This week, we’re loving the work of Alaa Musa!
Alaa is a Sudanese illustrator and comics artist based in Khartoum. She does both digital and hand-drawn work, often using either a minimal and subdued color palette or water colors when she’s not working in black and white.
Her comics and life drawings, which she posts to her Twitter and Instagram, are ‘slice of life’ pieces, based on real things that happen to her throughout the day, from the trials and tribulations of working in a hospital, to dreams she’s had recently, and even books she’s been reading.
Reflective of her everyday life, the comics are bilingual, just like her, switching in between Arabic and English.
Whether drawing portraits, comics, or still lifes, Alaa always manages to capture raw emotional qualities in her work. In it, we can feel her excitement and nervousness, determination or frustration, exhaustion or boredom. She also has an excellent design and layout sensibility, creating stunning one-off images.
Beeta Baghoolizadeh is an Iranian illustrator, historian, and editor based out of Philadelphia. Her project, Diaspora Letters, is a visual tribute to a rapidly changing Iran. Using black and white illustrations and animations that are with texture and detail, the project is a historian-artist’s attempt to capture fragments of her homeland in the current time and place. Using drawings of primary sources like letters and photographs, as well as illustrations from daily home life and mundane family scenes, Baghoolizadeh’s work captures a piece of Iran’s ever-changing present, while acknowledging the persistent influence of the past. That the entire project, slated to become both a film and a graphic novel, is drawn within the context of diaspora, adds to the way that past and present run concurrently in her work, creating almost an archive of particular places, feelings, and people that cannot be captured through photographs or other primary sources alone. We interviewed Baghoolizadeh to find out more about her approach to her work, and how her multiple disciplines converge and influence each other in Diaspora Letters.
Bigmouth: When did you begin creating art and illustrating? What drew you to this medium as a form of expression?
Beeta Baghoolizadeh: Well, I'm a historian of modern Iran, so I've traveled to Iran pretty regularly in the past few years to conduct research and visit my relatives. And this last time I was in Iran—August 2017—I was overwhelmed by how quickly everything in Iran changes. I had to reorient myself with new geographies and landscapes—streets, neighborhoods, etc. The rapid growth of the urban sprawl is a lot to take in.
So I started drawing. I started with my grandparents—I drew them, their house, just mundane scenes of the everyday. I felt that if everything is in a constant state of flux, I would need personal markers for preserving my memories, because it wouldn't be the same the next visit. But my drawings have developed in different directions, some more autobiographical, some more distinctly rooted in a broader history beyond my own family.
As a historian, I'm interested in how the past gets translated into the present. And visual media gets read and understood in such a different way than anything textual—so my arrival at this medium has helped me move beyond the limits of historical discourse.
us about how your drawings have developed since then. Where are you
taking these drawings?
BB: In August, I started posting some of my illustrations on Instagram, where I've been able to share small anecdotes and relevant histories for the different illustrations. Most of these drawings will somehow be incorporated in one of two projects I'm working on concurrently.
The first project is a documentary film that I'm putting together with animator/filmmaker, Shane Nassiri. As it stands, the documentary will string together stories of families living in Iran and in diaspora in the 20th century, and how they remained connected through post. Mail—as you probably guessed from the name "Diaspora Letters"—has been an important theme for me. What kinds of things were being sent back and forth? Why? And what do they tell us about the political, social, and cultural environment? Those are the kinds of questions that we want to get at in this project.
The second project is a graphic history. I'm excited to be working on this book, which follows a family story and unravels some common preconceptions about urban family life in the past century. Iranians witnessed a lot of changes in daily life during the twentieth century, and I love the idea of exploring that visually, since words can only express so much.
BM: You’re also a historian and an editor at Ajam Media Collective. How are these practices linked for you, and how do they impact your approach to your creative work?
BB: Diaspora Letters grew organically out of my work as a historian and an Ajam editor. Part of being an editor at Ajam is making sure that people who are not necessarily academics have access to all sorts of amazing research on the Persianate world. A few years ago, I set up the Ajam Archive—a crowd-sourced digital archive of twentieth-century life in the Persianate world. It has been really exciting developing it, seeing what people are comfortable with sharing and what kinds of stories are behind the photographs, newspaper clippings, and clothes. Not only am I learning about the histories behind particular items, but I'm also learning about what people feel they can and can't share from their family collections.
Those sorts of absences are, for historians, really interesting. And that's what I think this illustrative medium offers in terms of histories—it can show what didn't get photographed, or what people didn't want to photograph, or what people photographed and don't want to show on a public platform. There's a lot missing in these conversations, and drawing them fills the gap to some extent. Of course, the drawings themselves just as selective as the photographs—I can’t show everything that’s missing! But theoretically, the drawings can show anything, and that excites me.
All of these experiences inform my graphic work. I want people to access and navigate their own relationship, visually, with the material. It evokes a different series of emotions than an article, and I wanted to be able to tap into that.
