May 25 2023 GM

From TCU Wiki
Glitter Meetups

Glitter Meetup is the weekly town hall of the Internet Freedom community at the IF Square on the TCU Mattermost, at 9am EDT / 1pm UTC. Do you need an invite? Learn how to get one here.

'Takweer' - Localizing Queer Arab Narratives & Digital Cultures

We will be in conversation with Marwan Kaabour, who will talk to us about Takweer, a platform that explores and archives queer narratives in Arab history and popular culture. Takweer, through Instagram, has engaged people across borders with Arab struggles and histories, through providing knowledges and mainstreaming it by using different formats, including memes.

Marwan Kaabour (@tawkeer on Mattermost) is a graphic designer and artist. He works with institutions, brands and individuals in the art and cultural sector. He is also the founder of Takweer. Marwan moved from his hometown Beirut to London in 2011 to pursue a master's degree, before joining Barnbrook – one of the UK’s most formidable and celebrated design agencies. He later set up his own design practice in 2020. In 2019, he founded Takweer, a platform that explores and archives queer narratives in Arab history and popular culture.

He has worked with some of the world’s most exciting cultural institutions, artists and publishers including the V&A Museum, Phaidon, Art Basel, The National Gallery, Thames & Hudson, Serpentine Galleries, Hayward Gallery, Somerset House, Banksy, and South London Gallery. He designed the much-celebrated Rihanna book, which was named as one of Time magazine's best photo books of 2019, and more recently the artist book he designed in collaboration with artist Mahmoud Khaled titled Fantasies on a Found Phone, Dedicated to the Man Who Lost It, was chosen as part of Creative Review’s Photography Annual as one of the best photography publications of 2022.


Tell us a bit more about you and your work
  • I was born and raised in Beirut. I studied graphic design and worked in Beirut for a year and a half before deciding to go to London to pursue a masters degree.
  • After my graduation, I worked at Barnbrook, a highly reputable design studio in London for 7 years
  • I left in early 2020 to set up my own design practice, and a few months prior to that I launched Takweer
  • My design practice engages primarily with clients from the arts and culture sectors, such as museums, cultural institutions, art events, artist collaborations, and so on
  • I've worked with some of the most exciting cultural institutions in the world like V&A museum, Art Basel, The National Gallery, Somerset House, and Hayward Gallery to name a few and I created work with some very exciting people like Banksy and Rihanna
  • But after seven years at the studio, I felt like I needed my voice and perspective to take centre stage, so I left my job to set up my own practice, so I can work with clients that align closer to my vision, and hopefully more Arab clients
  • I also launched Takweer as a space I can explore my own queer/Arab identity
  • I was mean to leave my job in 2019, but Fenty (Rihanna's company) and Phaidon (publishing house) came to the studio to commission us to design a massive coffee table book celebrating the life and work of Rihanna
  • I ended up delaying my departure by a year to work and complete the project, which was super fun!
This guides us smoothly into my second question, can you tell us more about Takweer? What drove you to create it?
  • I describe Takweer as a space and platform to explore queer narratives in Arab history and popular culture
  • I launched it towards the end of 2019 as a personal project, where I use Instagram's structure as a way for me to create an open-ended archive of these findings that I excavate by looking at ur own history from literature, poetry, cinema, music, folklore, religion, politics, and more
  • The idea is that the instagram page is a broad exploration, which leads me then to create subject-focused projects
  • For example, I am very interested in language and queerness, so in parallel to the IG page, I also have been researching and compiling a glossary of words and terms used to refer to queer people from across the Arabic-speaking region
  • And I am very excited to finally announce that I secured a publisher for the book, and it;'s coming out next year: 300+ entry glossary, with 9 essays by leading writers and thinkers on the subject
  • And the reason I created Takweer was the frustration of the lack of resources for what characterises a queer/Arab identity, separate from the western notion of queerness
My third question is, that to me, Takweer focuses on intergenerationality in the ways in which it uses pop culture refs we grew up with, or our parents familiar with, and brings it all in a different light. What are the challenges of doing so?
  • I feel like there are many challenges and sensitivities to what I'm doing. You get resistance of my attempt to try and "queer" people/narratives that are not explicitly queer. Whether by conservatives who don't understand how, for example, Sherihan could be a queer icon
  • Or sometimes by our own queer community, who get upset that I am shedding the light on someone who might be seen as "problematic".
  • The idea of queerness having a definitive form is not realistic. And the idea that queerness is only ever about our sexual identities/bodies/sex lives is also not accurate so navigating the spaces in between to try and speak with the broad church that is the page's followers can be at many times very tricky. And I don't always get it right
Are there any specific challenges related to Takweer being an online platform, on Instagram specifically?
  • Censorship and the politics of Meta as a company, of course.
  • I have had multiple posts taken down, with the threats of suspensions and banning, because of Instagram's inability to judge nuance
  • For example, I created a post that highlighted the different words used across the Arabic speaking region to describe a "sissy," as a way to shed the light and perhaps reclaim these terms
  • It came with a disclaimer and the works and yet it was taken down for hate speech, then follows the endless review process
  • I feel like they might be getting better at this, but it's far from ideal issues of nudity also come up as well as political causes, most namely Palestinian solidarity
  • Once I have the the time and resources, I aim to try and create a digital resource that houses all of Takweer's research outside of the control of social media
What type of resources would you need? funding, technical, etc?
  • Mainly funding. I have the drive, and access to the right skills to make it happen
  • But so far, since setting up Takweer in Sep 2019, I've done all the work without a penny of funding
  • I got funding for the book specifically, but all the work is done in my own time, in parallel with running a design practice
  • I also am not part of the "funding world", i.e. it's not something I know much about or have done in the past with my design work, so I need to try and familiarise myself with funding routes to help sustain the project
Do people send you memes? or like do internet users engage with the page by sending in content?
  • Totally. Usually it's ideas for content, or material they came across that they feel belongs on the page
  • Many people also write to me asking for help, or advice on how to access help
  • Which is very challenging to navigate as it's not my area of expertise
  • Some people even write to ask to help to work with me, but without funding, I find it uncomfortable asking people to work for free
Are there any hate speech messages/comments etc? I mean obviously, but just wanted to understand a bit more
  • Always. The way it goes: if a post gets very popular, then it spills outside of the page's main audience and into the "instagram mainstream", and with it comes the homophobes
  • Depending on my mood, I try to engage and educate, but if it's just trolling I block them
  • I have also in the past decided to remove comments by the page's followers, as they were engaging in toxic and unhealthy discourse
How can we as a community of digital rights defenders support this work?
  • At the moment there isn't a clear support infrastructure for the project. Every now and then I create T-shirts to help raise some funds
  • At the moment, altho slightly separate to Takweer, I created a collection with 4 other incredible artists and designers from the Arab world: