as some of the country’s real life governmental departments – the UAE has Ministers of State for happiness and an Office of the Future.
Despite the pop-up institution’s tongue-in-cheek approach, its exhibitors have some serious points to make. The show seeks to educate visitors on the history of graphic design in the region and demonstrate its importance; in the UAE, graphic design has not always been recognised as a profession.
‘This is work that looks at graphic design as a discipline but it’s also using graphic design to look at the world at large,’ explains artistic director Emily Smith who worked alongside fellow artistic directors Prem Krishnamurthy, Emily Smith and Na Kim to help Fikra founders Salem and Maryam Al-Qassimi bring the exhibition into existence.
Graphics from the Department of Flying Saucers
‘It’s important to us to look at the way that design, as a tool in its critical interdisciplinary perspective, can think about urgent narratives and how to respond to what’s happening right now,’ she continues.
Beyond graphic design, the organisers are hoping that the Fikra Graphic Design Biennial’s success will help to persuade local authorities and developers to rethink how historical architecture can be restored and repurposed in the city and wider region. Restoration of architecture is almost never practiced in the UAE, where space is not in short supply and permission to build is easy to come by.
‘I think that there’s a very serious conversation to be had about how we can actually improve the quality of cities,’ comments Tarik Al Zaharna, founder of T.ZED architects. ‘If you need a new space or you need an architecture to host something it’s always easier in a developing country to build it from scratch.’
‘But actually that’s not where the interesting programme happens,’ he continues. ‘The interesting moments and the moments that you can actually build on to create a very interesting narrative are actually to look back and reuse what you already have.’ §