I was searching through Souq El Gomaa for traditional galabeyas I needed for a project, when I was astonished to find that no one actually sold traditional ‘oriental’ galabeyas anymore. The only thing I could find were ones filled with kitschy copies of high-end brand logos. What happened? My project turned from trying to feature the exquisite patterns of our tradition to finding out where they went. How and why did this process of ‘deculturation’ of our original aesthetic happen?

Deculturation is thought of as “the process where aspects of one culture is lost after contact with another one.” With research, it became clear that the change I was seeing—from traditional patterns to bastardised Fendi—wasn’t as simple as shifting tastes; it’s an aesthetic, economic, and historical movement towards kitsch.

Traditional galabeya. Photo courtesy of SAKRAN.

But kitsch is one of those elusive words—you know it when you see it, but it’s tougher to pin down an exact definition. Kitsch is the loud, the gaudy, the garish, the overly sentimental, the boastfully ironic—in colloquial terms, the bee2a. Closely related to camp, it’s considered “a tasteless copy of an existing style or the systematic display of bad taste/artistic deficiency,” according to German philosopher Thorsten Botz-Bornstein.

Cairo, The Kitsch Art Museum

Egypt is filled with kitsch designs like no other country. “Cairo is a kitsch art museum,” says Egyptian-American artist Abdel Razek. “I could search for days through thrift shops in [Brooklyn] for ironic t-shirts or stickers and items to make collages, but nothing compares to the obscure peculiarity of things you pick up from a simple stroll in Cairo.”

Fundamentally weird, ‘lower class’ combinations of colours, patterns, and textures seem to be the lingua franca, to the common chagrin of the self-dubbed proprietors of ‘higher taste’ (i.e. the same aunties you’ll hear the words nouveau riches from). What might seem infinitely inspirational to the artistic eye coming from abroad, is tawdry and bad taste to local society.

How ironic is it, though, that people from so-called ‘developed’ countries, can view these kitsch designs as a form of inspiration, translated to designer clothes and luxury creative projects? What’s even funnier is when, all of a sudden, Egyptians and Arabs start viewing these works as ‘luxurious’ and ‘creative’ when in fact, its core essence is developed from these kitsch designs they had so fervently discredited.

For example, take a look at the below images:

The left-hand side showcases the outside display of a gift shop in Egypt. Egyptians tend to associate red teddy bears and hearts with ‘kitschy bad taste’ used in cheesy love scenes. They’re not to be associated with, not for anything other than mocking cliché love scenes. Right-hand side is a picture by Rihanna for the SavagexFenty Valentine collection. The set design is inspired by and embraces—instead of diametrically opposing—mass-produced kitsch aesthetics.

Due to globalisation, today’s trendy aesthetics are all kitsch. It’s bold, wild, and arguably the only tool that could be used to have your voice heard in today’s intensely globalised and clustered world.

Globalisation, How Everything Became Kitsch

The aesthetic of globalisation—the massive expansion of a system that has generic modified norms, which rely on nothing but themselves—is kitsch, says Bornstein in The New Aesthetics of Deculturation: Neoliberalism, Fundamentalism and Kitsch.

Globalisation, he writes, is in fact not a culture, but the absence of it: “Globalisation decultures and decontextualises, detaches things, isolates them and throws them in global marketplace where they float and reassemble, often in a random way and connect with other elements in the most unlikely fashion.”

Photographed by Zeinab El Tawil. Creative direction, photo edit, and set design by SAKRAN.

But what makes this the age of kitsch? Why, as Bornstein asks, “is there so much kitsch? One reason is that we are living in the age of hyperbole. There is simply too much of everything: extreme sports, doping, eating, contests, hyper-skinny models, mass shooting, addictions, etc. However, kitsch is determined by a deeper pattern, which is the pattern of deculturation. Humans need truth to believe in, but in the past, those truths tended to be transmitted through cultures, in the neoliberal world, truth is increasingly produced instantaneously without cultural mediation. Kitsch employs this mechanism in the realm of aesthetics, and the sudden explosion of kitsch.”

According to British sociologists Ruth Holliday and Tracey Potts, “we are at the point of drowning in kitsch. A casual survey of the British metropolitan high street offers ample evidence of the kitschification of everyday life.”

So kitsch is no longer the exclusive product of bad taste, it is, in fact, today’s global aesthetic. It is not something that should be looked down upon, but rather—perhaps finally—appreciated and regarded as something rather beautiful.

The Beauty of Kitsch

In 1983, an exhibition showed in Berlin under the title “Genial Design of the 80s: Objects of Desire and Daily Use” at the IDZ (International Design Centre). The exhibition in Berlin aimed to show the beauty in everyday, mass-produced objects.

“It is surely wrong to look down sneeringly on the anonymous creators of everyday beauties as if they were not designers at all. They are,” argue Gert Selle and Peter Nelles in their article, “There Is No Kitsch, There Is Only Design!”

Photographed by Zeinab El Tawil. Creative direction, photo edit, and set design by SAKRAN.

“Why should one not make use of the intimate and mythical relation that exist in every mass society between human beings and the so-called ‘ugly’ object? For more than 80 years, every designer with self-respect has considered himself a cultural guardian of any user whatsoever. He thinks that the users have to be led out of the kitsch into the freedom of a rational use of goods specially designed for that purpose. In truth however, the relations have been reversed: the mass user has mutely but consistently developed and implemented his own concepts and competencies.”

There’s An Opportunity Here

This is what I aim to showcase: Since today’s main global aesthetic is kitsch, and kitsch designs are produced en masse in Egypt, Egyptians, for once, should take a look at their kitschy designs and find the cultural richness in them. These designs, and their creators, should be showcased and celebrated.

We can be learning from it, producing something that will influence the global market, at the same time projecting a unique and individualistic character. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the only way there could ever be an Arab Chanel, Kanye West, Anna Wintour, and many, many more figures that would be able to create Arab influence like no other.

Put another way, the more and more inspiring Arab figures are born and developed within Arab borders, the more we could gain influence and let other globalised institutions to turn their interests into understanding our culture and what made these individuals’ influence so powerful, which creates some sort of resistance against deculturation.

It’s like hitting two birds with one stone.

Building on this, I attempt to showcase the beauty of Egyptian kitsch by generating designs that can influence global brands, rather than the opposite. I take inspiration from everyday Egyptian kitsch designs, including glitter, vivid colours, and patterns.

The following designs by Sakran adapt Egyptian kitsch motifs into high-end logos, producing an aesthetic at once uniquely Egyptian camp and universal aesthetic.