After listening to the curator’s vision and project manager’s briefing on an exhibition of American and Swazi artworks in Mbabane (Eswatini), I conceived, directed and co-produced a print publication for the Art in Embassies program of the State Department. I was also responsible for the post-production of commissioned photography as well as for guiding the production of the publication down to every detail: from paper stock and coating to the use of foil ink for detailing.
The Art in Embassies mission is to…
Art in Embassies (AIE), a U.S. Department of State program, creates vital cross-cultural dialogue and fosters mutual understanding through the visual arts and dynamic artist exchanges.
AIE develops and presents approximately 60 exhibitions per year and has installed over 70 permanent art collections in more than 200 of the Department’s diplomatic facilities in 189 countries.
To accomplish the mission, AIE engages over 20,000 international participants, including artists, museums, galleries, universities, and private collectors.
and as a platform they seek to put forth its set of values, stories, artwork through their cultural diplomatic efforts with partner nations around the world. The activities— to list just a few— of displaying artworks around the world in various settings, along with the diverse range of the artworks in their growing collection along with writers and designers they have worked with over the decades, has resulted in an identity that is fragmented, yet cohesive and within this dialectic, there is room to play. I wanted to approach this publication with the broad, yet curated, set of aesthetics found throughout the artworks in this exhibition and the traditional, internationalist, diplomatic drive to share culture with partner nations.
Fundación Arquia was founded by Arquia in 1990 and since then, their main objective is to promote and spread cultural, social, welfare, professional and training projects in the field of architecture, construction, design and urban planning in Spain.
When you think of Eswatini, not much may come to mind since the name of the country, or kingdom, changed from Swaziland while work was being done on this project. So when you think of Swaziland you think of wide open savannahs, proud tribal cultures, and a set of unique coordinates in history and geography. The aim of Art in Embassies was to bridge the cultures, to open up cultural dialog. We wanted to represent this cultural exchange as vibrant, as it was the sum of not only both nations respective efforts, as well as deeper, with the diverse group of participating artists as well. For the catalog, we tried to capture the expressive work of the artists involved in this exhibition.
How the publication came together…
The Art in Embassies team’s hopes for this catalog were to pull the reader in, engage them, and deliver a secondary experience as impactful as the exhibition. However, as early discussions brought the materials together, early challenges began to present themselves. It was important to understand the challenges in order to start seeing how this could come together, identifying early obstacles…
we knew we could be flexible.
From this explanation, I wanted to put the content into various states, via exercises in play, via imaginative thinking and free form sketching, and put them together in a way, and in a total form, that would generate interest, empathy, emotions as well as curiosity.
One challenge for this particular edition was the relatively low amount of text: there was a sole essay and a set of concise titles and measurements for each of the artworks, in addition, the commissioned photography needed post-production to identify, address and correct colors, levels and perspective. In sum, the task to create an engaging rhythm for a publication with limited assets was the creative challenge and here’s how we accomplished that.
Ideation and addressing our working materials…
read HCD book, add sketch photos from grid notebook.
with limited content, we had to question the role of the content itself
Limited assets and a grid…
I wanted to design the publication to have a dynamic and varied rhythm, in motion, with each successive page turn, as if one would freely walk around an exhibition space, with no essentially prescribed itinerary. For this project, with hand-made, craft-driven, textile and tactile works, I felt text shouldn’t be quietly and obediently tucked away in the corner. the text could be dispersed and offer a seemingly-random visual experience, with images and text on an equal plane of the blank white page. By shifting focus to this approach, my sketches let the elements free, even withdrawing the punctuation, to really let the eye wander. this it was felt, would create a sense of connection as a reader progressed through the publication.
We knew the artwork descriptions couldn’t just be tucked away in the corner so the pitched and subsequently agreed-upon approach was to take advantage of the white space and free up the text. To break it up, or break it ‘free’ from a typical grid. The idea was that certain elements of the text would be dispersed into clouds and subtly iterate in position and arrangement with each successive spread. This gesture would align with the intention of triggering a readers’ eyes to wander and to engage with each layout. The first draft of this concept pushed it to the limits and in an initial review the team decided to scale back the dispersed-text approach into slightly more familiar reading patterns. To keep the text flowing and the eye wandering and engaging throughout the lightweight amount of contents, I decided to subtly omit most of the punctuation marks. I relied on a lighter color to diminish the effect.
