Zara Arshad is a researcher, curator and design historian who specializes in 20th and 21st-century material and visual culture from East Asia. Arshad earned her Master’s Degree in the History of Design at Royal College of Art/Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), and is currently completing her PhD between the University of Brighton and V&A where she is researching the museum’s approaches to collecting and displaying Korean material culture.
From 2011 to 2019, Arshad was documenting the field of contemporary design in and beyond China through her blog Design China. While based in Beijing, she practiced as a freelance graphic designer, and has since continued a research-led practice as one half of Geofictions, a speculative art and design studio, which she co-founded with Seoul-and Chicago-based media artist Yaloo. In 2019, Arshad was a Research Fellow at the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, South Korea, and launched The Unheard Archive, an oral history project about graphic design in contemporary South Korea.
I connected with Arshad via Zoom to discuss our shared interests in the design of East Asia and learn more about her practice. From our conversation, I left thinking deeply about how to challenge the ways in which we source, produce, and apply knowledge in design practices.
I admire the range of your practice and inquiries. You began as a design practitioner, but you are also interested in speculative design, design futures, and design history. What was the catalyst for specializing in East Asia visual culture?
My undergraduate degree was in design, which I fell into unintentionally. While in high school, I knew that I wanted to build a professional career in something creative, but my family encouraged me to be more practical. The compromise I made was advertising, but I eventually found myself in the design program at Goldsmiths, University of London, which changed the course I had set out for myself. That program trained me to think critically about my work: to explore, for example, the broader socio-political, economic and cultural contexts within which my work might be situated.
After graduating from Goldsmiths in 2008, I moved to Beijing, China. This was an exciting place to be at the time with lots of opportunity. When I made that transition, I envisioned myself practicing as a graphic designer, but then gradually started to learn more about the local design field there while learning Mandarin. I would say that this was the starting point.
Was this when you began your blog, Design China? As I was flipping through the site, it felt like an archive—I could connect the dots between past and present. For example, many of the designers you profiled were just starting out at the time, and they’ve since become prolific contemporary designers. What was the motivation behind this project?
I started my blog in 2011 after working on the organizing committees for large-scale international design events held in China, like Xin: Icograda World Design Congress Beijing 2009 and Beijing Design Week (BJDW) 2011-2012. I found that I came to occupy a position as an insider-outsider in these situations—as someone who often mediated between foreign (English-speaking) and local (particularly Mandarin-speaking) audiences.
During media week for BJDW 2011, at one of the final dinners, a group of journalists said to me, “The information that we want to know is in your head, and you need to find a way to actively share that.” From these experiences, I started to write about contemporary design practice in China, which led me to establish Design China. One of the aims of this platform was to provide more visibility to the design projects and related activities that were being realized or taking place locally. This became the first continued output that shaped my subsequent research on design, or visual and material culture, in East Asia. I should note, however, that my research tends to use East Asia as a departure point, with inquiries shaped by transnational, transcultural, and pluriversal approaches and methodologies.
Can you elaborate more on what it means to use “East Asia” as a departure point? How does this concept get realized in your practice?
I started to think more about departure points during my MA. To give you a specific example, one of my first research projects on this program focused on an 18th century porcelain teacup from the V&A Collection. This would have been manufactured in Jingdezhen, China, but the object itself was salvaged from a shipwreck found off the southern coast of Vietnam in 1998.
Porcelain production in Jingdezhen is already well covered in existing scholarship. I hypothesized that if the ship had not sunk, it would have likely traveled to Batavia (modern day Jakarta). I also speculated that this teacup would have been consumed in Europe, but this aspect of the research was already well covered.
Consequently, I developed an interest in the “in between” part: namely, South China Sea maritime trade networks. I started looking at hong merchants and traders of Chinese heritage, whose role and agency in maritime trade networks during this time period was less explored in academic research. Through this one object, I came across numerous networks and narratives that were not well covered in existing scholarship.
I like this concept of tracing the in-betweenness. When we go to a museum and look at the object labels, we usually see where it’s from and where it ended up. This anecdote is a good reminder to take in the bigger picture and think about where objects have been and their own histories.
Yes, definitely. One of the benefits of material culture research is unpicking the “social lives” of objects and finding other narratives, which may not be reflected in other forms of material evidence, such as in text documents, in the process. Employing a transnational methodology also enables you to trace how a “thing”—objects, ideas, patterns, people—moves across time and space, and can impact different contexts in varying ways. These approaches have allowed me to explore shared histories and connections between communities as well.
One of the benefits of material culture research is unpicking the “social lives” of objects and finding other narratives.
Your project, The Unheard Archive, documents contemporary graphic design in South Korea. I was intrigued with your decision to use oral history methods, and how future researchers can access not only the text, but also the voices of these interviewees. How did this project come about?
In 2016, Dr. Rosalie Kim, the current curator for Korean Art at the V&A, invited me to co-initiate an acquisitions project focusing on contemporary graphic design practice in South Korea. We traveled to South Korea for 10 days in 2017, covering around five cities and four biennales, and meeting between 20 to 25 graphic designers. It was an intense scoping trip!
When we returned to London, we evaluated what would be suitable for the V&A’s collection, and it was during this process that I really noticed how some objects are privileged over others. This might be because, for instance, how objects fit, or do not fit, existing museum categories, or whether objects speak to existing collections. The process resulted in certain types of work not being represented in the museum’s holdings. Projects undertaken by established design studios, for example, were more likely to be acquired, while emerging studios, it was decided, needed more time to further develop their portfolios before their work could be collected.
While trying to engage more critically with our own research process as curators, it also became evident to me that most people we ended up meeting in 2017 were men designers. This prompted me to question where the women designers were in this story and led me to create a further research project, which took on a more intersectional approach. I then pitched this research project to the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju as part of their Research Fellow program. While in South Korea, I was able to interview women designers—particularly those who had self-organized through grassroots efforts—as well as younger or emerging studios, and those who took on advocacy or activist-driven work. These interviews are presented as part of The Unheard Archive.
While a key aim of The Unheard Archive was to find a way to share these stories more widely, there are elements of my research process that I do struggle with: though my projects often attempt to flatten hierarchies, I am still translating material into and then writing in English. I feel that this process inadvertently shifts the conversation back to the Anglosphere. I have, therefore, been thinking about how to bring colleagues, who write and create in other languages, back into the conversation. How can we interrupt “center-periphery” models, which are reinforced through language?
It would be great if there was a research repository that could be bilingual, trilingual, or even multilingual. Unfortunately, I have never been in a position where I have had enough time or resources to achieve this myself. My original plan for The Unheard Archive always entailed creating a bilingual set of resources, but lack of funding meant that I was unable to hire a trained interpreter. Perhaps I can fill this gap as I build on my own Korean-language skills, but I still have a lot of learning to do.
You are also a curator. What are some of the challenges or things you have to consider when curating design?
In terms of design curating, I have been thinking more about display methods, and my PhD has given me a chance to bridge theory with practice with regards to this. Some of the specific questions I have been asking include: what does it mean to exhibit an object rather than the process of creating that object? Or how can you tease out multiple narratives embodied by and within an object? Also, what does it mean to display material evidence over other forms, such as intangible outputs? By privileging the object, as is usually the case in museums, hierarchies are often built around forms of creation. How can we interrupt this?
Additionally, the epistemological frameworks—i.e. the knowledge and theories—that are produced within or emerge from Euro-American contexts tend to dominate research and education. Building on what I mentioned earlier, how then do we apply theories and approaches generated by colleagues working in other contexts and languages to 21st-century museum practices?