BM: You often work from photographs, letters, and other artifacts. How do you select these objects and what is the importance of integrating them into your illustrations?
BB: I love working with tangible objects and abstracting them in my drawings - this practice is definitely influenced by my academic training. In some ways, I'm trying to stretch how far textual analysis of primary sources can get us - instead of realistically replicating the written word in my work, for example, I deconstruct them into scribbles, forcing the viewer to rely on the entirety of the illustration to determine the context. It's very different than how we use sources in history, and I appreciate the flexibility illustration affords me in pushing these boundaries.
I work from photographs, but a lot of the illustrations don't necessarily end up looking like the people in the original photographs. In some ways, I'm trying to anonymize and vernacularize the images. So I'll change the shape of the eyes, nose, lips, etc - an urge very different from the kind of typical academic work that requires attention to accuracy and faithfulness to the sources we use.
Sometimes it works, and the result is different people telling me that the person looks like their aunt or some other relative. Other times, my mom will look at a drawing and say, "Wait, that's me! That's my hair!" I love both types of reactions and make note of them as they happen.
BM: Since you’re creating these illustrations in the context of a book and film, how was the process of using those images to put together your solo exhibit at 12Gates Arts? Did it change the way you’re thinking about the process of creating the book?
BB: Working with 12Gates and sharing my digital drawings as individual, stand-alone pieces has been a very generative process for me. The 12Gates exhibit mostly focused on scenes of everyday life - the banal, the mundane, the sort of things that are too boring to be circulated in the media or preserved in institutional archives. Even though a lot of the pieces I showed at 12Gates fit into a larger narrative arc, showing them in no particular order with no linearity allowed me to explore the theme of fragmentation. Everything we can know about Iran is ultimately fragmented, not only because of the diasporic distance, but also because of how quickly everything is changing. It’s good to remember this that when writing stories—real life changes in unexpected ways, leaving behind the past more rapidly than we sometimes expect.
BM: You often reference your family’s reactions to your drawings in your instagram posts. It seems the process of creating this work is one that involves your entire family in a very intimate way. What do you think is the significance of creating work in this way?
BB: I love my family and I love incorporating them into my work as both subjects and consumers. They have a great sense of humor, and when I can refer back to a quip from my grandpa or someone else, it lightens the heavy emotional content underlying the process.
In many ways, my drawings are all kind of love letters to not only to Iran, but also to my family all over the world, the majority of whom still live in the homeland. Even though I'm fluent in Persian, there are conceptual barriers that language can't overcome, so the visuals help.
You can follow Beeta's work at @diasporaletters on Instagram and Twitter, or follow her personal Twitter account @beetasays. And if you would like to be in touch with Beeta, shoot her an email at email@example.com.
Carta Monir is a Persian-American comics artist, illustrator, and podcast host. Her comics are characterized by imagery and metaphors related to technology, which she integrates into scenes of everyday life. In doing so, Carta creates an alternate universe within her work--one that is, while in some ways seemingly futuristic and dystopian, actually probably closer to our lived reality as a society that is highly dependent on tiny pocket computers. It’s “slice of life” where that life is full of pop up windows, video game characters, and where reality itself threatens to glitch out and disintegrate completely at any moment.
While Carta’s older work tends to focus more on technology’s intersection with sexuality and human relationships, her more recent work also brings in issues of queerness, disability, loss, the trials and tribulations of working at a call center, and the multiple, complicated ways that all of these themes intersect. For instance, her biographical comic “Passing,” published on The Nib, explores how being a disabled trans woman impacts the way she navigates a variety of situations that might otherwise seem mundane. All the while, Carta’s use of technological references and imagery woven throughout her storytelling adds an additional layer through which the reader can understand her experiences. Her storytelling is exceptionally personal, honest, and multi-layered.
See more of Carta’s work on her website, and support her work on Patreon, or maybe just buy her a coffee. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram @cartamonir, where she posts her drawings, selfies, and other quality material.
Durgamaya (Merieme Mesfioui) is a 25-year-old Morroccan illustrator, graphic designer, and comics artist based in France. We were drawn to her bright, bold, and compelling work, which often uses the female form, erotic themes, and does not shy away from more "taboo" subjects or imagery. Durgamaya recently launched a new zine called HALAL Fanzine. The zine brought together AMEMSA artists from around the world, who submitted works to the zine that would be displayed free of censorship. We reached out to Durgamaya to learn more about her work, how she forges alternative spaces for marginalized artists, and the ideas behind HALAL Fanzine.
Bigmouth: What themes and issues compel your work the most?
Merieme Mesfioui: I am seeking more freedom for women in the MENA (Middle-East and North Africa) region, using erotic art expressing female empowerment but also promoting lgbtqia+ community’s rights as an ally. I try to combine traditional Moroccan patterns and elements from Islamic art with graphic design and an erotic touch.
My work focuses on my relationship with my body as a woman who belongs to the MENA (Middle-East and North Africa) region, according to the social pressure and patriarchy, and how to get over it and set myself (and women in general) free.
