With her on-going series Subjective Atlases, Annelys de Vet visualises countries from a human perspective. Her work was first discovered during the 2014 ExperimentaDesign Biennale in Lisbon, where she co-curated the Unmapping the World exhibition on critical contemporary mapping practices, which also included the Atlases. Since 2009, de Vet has headed a Master’s course in Design at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam. The project Disarming Design from Palestine – that involves her Sandberg students – develops, presents, and distributes useful products from Palestine, and has recently won the Henry van de Velde Communication Award. In April, de Vet will be part of the inaugural exhibition at MAD Brussels, curated by DAMN°.
de Vet’s work seems to be rooted in her contagious curiosity; she desires to grasp the world and share her insights. “For me, design is a way to connect myself with the world on subjects I feel involved in, a way to find my position and develop projects that can contribute to the ways we live together.” She doesn’t directly position herself as an activist, however: “We have similar intentions, one of them being to encourage an inclusive and diversified society, but to achieve this, I call on my métier as a graphic designer. I work with soft power. Everyone should do what he or she does best – a judge does so through law, a politician through politics, a journalist through the media. Design is my language, so I do it through design.” Besides this, she’s a storyteller. “I don’t tell my own story, I tell the story of others. I translate these narratives into ‘forms’, like design products and projects. I consider partner- ships and collaborations forms too.”
Disarming Design from Palestine is a joint venture, which, as a result of receiving the Henry van de Velde Communications Award, is part of an exhibition at Bozar, the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels. “Thus, the story will reach a broader audience”, says de Vet. This is important in our time, with all the alternative facts blurring our view on things and xenophobia gaining momentum. de Vet is very much aware of all of this and has been asked on several occasions whether it’s really necessary to promote ‘Arabic products’. Furthermore, certain institutions are proving reluctant to offer the project a platform out of what seems to be too great a fear of offending the Jewish lobby. “I’m not invited to some places, and others I don’t hear back from.” But remaining optimistic, she proclaims: “I’m sure the award will give the project extra kudos in people’s perception, which will make us less easy to ignore.”
Annelys de Vet visited Palestine for the first time in 2007, to create a Subjective Atlas. “That visit profoundly changed my views on geopolitics as well as my ideas about the role the media is playing in our comprehension of reality. Try a Google Search on Palestine – what you predominantly encounter is war and destruction. During my first trip, I realised this was a rather biased portrayal of the Palestinian reality.” She then decided to do something about it. Disarming Design from Palestine was born in 2011. “The aim of this inclusive design label is to undo the dominant media image of Palestine by highlighting its human stories.”
Over the past five years, students from the Sandberg Instituut have been collaborating with local Palestinian artisans on a wide variety of products: everything from key chains and pottery to ‘check-point’ bags and T-shirts, to soap and toys. “These items are based on stories that Palestinians find important to share about their reality. If the objects the artisans desire to create are usable and produce-able, and if they can be transported, we can develop them. A concrete chair, for instance, has no chance...” Organising the distribution is indeed no picnic, not to mention the high import and export taxes applied by the Israeli government. “Since the West Bank is not allowed an international connection, we have to arrange transport from Israel, and the students and I carry the smaller items with us when we travel. If demand continues to grow, we will start using containers.” In addition to a modest local market, the team is intending to expand its international audience.
There is a web shop, which attracts culturally and politically sensitive clients from all over the world: they buy these products because of their conceptual and narrative quality, and thus support the project. Other important customers are Palestinians from the diaspora who wish to support their compatriots. “Of course, Palestine is one of the most difficult places in the world to establish such a project, as the living conditions of ordinary people are worse than anything you can imagine. But it’s not impossible, especially since people are motivated and the artisans are very skilled. This means that what you initially consider unlikely to happen, succeeds anyway.” de Vet travels to Palestine three to four times a year, and the Sandberg students join her once a year. “By collaborating with Palestinian artisans, the students come to know their living conditions. This often has a huge impact on them – suddenly they understand what’s happening in the world. It is intense, and some feel the urge and inspiration to do something with their experience afterwards, like making a documentary.” Now de Vet is preparing for Amman Design Week, where she is planning to hold workshops in the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, again accompanied by a small group of students and local designers.
