David garcia on Sat, 1 Sep 2007 14:12:53 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Viva El Hema!

Viva El Hem !

If Keith Hart is correct and simple anti-capitalism is premature
because ?capitalism has not yet fulfilled its historic task of
bringing cheap commodities to the masses and undermining the
insularity of traditional communities? then the Dutch retailing giant
the Hema, is as good an indication as any as to how fulfilment of
this pledge might look like from the perspective of the consumer. Yet
despite the enlightened (and enlightenment) mirror of itself that De
Hema likes to hold up to the Dutch public, an audacious and radical
cultural intervention last week succeeded in confronting both the
company and the Dutch public with the gulf between values espoused
and those actually practiced. De Hema was wrong footed by ?El Hema?
an audacious and radical cultural intervention by two non- commercial
design foundations Mediamatic and the Khatt Foundation.

Put at its most basic El Hema was an installation in which the
Mediamatic?s exhibition space was transformed into an Arabic version
of this iconic Dutch retailing brand. The project was realised by an
international group of designers, with a strong Arabic contingent,
brought together and coordinated by Mediamatic who (bravely defying
of threatened legal action by the company) appropriated the Hema?s
carefully nurtured brand, brilliantly mimicking its design style and
values, to recreate a range of typical Hema products and graphic
design outputs the only twist was to substitute Arabic typography and
Arabic models.

We should be aware that the courage shown by Mediamatic was not simply
the classical David Goliath scenario (as we saw in the Mclibal case).
The foundation not only risked bankruptcy, but worse, unpopularity,
De Hema is a very popular company in the Netherlands, it is how many
Dutch people like to see themselves. To a degree, to pick a fight
with Hema is to pick a fight with the Netherlands. But amazingly (and
luckily for the organisers) the project was a spectacular success.
Rarely do cultural foundations operating on the margins, achieve this
degree of impact. Not only did queues form around the block, there
was also unprecedented and overwhelmingly positive, media coverage
including substantial time slots in the television and radio news
broadcasts and also a front page splash in the De Telegraph, the
closest the Netherlands comes to ?populist? tabloid newspaper.

But why on earth should such an apparently straightforward
intervention generate such intense media interest and resulted in
queues around the block with people practically fighting to buy
the products? The story is an interesting one with many important
questions raised and many dimensions of this extraordinary project
still to be fully understood.


If (like most nations) the Netherlands is seen through a distorting
lens of cultural clichés then the Hema is Holland?s best kept secret.
It is how most Dutch People would like to see themselves. It is
reasonable, fair, thrifty and classless, with an easygoing utilitarian
aesthetic based on enlightenment rationality and clarity. The Hema
carries the same kind of every day small ticket items you might find
in England in Woolworths. But unlike Woolworths affordable does not
mean cheap and tacky. The Hema prides itself on brining high standards
of design to a mass public. And to a large degree it succeeds. The
Hema does a good job of representing what the Dutch do very well, a
brightly coloured breezy secular ?utilitarianism?; a deliberately
matter of fact, non-heroic version of modernism in which the good life
is everyone?s birthright and is founded on a celebration of ordinary

What is attractive is the idea that this represents an alternative
to ?winner takes all? junk capitalism with its bling, its branding
and its status objects. But neither does it make the classic mistake
of the left, which is to emphasise our rights as producers (workers)
whilst neglecting our rights to be consumers. Nothing could have been
more ridiculous that the Hema attacking a project that captured and
intensified the logic of its own brand.

Roots in the Region

It should be mentioned that though it was Mediamatic that is
responsible for the Hema concept and for taking the heat when things
got nasty, the depth and power of this project (its substance) came
from the less spectacular but no less important role played by the
Khatt foundation. The Khatt Foundation, founded by Huda Smitshujzen
Abifares, is committed to developing a more confident Arabic design
culture, as well as encouraging Arabic companies to take more
advantage in the wealth of Arabic talent available.

What was to become El Hema began when Abifares approached Mediamatic
a Dutch, new media and design foundation, to host an exhibition to
coincide with a symposium on Visual Arabic Culture which Khatt was
to organise. This symposium which was the culmination of some years
of research by members of the foundation into the possibility of
modernising Arabic design. The foundation?s director Abifares is
herself a designer, researcher and educator. She is the author of
?Arabic Typography?, which is still the only available comprehensive
source book on Arabic typography. In 2007 she published ?Typographic
Match Making?, on the outcomes and experience of an experiment
of putting five Dutch typographers together with five Arabic
typographers. The symposium was be held in the impressive new
Amsterdam library and Abifares approached Mediamatic, about working
together on an exhibition in the Mediamatic space. Abifares had a good
and well- developed relationship to Mediamatic, it also helped that
the Mediamatic space is practically next door to the library where the
symposium was to be held.

The initial idea was to hold a simple exhibition of Typography but
Mediamatic driving force Willem Velthoven?s reaction was that this
would most likely be ignored. It was in these early discussions, with
the Mediamatic team that the El Hema concept emerged. Thus the perfect
combination was in place, a brilliant and audacious concept, a great
design team and an organisation able to broker the participation of
Arabic design talent.

Early Lessons

El Hema has succeeded in projecting an alternative conception of
the secular good life in a context, which we have come to regard as
inescapably bound to religion and religious conflict. Lennon may have
believed that to ?imagine no religion? would be ?easy if you try? but
it has proved to be far more difficult than he or any of us imagined.
We need to find ways to continuously re-state the values of a secular
culture, particularly in the Netherlands which now has a nominally
religious government. One way is to provide a globalised democratic
vision of the ?material? good life that is based on something other
than the heroic individualism of the American dream. The violence of
winner takes all junk capitalism has been effectively promoted through
the American movie and entertainment industry. This project, though of
course tiny did at least succeed in giving us this glimpse of another
globalism, not just as argument but with all the immediacy and impact
that only a visual language and cultural intervention can provide.

This is more than a simple David and Goliath story of a battle in
which a small cultural foundation triumphs over a large corporation.

* It is a project in which critical design (and critical practice)
served to educate a corporation (and a public) in how to follow the
logic of their own secular values, with more courage and candour.

* It is a demonstration of the special value of image and design
culture in articulating alternative world views, not as arguments but
with all the immediacy and affect of experience.

* It is a demonstration of how working together on ?objects? not only
on ideas, theory, resistance, protest and denunciation takes us beyond
stale arguments into new spaces of possibility.

* Finally it demonstrates the particular value that non-commercial
cultural institutions have, which, (if they do their job properly) are
able to take risks that the corporate sector will rarely contemplate.

El Hema

Khatt Foundation


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