Decolonizing Modernism: Helmi el-Touni and the Politics of Ornament

Zeina Maasri

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Twentieth century discourses of modernism in art and design, with their respective philosophical underpinnings, disciplinary formations and aesthetic canons were on the move through different institutional channels and met different sites of enunciation beyond Euro-American geographies. However, this global impetus did not go by uncontested.
During mid-twentieth century processes of decolonization, which characterised much of the Global South (Africa, Asia and the Middle East), modernism’s Eurocentric foundations came under close scrutiny and was widely debated.
In the Arab world in particular, modernist art and design practices had displaced local Islamic art traditions from their aesthetic centrality in society. It is with this dislocation that Arab artists, designers and intellectuals wrestled. Some embraced modernism’s purported universal paradigms; others, motivated by anticolonial Arab nationalist politics, strove to reclaim a sense of locality and cultural identity in and through their practice. In the struggle for national liberation, Frantz Fanon (1963) explains, the restitution of a sense of sovereignty and dignity requires the valorisation of a collective cultural identity, which had been emaciated by colonialism. Colonized people thus turn to the glories of the past in search of a ‘national culture’ to rehabilitate the present. Nonetheless, the articulation of anticolonial politics of authenticity with cultural heritage produced a tension that was often expressed in anxieties over modernity. How have artists/designers negotiated these tensions in their practice? In doing so, how was modernism reconfigured to suit their anticolonial claims? And in what ways did graphic design constitute an important site in the struggle for decolonization? This paper will be concerned with these questions and will focus on the work of Egyptian graphic designer Helmi el-Touni (b. 1934 Cairo) by way of example.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 3 Sept 2021
EventDesign History Society Conference 2020: Memory full? Reimagining the relations between design and history - FHNW Academy of Art and Design, Basel, Switzerland
Duration: 3 Sept 20205 Sept 2020


ConferenceDesign History Society Conference 2020
Internet address


  • decolonization
  • Design History
  • Modernism
  • Arab art


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