Annelys de Vet’s long-term Atlases project is another that she hopes will make an impact. She has produced a Subjective Atlas of the EU, Serbia, Palestine, Colombia, Pakistan, Mexico, and the Netherlands. The idea is to sensitise, to offer an alternative image of a place from within. “Atlases and maps as we know them are usually made in the context of nation-states, and the world they depict is that world as seen from the outside.” For each Atlas, de Vet collaborates with 30 to 40 local designers, artists, and photographers. They choose the crucial topics that depict their country, region, or city, and they decide how to visually translate these topics. She asks the participants to map their own environment. “Part of the work is always drawing a map. You see amazing things happening. Take Colombia – it has a huge diaspora of internal refugees, so there was an artist who asked people to draw the routes they had followed on foot. In Palestine, one participant described 12 ways to prepare chickpeas. And in one of the most violent neighbourhoods in Karachi, children spontaneously drew sites where they enjoyed playing, as in their miserable situation this was what they wanted to focus on.” These perspectives share information that’s somewhat different from what an average atlas or map has to offer.
Playing the devil's advocate we asked Annelys de Vet if her work, apart from being well researched, nicely presented, and enjoyed by many, is also maybe a bit naïve and just preaching to the converted? She eagerly responds to the gentle provocation: "I see what we do as viruses that spread. Palestinian president Abbas purchased 100 of the Atlases, for example, which proves that a bottom-up story can reach decision makers. And when Viktor Orbán was elected prime minister in Hungary, tension among the citizens grew so much that it became extremely delicate to share your political views; as a result, some people started our Subjective Atlas of Hungary to speak with each other in a non-threatening way about the human aspects of the situation. That Atlas has been reprinted several times since it first came out in 2011, a circulation now totalling 5,000. By the way, in order to maximise the potential impact of these Atlases, we never impose copyright." de Vet also receives requestes to use images, which means these alternatives humanised impressions have started to nuance the usual, unilateral imagery that we consume through the mainstream media. From the University of North Carolina to the KVS in Brussels, those images can be found on posters and the like. "As well as this, current international developments give our work even more urgency. I believe we can oppose Trump & co. by offering positive alternatives. On the one side, we have the powers that be; on the other, there are the many alternatives initiatives by citizens and grassroots economies popping up everywhere in the world. It's encouraging to see that Australia has elected a 'green' president and that in Madrid (where we might soon be making an Atlas), City Hall welcomes refugees with a big banner above its main entrance. Are these naïve or just preaching to the converted?"
Annelys de Vet has been giving lectures and holding workshops at schools, symposia, and institutions for many years in order to spread the word and encourage those who practice constructive radicalism. “We need institutions and platforms in the cultural field taking up the challenge of commitment, and we need to speak out about it.” She then refers to Wiels, the contemporary art centre in her hometown of Brussels, as an example of good practice: “Wiels focuses on the cultural peak and at the same time cultivates tight connections with its local neighbourhood in which there are large immigrant communities from the Maghreb and Eastern Europe. Wiels works with local caterers and is involved in allotment gardens. It also uses its position as a renowned institute to raise attention to local issues”, Annelys de Vet says. “Institutes should manifest themselves more. I advocate constructive radicalism: organisations must speak out, as must the silent majority. It is already happening, but we need more of it.” In these matters, she considers Brussels an excellent base. “There is not one dominant community here, which means you never know if your fellow citizen shares the same cultural background and codes, which is refreshing: it challenges you to question yourself and to step out of your comfort zone. And because, on a political level, Brussels is such a mess, citizens understand that if they want change, they can’t rely on the government too much and will have to do it themselves. Hence the many civic initiatives, food distribution centres, bike service facilities, and microbreweries emerging everywhere: citizens have decided to come up with their own solutions and not wait for the government to fix things. Paradoxically, the chaos in Brussels is challenging citizens to fill the void in a constructive way!” We certainly feel called upon.