Haytham Nawar (Arabic: هيثم نوار) is a practicing artist and designer, as well as a scholar in the fields of art and design, whose career spans over two decades of dedicated passion. He is currently working as an associate professor of design and the Chair of the Department of the Arts at the American University in Cairo. His interest in technology and its relation to the arts pushed him to initiate Cairotronica, Cairo Electronic and New Media Arts Festival.
As the name of this festival can easily suggest, Cairotronica combines creativity and technology and it stands as an opportunity to exchange ideas, concepts, products and services, in the ever-changing field of electronic and new media arts, gathering artists, engineers, designers and researchers from Egypt, the Middle East and North Africa region.
Nawar always seeks projects that challenge the boundaries between humans and machines in design and art, so no wonder he is also the co-author of A History of Arab Graphic design, the first history book about graphic design in the Arab World. His interests expand to pictographic communication systems and the notions of transculturalism and posthumanism.
One of his most significant recognition was the participation in the 56th Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition. It was a group exhibition: In the Eye of the Thunderstorm: Effervescent Practices from the Arab World and South Asia. The artwork was an interactive installation titled The Seven Days, the Heavens and the Earth (2015).
WHAT WOULD MAKE YOUR SOUL SING? WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY?
With time, I came to realize that I cannot live without books; people who know me well wouldn’t be surprised especially if they have seen my personal library. When I buy books, I prefer them to be second-hand books as this gives them a special feeling. Old used books carry with them the story of their previous owner(s). For example, I have a used book that is 100 years old and I always wonder about its travel through time and places and think about who owned it before me and who will own it after me. I also love memorabilia shops and flea markets, which are places that can be described as everyday objects museums. When I feel down and unmotivated, I like to visit such places (e.g. Azbakeya in Cairo and El Nabi Daniel Street in Alexandria).
A CHILDHOOD STORY THAT ANNOUNCED THE CREATIVE PERSON YOU ARE TODAY
Since a very young age, even before I went to school, I was a very curious child. I liked to draw everything around me and to play with clay. When I started going to school, teachers would ask me to make big drawings on the blackboard to illustrate what they were saying. I even remember, one time, the art teacher in primary school wanted to skip class, so he gave me a topic to draw while he was away. Other students had to copy what I was drawing on the blackboard. Everyone used to call me Fannan which means artist, in the sense of a person that creates.
BEST CONTEXT EVER FOR INSPIRATION WAS
I think this would be the library and, also, bookstores. I can always spend hours there. At a younger age, I couldn’t afford to buy a lot of books so I went to public libraries because of the environment inside. When I used to go there, I was overwhelmed by the knowledge that surrounded me. I would flip through books and jump from cover to cover to read but also to see different visuals and book designs. I would get so inspired and motivated to go back home and create.
THE PROJECT YOU LOVED MOST
There is a project that goes back to 2009 and it is called Shifting Senses and it’s a sound installation that plays in complete darkness. Both sighted and blind people were invited to the exhibition to listen to a soundscape of Fatimid Cairo accompanied by a vocal guided tour by a blind person and a sighted person. Fatimid Cairo is an extremely rich place in terms of senses as it is very crowded, noisy, and has characteristic smells. This project was a very interesting social experiment as it created a discussion between sighted people and blind people about forms of art that are curated for blind people. Another point of discussion was the experience and challenges that sighted people faced while adapting to navigating in the obscurity. Generally speaking, I love working with people. In this specific case, it was very enriching to collaborate with marginalized people of the Egyptian society and to create this experience and discussion.
THE PROJECT OTHERS LOVED MOST
The Bread Diaries is a project that resonated with audiences from around the world; people always relate to bread. This project has been ongoing since 2011 after the Egyptian revolution, where people were chanting Eish, Horriyya, Adala Ijtima’iyah which translates into Bread, Liberty, Social Justice. The word Eish has a double meaning in the Egyptian dialect as it both means bread and the right to live. I was inspired by the images of bread in the hands of protesters and I drew many bread loaves and created a personal bread diary. I also wrote several times about the subject and, throughout my research, I discovered that many other cultures use bread as a symbol of protest. During my last exhibition, I collected voices from all over the world with drawings of bread as a taste of protest, submitted via Amazon Mechanical Turk using AI technology. These contributions transformed the project from a personal diary to a universal collective bread diary. An early version of the project was the big prints, there was something very emotional standing in front of a big drawing of bread and also flipping through the pages of the book. Also, the fact that this was a universal collaboration with a lot of submissions gave it a different feeling. A machine redrew all the submitted drawings in a similar style so it would feel like a collective message that is said with a single voice.
THE BEST THING ABOUT EGYPTIAN CREATIVITY IS
I think that the Egyptian sense of humor is usually very creative, especially being a smart survival mechanism to a heavy past and precarious future.