BM: How and when did you get into creating comics and zines? Why do you like this medium?
MM: When I was a teen I used to start short stories based on comics characters I liked, but I was never able to end a story. Years after I decided to follow art studies and after obtaining a BA in graphic design and retail design, I spent one year studying illustration and comics. I realized that this medium made my imagination and my art in general blossomed. I wanted to tell stories, to share them, and this medium was perfect for that. Comics are a wonderful medium, linked to all other media, such as cinema, writing, and painting. You can combine everything you like while making comics, it’s limitless and creative.
That’s what I like the most, it will always surprise you and you can always experiment.
BM: What personal projects have you recently completed that you’re most excited about?
MM: I am the co-founder of SPIN OFF, an underground comics and fanzines festival based in Angoulême, organized at the same time as The International Comics Festival in Angoulême. This year it will take place from January 25th to 28th, I’m so excited!
It’s a festival that combines microedition and music, we provide spaces for artists (who are still studying or already professional) who can’t or do not want to attend the official festival. It’s an alternative way to discover a new face of comics, less mainstream and far from what’s in people’s mind in general when they think about books, fanzines and comics.
BM: Tell us a little about HALAL Fanzine. What is this project, and why did you start it?
MM: It’s a fanzine that contains the work of 28 artists (including myself) from the AMEMSA (African, Middle-East, Muslim, South Asian) world.
The project aims at providing a free space of self-expression to the AMEMSA youth. Its goal is to create a place in which young AMEMSA people could live their enjoyment beyond censorship.
The zine is an epic 72 pages of illustration, essay, short fiction, photography, comics and poetry focused on the experiences of the AMEMSA world's youth. Texts are written in Arabic, French, and English.
It’s been a while since I wanted one platform (other than online) where you can find artists (not only comic authors) from the AMEMSA (African, Middle-East, Muslim, South Asian) world. I noticed that we lack visibility, and I don’t pretend that I fixed it through HALAL Fanzine, but it’s my humble contribution. I also wanted a project made by and for AMEMSA people, I'm a bit tired of fake news and other cliches about AMEMSA countries and white saviors, we are able to talk about our issues and we are able to gather and think together on our own about solutions in the future.
I had the chance in France to be part of many open calls for submissions, and I wanted to do the same for the AMEMSA youth.
BM: Did anything surprise you during the process of working on HALAL?
MM: First of all, I didn’t expect the huge amount of submissions I received! I was so happy to see that many artists around the world were responsive to the project. The second thing that surprised me was the fact that many of them didn’t send the right files with the right size etc, I noticed that there is something to improve about answering to open calls for submissions, but that’s normal because it’s not something usual to most of them. I also noticed that we shared so much in common, our society issues, political etc. That made me confident about how powerful this project could be in the future, gathering all of us.
BM: Will there be more issues of HALAL Fanzine in the future?
MM: Yes sure! I really want this project to last, I’ll try to make one issue per year.
BM: What upcoming projects are you working on or thinking about?
MM: I’m planning to work on a new book that talks about inspiring figures from AMEMSA (focused on trans and cis women, femmes, non-binary people who made history in many fields.
I would also like to work also on violence (sexual, physical, verbal) against women and the lgbtqia+ community in general in AMEMSA countries, the harassment they’re confronted to and the lack of support of their relatives.
You can follow Durgamaya's work on her instagram @durga.maya. Check out her Tumblr as well, where there is info on commissions (she is open!). And make sure you support the artist/pick up a copy of HALAL Fanzine on her Tictail shop.
The 42-page comic is immaculately illustrated in dramatic black and white. Set in American suburbia, the story is a nostalgic look back at what it's like to deal with love, life, and death as a teenager, and is based on true events from Azzouzi's high school days. Consistent with much of Azzouzi's other work, the story explores the romanticization of death, especially the use of death as a means of escaping the cyclical, humdrum nature of suburban American life. It identifies and problematizes the belief that somehow, by dying in a dramatic way, one could become eternally extraordinary, despite having lived an ordinary life.
The comic interweaves lavishly illustrated, romanticized memories of teenhood with a dark, almost sarcastic present. The main characters look back on both their younger years and the present moment with a sense of irony, but also with a certain tenderness and sympathy. We see fragments of the younger selves in the older characters. And for all its indulgent, romantic imagery and language, Azzouzi still maintains a crystal clear, critical understanding of the larger thematic issues bubbling beneath the surface of this narrative, which come across clearly in her storytelling choices.
Spiritual Teens is a beautiful work in all its nostalgic, black and white glory, and kind of begs to be set to an MCR soundtrack. It manages to capture, in a critical and simultaneously tenderhearted way, the "emo" subcultures of the early-mid 2000s. Emotionally raw and pointedly critical, the comic asks us whether it's possible to break out of a cyclical, mundane existence in this lifetime, and definitely leaves the reader with lots to think about.
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