In 2014, graphic design student Sarah Elawad moved to Qatar to study at a VCUarts satellite school in the capital city of Doha. Born and raised in the UK, Elawad’s family roots are in Sudan, and much of her design practise focuses on conversations between the West and the Middle East from the perspective of her own personal experience. “When I relocated to the Gulf, I noticed things are very different in comparison to how I was was brought up and raised culturally,” she says. “I was keen to explore those differences.”
It was while studying at VCUQatar that Elawad first started working with her professor, the graphic designer Nathan Ross Davis, as a teacher’s assistant. Davis is originally from the U.S., and moved to Doha from Portland, Oregon. “I was doing some client and research work, but neither were fulfilling what I was interested in,” he says. “I wanted to explore the visual language that I experience here in Qatar.” Davis applied for an internal research grant at VCUQatar to set up an experimental publishing arm, and Elawad—who was looking for an outlet to explore her political and cultural surroundings—took on the role of collaborator. In 2016, the pair set up the publishing project Water With Water.
“There was a synergy between us because we both had similar questions about the environment that we’re in, as well as differing viewpoints,” say Elawad and Davis. “We’re both outsiders. We both had our separate expectations that were totally overturned when we got here.” The Water With Water “visual research lab” invites VCUQatar students to collaborate on the creation, design, and production of zines and other print ephemera; giving them a platform to explore their personal cultural experiences through book design and printing. Water With Water then tours various artist book fairs around the world with its projects, placing the class’ design research into public realms. Selected publications are also available at the Neurotitan Bookshop in Berlin, Germany; as well as Printed Matter and the Met Museum in New York.
“The two of us have a lot of discussions, and we teach each other a lot,” say Elawad and Davis. “We often think about what cultural, social and religious ideologies are, and how they get applied. Do we agree with what we’ve been taught? Should we be undermining out own ideologies?” As a result, many of Water With Water’s publications are deeply critical, representing a myriad of conversations, many are purposefully contradictory, and others are lighter experiments in collaboration and process. All draw from the everyday images seen and documented by students, and splice together references from a variety of cultural contexts. Elawad and Davis talked us through the project.
Much of Water With Water’s visual language has emerged from an interest in everyday design and ephemera surrounding you both in Qatar. Where specifically have you looked for inspiration?
Nathan Davis: I initially asked the students to collect a bunch of ephemera that they have from their surroundings, and we have bags of the stuff at the office that we can dig around in. Most of it is “undesigned:” there’s knock-offs, poorly printed samples, a lot of bad translations to make things look more Western or be perceived as beautiful, and then other quirky modernizations.
Sarah Elawad: We often take students to visit the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum (FBQ)—a private collection of various artefacts organised by the collector’s own preference and taste, and which includes everything from taxidermy and cars to candy wrappers. A few of our projects have been based on what we’ve found there.
ND: We take visual material and then interpret it in a way that’s surprising, but still has roots in something that one would recognize if they’re an insider here. The idea is that no one has the complete story when it comes to what we publish. An outsider wouldn’t have the complete story, and neither would an insider. That’s the essential part of most of the work.
What has the value been of looking at the design of everyday objects around you, in terms of your own graphic design practise?
ND: Personally, it’s changed my practise a lot. If I went back to the States and started doing branding work, I’d be much more open-minded. As an educator, I don’t do critiques now because I believe less and less in some kind of objective, “good” design.
I was taught that design is monolithic, and used to be much more of a minimalist. But I’m really starting to think that maybe efficiency, clear communication, and good messaging that people understand is not necessarily of value for human experience. It’s hard to believe that because it creates a lot of discord and discussion, but maybe discord and discussion can be pleasurable.
For me, it’s about growth. If we send something to print that I’m entirely happy with, and certain about, then we should not send it to print. If it doesn’t make us a bit nervous, then we’re not learning and changing. I have to be growing and uncomfortable.
What was the first publishing project that you released?
SE: We created three posters. There’s ‘sadu scraps’ for example, which was based on carpets we saw at the FBQ. It’s composed of digital bits: the design is a gesture to the past that embraces uncertainty about the future of traditional arts, cultures, and globalization.
‘ha ha ha’ is inspired by Arabic Mickey Mouse comics my dad used to read when he was younger. I brought them into the office as part of our research collection. As we were going through the comic, we noticed there were these ‘ha ha ha’ laughs written in Arabic that we thought were so funny. The Arabic language can seem like a dangerous alert to some people, so we took that language and put it across the poster as laughs. It’s playing on stereotype, and the fear people have of region. The background of that poster is made up of the patterns that you find on mattresses. They’ve gone through a graphical process of course, but they’re still very recognizable. Anyone from the region who sees it will immediately have a nostalgic link to this pattern.
ND: And then other parts of the design are completely alien. So part of the poster might look like home, but then the other aspects make you ask, “what is this?”
What interests you in creating these jarring moments?
SE: Well, I think it’s because it represents our experience here.
ND: It’s about cultural shock. Over 80% of the people here are from somewhere else [foreign workers amount to around 88% of the population] and the dominant cultural value system is based on the local Qataris culture. So we celebrate the embracing of cultural distance and difference in a way that’s positive and constructive. We’re illustrating the gap—making something that lives in the in-between. It’s not theirs, and it’s not mine. It’s an alchemy that we’re exploring.
How did a form of alchemy play out in a publication like 1001 Fantasy Pop Nights?
SE: That was an independent study, with four other students involved. All of us from completely different backgrounds. Only one of us is Qataris. Another is from Yemen but has lived here her whole life. I’m from the UK. And we were all interested in the story One Thousand and One Nights, and found that we were connected to it in completely different ways.
Some of us know the story well and grew up with it. Others remembered it less clearly, though it was part of our upbringing. On a second reading all together, we realized that there’s a lot of parts of the story that aren’t told—especially to younger children. That includes things that are controversial or inappropriate to the culture. Looking back at the text, we realised that there are big gaps in what we and others know. We wanted to bring these different perspectives together.
The basis of the narrative is that there is a king that keeps killing women. One day, a woman arrives and says, “I will read you a story every night as long as you promise not to kill me the next day.” The part of the whole thing that stood out to us, and which most of us were familiar with, is how each story ends with the line: “She kept quiet until the next day.” We spent hours discussing this sentence. It represents, in a very abstract way, our own experience here. Many of us students related to it.
For the publication, we repeated that phrase over and over again in Arabic, and then used phrases from an English translated version of the story. Then we spliced together visuals from the FBQ.
ND: There’s a psychedelic experience to the cacophony of visuals here, so it can be disorientating. We have a phrase we use in the department—sober psychedelia. I think that’s what happens with this book.