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Graphic Design Brand Studio 40Mustaqel Takes Arabic Typeface to Space

40Mustaqel is reframing the political narrative around graphic design, and proving that even the way we draw our letters has significance.

Colonisation and the consequent glorification of the West has permeated every facet of Eastern civilisation. The West, it seems, has become some kind of unattainable bar that, unfortunately, many Middle Eastern countries aim to rise to under the guise of ‘development’ and ‘modernity’ – often at the expense of our own culture. This isn’t to say that Middle Eastern culture is completely eroded – though values may have been diluted over time in order to attract Western investment, tourists, and business, the rich heritage of Arab culture still reigns in the Middle East and North Africa. 


Perhaps where Arab identity performs most strongly is in art. Whether it’s cinema, literature, poetry, or music, it is now ‘in’ to keep the core of our Arabness alive in what we create. This is perhaps due to a growing generation of middle-class Egyptian youth who aim to reconnect and reclaim their roots in a way not afforded to them as young children. Every field in Egypt, it seems, has its leaders in this endeavour. In fashion, it’s brands like UNTY, Rebel Cairo, Okhtein to name a few, who are championing Egyptian heritage packaged in undeniable cool. In music, it’s the Marwan Moussas and Felukahs of the scene, contorting their tongues around the complex intersection between East and West. 


Where graphic design is concerned, one would be hard pressed to find a brand as unique, and intriguing 40Mustaqel. In a series of bold shapes, bright colours, and a complex form of typography and use of canvas space, 40Mustaqel is reframing the political narrative around graphic design, and proving that even the way we draw our letters has significance. 


Founded in 2021 by Nada Hesham, 40Mustaqel was born both out of necessity and pure ambition. It began as a freelance gig during the quarantine days of early Corona, where Nada and her small team would take on various clients on a casual freelance basis. Eventually demand grew so high that the team decided their business deserved a name and its own studio. Thus, 40Mustaqel came to be – ‘mustaqel’, meaning ‘independent’ in Arabic, and ‘40’ referring to the mandatory 40 days of isolation first imposed upon the population following the pandemic. 


CairoScene spoke to the young artist and founder Nada Hesham about the venture, and the design philosophy behind the studio. 


“The core of it is championing Arabic typography,” Nada shared. “People always say “decolonize design” and “find your own identity” and these were just buzzwords [to us] at first, but then out of curiosity we told ourselves that our mission would be to actually put this into practice.” 


Having studied at GUC, Nada explained that her and her team’s education regarding design was very eurocentric. They were taught by white teachers about white designers, the result being a rather interesting approach to art that was counterintuitive to the culture they were raised in. They were Arab students, naturally leaning towards designing using Latin letters. “Starting a piece in Arabic was super challenging,” Nada revealed. “We usually started in Latin and then translated into Arabic, but then we started questioning this whole process.” 


Nada and her team, Hussain and Mina, both art directors at 40Mustaqel who studied architecture at GUC, decided that it was time to rebel against the status quo of glorifying Western school of thought in creativity. For all intents and purposes, they had to unlearn their globalised education, and look within their roots for a source of inspiration that would ring true to their heritage. 


“We’ve always been told if you design in Arabic, it’s not cool enough, it’s not hip enough. But it’s the opposite. Once you explore the script and language of Arabic and you look at ‘makhtutat’,” (ancient medical and religious text), – “It’s so rich in design and the message of language, and you can just see how the pages were organised in a completely different principle than in Western culture. This makes you challenge the idea of this clean grid that we always aspire to, and makes us think about how we organise our layout, beyond just using the script itself.”


Indeed, looking at 40Mustaqel’s Instagram feed, it’s clear where the independent design studio has thrown Western minimalism to the wind. Every inch of their canvases are filled with an intent fearlessness – bold and thin text, italicised, Arabic calligraphy, all arranged in a busy, almost overwhelming, nature. It’s as though the designs scream to be heard, unabashed in their imposition of space.


One powerful example of this is 40Mustaqel’s work on a cinema poster for client Film Lab Palestine. With bold pink and yellows and a dizzying combination of English and Arabic text sprawled across the page in organised chaos, the project was quite literally the poster child for the 40Mustaqel’s philosophy that design is inherently revolutionary and political – with the ‘busy’ aesthetic attributed directly to the hustle and bustle of busy cities, like Cairo. 


“The minimal approach to design is super foreign to us as Arabs. There’s nothing minimal about Arab cities. I get European and Western designers leaving negative space [on their canvases] because their heritage speaks to that. But our designs speak to how we as Arabs speak, how we dress, how we express ourselves – we are super passionate and over the top, so why not express that visually? At the end of the day, we live in Cairo, which is crazy and fertile regarding visuals  – so poster design is the question of how to stand out in a very crowded visual room.” 


And stand out they do. Their recent collaboration with Rizomasr, a risograph printing studio founded by Egyptian artist Yousef Sabry, was another nod to the fact that 40Mustaqel are at the forefront of reviving Arabic typography in the scene. 


Their selective clientele belies their political intent to champion not just Arabic youth and culture, but also good causes. With work for brands like the Doria Feminist Fund, Film My Design (FMD),  the first and only design-film festival in the SWANA region, the Cairo Video Festival, and the AUC Times, 40Mustaqel seem to be deliberately shaping the intersection between art and politics in Cairo. We asked Nada in what other ways she hopes to see 40Mustaqel influence the local scene. 


“We want to give people a chance to rethink their options when they graduate. We’re always told that as designers, we have to join an agency and get into advertising – but having an independent studio or freelancing can also be an option to consider for young designers, so when people look up to us in a sense [for this] it’s something that we are very grateful for.” 


Make sure to visit 40Mustaqel on Instagram, at @40mustaqel. To work with them, simply shoot them an email or visit their website www.40mustaqel.com