While getting her MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Shiraz Gallab created a vinyl installation of two floor-to-ceiling posters, adorned with a pattern of amorphous red forms vaguely resembling Cheetos. The shapes represented hand gestures, abstracted and reproduced into a repetitive system—a “visual manifestation” of the designer’s voice. As a project description on her site puts it, the work brings up the question of “whether or not my identity (Sudanese-born, U.S.-raised, female, black) should be overtly obvious in my work.”
What is definitely not obvious to the casual viewer is a crucial second part of the project, which isn’t visible in the ultimate outcome of the work. Final projects at Cranbrook require another student in the program to review and write a critique of the work to present to the class. Gallab surprised her selected critic, a close friend and classmate, with an hour Arabic lesson before he could view her piece. She wanted to see how he would fare at learning Arabic, and whether the experience of the lesson would inform his critique, or prompt him to draw a parallel between personal modes of expression and the vinyl posters. “That was one project where I began to think about the person who is looking at the work, and try to control or manipulate their experience of it,” says Gallab.
Both parts of the project—the seen and unseen—neatly exemplify Gallab’s design practice as a whole, which is interested in both expressing her own personal narrative and exploring where two different viewpoints meet. Gallab is a designer at the Milwaukee Art Museum. In off hours, her personal practice employs a mix of text, video, and graphics that probe topics like language and identity; communicating differences, and finding common ground.
Gallab grew up mostly in Provo, Utah, but she was born in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, the year that the country’s dictator, Omar al-Bashir, took power. Her dad was a diplomat and journalist at the time, and his progressive political views opposed al-Bashir’s. He and Gallab’s mom fled to Boston, then relocated to Provo to study at Brigham Young University, where they both later went on to teach. In Provo, “we were the only Sudanese, the only foreign-born, the only liberal-minded people I knew,” says Gallab. Growing up was an exercise in blending in and laying low.
As she got older, the feeling of belonging became less important, and she began to see her differences as a boon. She went to University of Chicago for undergrad and studied public policy, conducting research around access to health care and education in Chicago’s South Side. With some experience in digital editing tools from a high school interest in photography, she became the incidental amateur designer for student events that she and her friends put on. She applied for a post-bacc program at the Maryland Institute College of Art in graphic design after a year working in Chicago at a nonprofit. She credits her background in public policy with providing a formative way of thinking about the role of communication and persuasion in bringing people’s attention to certain issues. “I try in my work to study different interactions or different conversations that can take place between human beings, and to study how we can communicate more effectively,” she says. “I definitely see a relationship there [between policy and design].”
It was at Cranbrook that Gallab started to form the beginnings of a robust personal practice that seeks to “reconcile those moments from my childhood when I was not embracing where I was from,” she says. In another student project, Gallab created a rather lyrical portmanteau of the Arabic word for heaven (jannah) and hell (jahannam). The video piece, titled Jahamannah, features mispronunciations of the fictional word by an Apple computer in a kind of “Auto-tune the News”-style. Gallab calls it a reflection of her experience oscillating between the two languages, and flubbing the pronunciation of words in both.
Lately, Gallab has been working a lot with language in text form, with a short autobiographical novel, Headgear, coming out in digital and print formats this summer. In another project called Samples + Parallels, the designer is collaborating with her friend, the artist Anthony Warnick, on a publication that will rewrite Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Lucy. In part of the project, the pair will write their reflections of the reading, while in the other half they will take fragments or words from the novel to re-write the sentences themselves.
When I ask Gallab whether she sees her writing and interest in language as part of her design practice, she says that the two feel inseparable: whether language is handwritten or typeset, there’s always a design decision happening, a style or treatment applied. Language and visuals, personal and universal experience are thread seamlessly throughout her body of work. “Whatever I do, I wear my emotions, or whatever is going on with me, on my sleeve,” she says. “I consider my graphic design work to reflect me in a raw, authentic method.”