We wanted to highlight the artworks, in prominent image in the layouts, so we organised and directed two distinct pitches/approaches/ideas…
To work with the spacing, I tried different font sizes, font weights, relying on Classico URW
Classico is a san-serif typeface, with chiseled character endings, with a balanced sharpness, and with an earthen tone, looked like iron tools. I think it was a contemporary choice as the project highlights a modernist, forward-moving effort from the artist’s hands and cultural efforts at work here. I also think the font helped the collection have a unique identity.
This approach was more, raw, straightforward application, playful, strategic at the same time. In varying intensities.
Limited assets and a grid…
Towards a typography and a color palette…
This is a short paragraph about the color palette and the text. light serif, with just enough edge. It was decided to use Classico URW (link), for it’s refined edges, enabling readability. And also for the range of weights it offers. With the scattered-text approach in mind, and having made efforts to do away with punctuation, relying on different weights to subtly juxtapose descriptive text helped achieve the desired effect.
To accentuate the earthen aesthetic we need a font that would…portray that.
I think the darker aesthetic, of deep bronze, black, white, grey, suited the and can be found throughout the artworks, whether of a deeper palette or one of vibrant color.
As for color, a copper tone not only matched with the earthen aesthetic the exhibition curator had related, but also chimed with a memory of a recent trip to Africa, that of the deep, rich, red and vibrant soil different to parts of Asia and North American whre I have lived and traveled. The rich pigment was one of many memories oft the African continent and this somehow crept into design considerations and process.
Typography in white space…
With the layouts coming into shape, we decided to use the font, Minerva. We embraced white space and used it to our advantage.
Personality and transgression
Using Sneak by Fabian Fohrer became our answer to address a more personal dialogue. In contrast with the solemnity of the typeface skeleton, the inverted characters created a crucial graphic richness, helping to strengthen a transgressive identity.
We decided to stick with black, grey and white as primary colours, as a way to maintain simplicity, using a vibrant red for key highlights to reflect the ideas of growth and creativity.
After scaling back the “cloud” rhythm of the layouts with the aim of reeling in the wandering eye to a relatively, more constricted space, we decided to anchor the artist names amid the other scattered text elements by adding a touch of foiled bronze ink to each of the artists’ names. This decorative touch served as a subtle and welcoming shimmer for each successive page turn as well as complimented the curator’s overall “earthen” theme found throughout several of the exhibition’s craft-driven artworks.
The layout were restrained and we kept a safe distance, a bit more coherence, and structure. Using font weights and careful spacing. and a simpler modulation of text entries throughout the catalog. With the bronze foil ink on the artists names, we were able to drive the eye.
By creating space, we wanted to create a space for the eye to wander and hone in on key text, but also with the hopes of a shifting foreground of text would in an abstract way, shift the perception of the white space, and allow a reader’s thoughts to wander, hopefully sparking more engagement. It could create, as the vision went, a space for contemplation and to further discussions about the art work.
With a rhythm for the layouts established, creative attention shifted to designing the cover…
After reading the opening essay and having taken in the artworks, and listening to the curator’s vision, and explanation of this exhibition, I further relied on the exhibition’s “earthen” aesthetic and drew upon one of the collection’s most earthen, tactile and fibrous works. Perhaps one of the most salient cross-cultural, cross-national pieces in the collection of works presented, was Black Sunrise (2015) by Valerie Piraino. This artwork, among others, highlighted the cross cultural exchange of this exhibition, a non-swazi artist working with local materials, and so I used a large scale photograph to spread across the binding, setting up creative and textile intrigue to the cover, no matter how the publication would be held or viewed from various angles, wherever the publication may find itself…from the US to the Swazi landscape. With this approach, the intent was to create something organic, the selected artwork makes it readily apparent to the viewer as the publication comes into focus and they approach it. This human touch of the work gives the reader a sense of organic-icity/organic-ness, and sets the tone for the collection of works set inside…tactile, textile, organic, earthen, hand-made. I think the color and typographic selections help convey that feeling.
A look at a selection of the final layouts…
With a set of layouts in place, here’s a look at a selection of the final layouts
A balance of the cloud motif, the slightly nebulous representation of the artists, balanced order and freedom-of-the-grid, is translated and applied in the index
Contributing my creative efforts to this ongoing series of publications, a part of the State Department’s ongoing and diverse approaches to cultural diplomacy, was a true joy and with the positive reaction from this catalog, we are engaging in an ongoing discussion to create another publication that can channel their vision and stand out on an international stage. Through this publication, and enabling it to stand out on an international state, I would help promote and spread their inspirational projects, and the range of art works.It was effective. Photograph thank you note.