Zena Adhami: The Right Person, the Right Time, the Right Place

Zena Adhami's 2012 Design MFA thesis presentation

During the height of the Arab Spring, Zena Adhami (MFA Design 2012) was watching from her apartment in San Francisco as revolution erupted back home.

She decided to make it the subject of her CCA graduate thesis: an examination of the specific media and technologies that were making it possible for her to stay informed from halfway around the world.

This time of upheaval also represented a culmination of Adhami's efforts to reconsider graphic design as a more politically engaged pursuit. "Every once in a while there's a degree of social consciousness among designers, but usually I feel that they're talking to themselves, and that's a failure of design intelligence," she opines.

This confluence of massive social change happening in the world, her own moment of being in a rigorous academic situation, and her own status as an insider-outsider (a Middle Easterner currently living in San Francisco) came together to make her see her profession and the world in entirely new ways.

Founding Photography and Design Magazines

While an undergraduate at the American University of Sharjah, Adhami collaborated with fellow students to found Soura Magazine, Dubai's first publication that was by and for local photographers and designers. "The concept of such a publication was totally new," she says.

After graduation, she expanded on this idea and cofounded Brownbook Magazine, "a platform for the younger generation in the Middle East to express day-to-day issues that are not necessarily political, but cover all aspects of life."

Her role in the operation included content development, editorial direction, and art direction. She credits her success to her personal understanding of the frustrations of young, creative Middle Easterners who need a platform for expression.

"What began as a guide to everything interesting in the region slowly evolved into a raw exploration of the real image Middle Easterners are thriving to project to the whole world." Brownbook has continued to be successful, and currently boasts worldwide distribution.

The 9th Sharjah Biennial

While working on Brownbook, Adhami was constantly asking herself how to situate design in an artistic context. She found that in Dubai, the field of design didn't receive the appreciation it did in other parts of the world.

It was her work with the 9th Sharjah Biennial, the burgeoning international art event hosted in the Emirate of Sharjah, that allowed her to rethink what design meant for her. Adhami pitched the biennial office on the idea of creating a map of the city, highlighting the life of locals, with an intended audience of biennial visitors. This simple idea grew into a larger interactive project, which she worked on with the biennial's staff.

Her creativity flourished in this environment. "I learned so much from the media department, as we both had the same intention (highlighting the city of Sharjah) but different perspectives. Mine was to reframe design in the art context, and theirs was to make local culture accessible to visitors."

To San Francisco and CCA

It was this same interest in transdisciplinary approaches that led Adhami to CCA for her graduate studies. She was drawn to the multifaceted approach of the Graduate Program in Design. "It was a great opportunity to combine my three interests: visual culture, visual articulations of politics, and new media.

“The experimental environment of the program made me comfortable working in situations that might have previously seemed difficult -- where the outcome might not be crystal clear, and the path of discovery might take me into unexpected places," she explains. She pays special credit to faculty member Martin Venezky for introducing her to the idea of graphic design as experimentation.

San Francisco itself, one of Adhami's favorite cities, also played a role in her decision to attend CCA: "The city provided an amazing intersection of design and technology. I was exposed to a lot of new ideas and discussions that I wouldn't have acknowledged if I'd studied somewhere else."

The Arab Spring Erupts

Adhami was in San Francisco working on her MFA when violence erupted throughout the Arab world. "It was an emotional time," she recalls, "but the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt resurrected a sense of pan-Arabism in me. I felt so proud of being an Arab."

And because these were truly 21st-century revolutions, she was able to stay up to date on the people's demands and discussions thanks to social media and the Al Jazeera news network. Recognizing that it would be a lost opportunity otherwise, Adhami decided her thesis should attempt to understand the Arab Spring using graphic design as a tool, focusing on the very technologies that gave her access to the revolutions.

Specifically, she looked at the significance that was placed on social media over the course of the events. She asked: Can social media platforms be agents of freedom, or just tools for the expression of a desire for freedom?

Though she was personally drawn to her subject, it was surely also a source of emotional stress. "I sometimes felt that I had a huge burden on my shoulders -- that I was faced with a lot of questions and no easy answers." Sometimes she even questioned her whole premise: What does graphic design have to do with revolution? Who am I to judge these events? How can I speak for the millions of protesters and dissidents?

But throughout the process, her mentor Barry Katz reminded her: "You are the right person, at the right time, at the right place to be exploring this topic."

Everyday Dubai

Since graduation Adhami continues to look at the Arab uprising as an ongoing project. "We are witnessing an important moment in the Middle East, and there are a lot of questions that remain unanswered, chief among them: Are social media platforms really liberating interfaces? And what role can graphic design play in aiding social change?

"Once the body protests," she explains, "graphic design can be used as a tool and a medium to amplify people's voices on the ground."

Since returning to Dubai, she has also began work on a new project based on her interest in the intersection of "graphical and urban spaces from the perspective of both place and memories." The project, Everyday Dubai, explores how media and data shape the material form of the (constantly changing) city.

Every day she creates a new work representing a specific location -- a billboard, a park, a beach, a luxury hotel. Through these works she reimagines everyday urban spaces specifically from a graphic designer's perspective.

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