BEST STATEMENT OF EGYPTIAN HUMOR
Contemporary Egyptian humor has become famous with what we call “Al Alsh.” This term refers to a particular, unpredictable, witty way that Egyptians use to play on words. It is, usually, a ping pong of word twists between two people. Egyptians enjoy how far they can go with word derivatives based on phonetic resemblance rather than on meaning. Egyptians have a wide variety of proverbs. In my opinion, there is one that particularly illustrates the Egyptian mindset and humor and that reads Ham ydahak w ham ybaki and translates into Worries that makes one laugh and worries that makes one cry.
ADVICE FOR INTERNATIONAL HEADHUNTERS, RELATED TO EGYPTIAN CREATIVES
As someone who grew up in a small village in Gharbeya, there is a lot that can be said in that matter. There are a lot of talents around the country, although a lot are in big cities. My first advice would be for them to learn the language. Egyptians have a particular language to express themselves both with words and visuals. My second advice would be for them to look at vernacular culture as it is very rich and it has its own language. I think that a lot of Egyptian creativity resides in this vernacular culture.
BEST PLACE IN CAIRO
I would easily say that it’s West El Balad, which is Downtown Cairo. By that, I mean the Khedivial Cairo which is the city’s cultural hub. It used to be and still is the cultural center of the city. This area is full of history and memories that can be visible on the architecture, shop signs, streets, and people. It’s a living museum. One of the projects I have worked on is actually called Khotout West El Balad which translates into Downtown Fonts. This project was a team project which required a lot of research and field trips in this area. Our aim was to preserve and celebrate the creative Arabic calligraphy that can be found on signage and advertising in Downtown Cairo. We created a total of six Arabic fonts that were inspired by the visual material we collected in the area, and a book to document the entire process.
BEST PLACE IN EGYPT
It’s very difficult to answer this question. I love water in general, and fortunately, in Egypt, we have the river Nile and two seas (the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea). Although I live near the Nile in Cairo, I think the best spot to see it is in Nubia, south of Egypt. The Nile in Nubia is vast and changes colors from blue to green to yellow. It’s really beautiful to see the different layers come together in a harmonious way. The waterscape, the vernacular architecture, and the extreme hospitality of Nubian people contribute greatly to the positive vibes and beauty of this place.
MOST DISTURBING CLICHÉ ABOUT EGYPT, IN THE MEDIA OUTLETS OF THE WORLD IS
There are too many clichés related to Egypt. The most common are historical clichés, where a lot of people think that Egyptians live in tents near the pyramids and still ride camels for transportation. I actually heard these clichés first hand, during my travels, and they are really annoying. But there are also clichés that I find amusing; Egyptians are known to be patriots. Of course, not all of them, but indeed many of them are patriotic, without really knowing why.
EGYPT SHOULD BE KNOWN FOR
Definitely, for its people. Egyptians have a very special nature. I think they are kind, helpful, hospitable, very welcoming, and on top of all that, they enjoy an unbelievably great sense of humor. I know generalizing does not make sense here, especially that Egypt is a melting pot with a special blend of history, just like the famous Egyptian dish called Koshari. This popular dish is made of a unique mix of many ingredients: rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas, crispy fried onions, topped with spiced tomato sauce and garlic vinegar. I always like to compare Egyptians to this dish: a modest melting pot.
YOUR VIEWS ON SPIRITUALITY
I believe a lot in energy and Karma, and that everything in the universe is connected. We are all together part of a complex system that unites us.
YOUR VIEWS ON MONEY
It’s just paper, money comes and goes, as we say in Egypt El feloos betrooh w tigi. Rather than thinking about money itself, I like thinking about what I do and can do with this money. Ideally, people would be able to live without money. However, I don’t see that bartering is enough to build a good economy. Today we use paper money and virtual money through cards and I think that, in the future, money will become only virtual.
AN INSPIRATION SOURCE YOU RECOMMEND FOR A YOUNG CREATIVE
Signs for Peace: An Impossible Visual Encyclopedia by Ruedi Baur, a Swiss designer is a great book for visual inspiration. I also recommend Don’t Brand My Public Space by the same author. This second book shows how capitalism is invading our public spaces, which I think is a must-read for the younger generation. Among Arabic books, I would suggest Mohieldine Al-Labbad’s books such as Nazar. His books are a good source of inspiration for younger generations because of the richness of his visual style. I would also recommend artworks by William Kentridge, who is an interdisciplinary South African artist and intellectual whose work tackles socio-political conditions in post-apartheid South Africa.
AN EGYPT BASED FEMALE TALENT THAT DESERVES TO BE PROMOTED AT INTERNATIONAL LEVEL, AS EXPONENT OF LOCAL CREATIVE SPIRIT
There are many talents in Egypt, but I would particularly like to promote the work of Laila Soliman, a talented theater maker who has been focusing on documentary theater since 2011. Also, a younger female figure that deserves to be promoted internationally would be Nora Ali, a very good researcher and graphic designer.
You can check out more about Hayhtam Nawar’s work on haythamnawar.com