Typography / Topography

by Ronia Ibrahim

My migration story starts before I can even remember, flying to Aotearoa with my parents as a toddler. Before that we lived in Taiwan, hopping occasionally to Bangladesh, between in-laws, languages and spices. My mother is from Taiwan, my father is from Bangladesh, and they met in New Zealand while studying abroad.

Being a child of immigrants has shaped much of my hunger for validation and desire to imprint on the world. As a shy, anxious kid, academic success and creative outlets are where I found a voice, where praise and encouragement fuelled me with each golden star and filled canvas. My shyness, or so my hunger, or so my emptiness, is something I have struggled with throughout my life. The desire to say what I want to say is rich, but the ability to effortlessly string together the right words to speak my mind often feels impossible, or at least, a task that takes considerable effort. Art and writing have given me the ability to feel understood in a language that was more intuitive.

It’s interesting to think about this language. Being a person with mixed ancestry brings with it multiple factors and questions, making language, identity and belonging a murky subject for me. Being a child of immigrants while possessing several different cultural identities, I am made of layers upon layers. It’s like I’m a liminal croissant. Ever since I can remember, I have been on this quest for understanding, with art and writing being one of my navigators.

This quest eventually translated into studying degrees in Communication Design and English Literature. Exploring my ethnic identity was a recurring theme in a lot of my work, especially in Design. One thing I have struggled with sometimes working in Communication Design is how heavily commercialised the discipline can be. Fortunately, my programme allowed me to explore how Visual Design can go further, whether in exhibition, activism, art-making or writing.

I took a comics course, producing my first comic, How 2 Be Brown, a quasi-diary comic about my racial imposter syndrome. In the comic, I talk about how growing up in Aotearoa, I hid my cultural identity, especially my South Asian side, in order to appear palatable and agreeable to my Pākehā peers and counterparts. We’ve all heard the classic lunchbox shame analogy; humiliation is one of the ways many children of immigrants become aware of their cultural identity. Being a brown kid in a western world means packing yourself away and wrapping yourself in disguises and other languages.

The way I think about design is that it is like a channel, where I can create and organise stories and issues. The end goal, then, is to connect with audiences in the hope that they can take something valuable from my organisation. I began focusing on channelling issues that felt most important and familiar to me, exploring issues relevant to POC and immigrants. The work felt much more rewarding.

treasure map, a “typographic map of identity” installed at the mosque in Brandon Street, central city, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, Ronia Ibrahim, 2022 / photo: Humaidi Ridwan

It took me so long to figure out what I wanted to do for my final project. I had a rough idea of my “channel”—a typographic installation of sorts. But what was my culminating message? What sort of ultimate narrative did I want to communicate?

Eventually, I took a direction that I had not yet explored much in my study. Struggling to find a venue to exhibit my work, it was the humble local mosque on Brandon Street that was the only place willing to showcase my work without hesitation.

‘treasure map’ is what I call a typographic map of my identity. It recreates the text Al Muhaymin/ The Guardian, one of the 99 Names of God in Islam. As Muslims we believe that God cannot be captured succinctly in one title, because of the many Attributes He possesses. I created letterforms to spell out this name on a large square of cotton I scored from the local op-shop, with the acrylic paint I got for Eid when I was 15.

treasure map (detail), Ronia Ibrahim, 2022 / photo: Humaidi Ridwan

I also had a lot of fun using henna in my work. Henna is a plant that is used to make a natural dye in many South Asian, Middle Eastern and African cultures to decorate the hands and body. I’ve worked with henna before, but only to draw designs on my palms on special occasions, so drawing with the dye on a fabric canvas was a new experience. I referenced art styles of the Mughal Empire to create a floral border around the letterforms.

I also used a traditional stitching technique called kantha, native to Bengali people. I’m quite clumsy with needles, but kantha is known for its simple line stitch technique. Learning the kantha stitch was surprisingly emotional. I found myself breaking down in tears watching a simple tutorial on YouTube.

I thought about how my ancestors had stitched metres and metres of patterns, their fingers working with furious learned grace. Pulling each piece of thread into the cotton, I felt like I was physically tracing and retracing an echo of a place and possibility that had always been a part of me.

I’ve learnt that the art of beautifying and ornamentation is a humbling process. To be a beautifier is a role I take on with humility and honour. The way my fingers fiddle and pinch with each line of thread, each paint stroke dampening the fabric a methodical stain. When I draw with henna, I feel a sense of expertise that has carried down generations, reprinting that in a new context, new country, new body.

Ronia Ibrahim, installing her “typographic map of identity” in the mosque / photo: Sochetha Meng

Typography is an interesting design medium because it is both highly visual and highly communicative. “Al Muhaymin” was written in Arabic, which is not a language that belongs in my bloodline, but my ability to read its script has been passed down the line of Muslims on my father’s side, all the way back from when nomads migrated to South Asia with holy scripts and the faith I still practise today. When I create these letterforms, I also see minarets, tower-like structures, dots, lines and boxes that contain and enclose pockets of knowledge and identity.

Moving with my design, my work becomes my exercise, a practice, a retelling. Each piece I create is both a revelation and a recollection of experiences and memories that have been passed down to me. As a designer, I excavate and enable the visual beauty of my identity. The plane ride here is captured in a drop of paint, a mark on paper—my mother, and hers, and hers. As a designer I am constantly locating and mapping, moving through place, through medium and method.

Sometimes, design can feel stifling and stationary. That’s why I feel it’s important for me to have strong values when I work in this space. I am always seeking to create with others in mind. As much as I desire to imprint on the land, I acknowledge the many hands and minds that connect me to where I am. When beginning a piece I ask myself, where am I going? Am I moving with purpose? And who do I carry with me?


Ronia Ibrahim / artist, designer, writer / roniaibrahim.myportfolio.com

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