I just returned from Amsterdam. It’s my 5th visit to this city and going back feels like visiting an old friend. Central Station is still being built, trams smoothly glide over the canal bridges scaring away defiant pigeons and tourists from all over the world mischievously flock around coffee shops like children with wicked intentions. Although my impression of the place is still one of an outsider, I no longer feel like a first-time tourist and I definitely enjoy the systematic pace of a city with a high pragmatic aesthetic sense. Amsterdam still stand-up to its gedogen reputation for being a city of lust and liberty, despite recent political developments and the political success of the right wing anti-islam party.
It is in this context of widespread discord within the Dutch and wider European societies that the El Hema Exhibition/artshop was born in 2007. Mediamatic recruited young designers from the Middle East to set up the exhibition that would be the launch event of Khatt Foundation first typographic matchmaking book. I was a designer on board and during my 7-week week stay I worked with a group of fellow designers on transforming the “Hema” brand to “El Hema” a space that playfully explores the Arabic-Dutch cultural exchange.
This dutch approach of doing things is coupled with the rich culture of the Middle East to bring out an art exhibit that informs about design, typography and cultural exchange. The design tasks I was directly involved in included the new El Hema logo design, shop signage, identity adaptations as well as “Ana Amsterdam” T-shirt design, chocolate letters packaging, typographic underwear and scarf designs. Fairuz’s song about the watermill (tahouni) became typographic patterns echoing the Dutch windmills and Abou nawwas‘ poetry unabashedly found their way silk-screened on underwear pieces.
Hema, the department store chain, is the most public manifestation of Dutch culture. There are people who find their identity in churches, gardens or bathhouses. The Dutch identify with the Hema; the living monument to practical, colorful clarity and value of money. Mediamatic researches Arabic-Dutch art, design and culture. El Hema, the Arabic version of the typical Dutch department store, Hema, shows the consequences of this mixture. In this way, the Hema is the Alif and Baa (abc) of assimilation.
In 2007, El Hema exhibiton was awarded the first prize of the Dutch Design Awards in the “Visual Identity” category.
The project is currently part of the exhibition “100 Years of Dutch Graphic Design” at the Graphic Design Museum of Breda in a special corner set up to reproduce the El Hema exhibition/shop. The exhibition unfolds itself in an accompanying book “I don’t know where i’m going but I want to be there”. El Hema is also part of another exhibition in Amsterdam, “100 years classic Dutch advertising / 100 jaar reclame klassiekers”
El Hema in the Graphic Design Museum