Rama Duwaji is a Syrian illustrator and comic artist. She is currently studying at Virginian Commonwealth University's School of the Arts. Rama's work often works to challenge Western beauty standards. We talked to her about her process and motivations, as well as her short comic, Razor Burn.
Bigmouth: Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about you?
Rama Duwaji: I am a 21 year old illustrator from Syria, based and studying Visual Communication (a mix of illustration and design) in the US.
BM: When and how did you begin illustrating?
RD: I was making art since high school, mostly out of boredom in classes, and I’ve had sketchbooks since I was in 6th grade (they were the worst, but still part of the process,) but I only decided to pursue art/illustration as a career last minute in my last few months of high school while applying for university. I’m glad 17-year-old me decided to take the jump, because I honestly can’t see myself doing anything else. I think I started taking my art seriously during my first year in college, setting actual goals for myself, exploring topics within art and working on my social media presence.
BM: Your work often deals with themes of western beauty standards. How do you confront this in your work?
RD: I’ve always enjoyed drawing portraits. I think its really representation thats important, by integrating more diverse beauty in the art world, the standards change and move away from the western beauty ideal. I only really felt that I was starting to do this when I made Razor Burn, and got an overwhelming response to it.
BM: Can you tell us a little bit more about Razor Burn? How did the idea for this story come about? Why was working on it important to you?
RD: So my first little graphic novel ever, Razor Burn, was actually birthed in a semester long project in an art class about mental health, physical health, and societal issues. I decided to make an accessible graphic novel for young teens of color about the pressure of Western beauty standards, and the prevalence of mental health issues such as body dysmorphia, anxiety, and depression. The comic was based off the experiences of myself and many friends/family around me. It is a silent novel with no words, just images, (hopefully) making the book more accessible for people of different languages, socioeconomic, and education levels. It sounds cliche, but through the protagonist’s struggles with her body/facial hair, foreign features, and her experiences in a white majority school, I wanted anyone reading it, who might’ve felt bizarre and alone struggling with body image or mental health, to realize that hundreds and thousands of women have gone through the exact thing and came out thriving and confident despite it. When I started sharing some of the illustrations online, I had so many people approaching me, telling me that they had experienced the same thing, which emphasized to me that taboo issues in the MENA region such as mental health needed to be talked about.
BM: Most of your work is black and white, but you’ve started using some color. What is your relationship to color in your work? Why and when do you choose to use or not use it?
RD: I think I started using pen because it was just always the most accessible tool for me, since I was in high school. From then on, it just felt natural, I felt no need to add color to my work, and it felt forced when I tried. I recently started experimenting a little with color here and there, just to practice the skill and to shake things up a little. It helped me get out of an art block when I was feeling drained after big project that was solely in black and white. I also use select colors when making art aimed for children/young teens in the form of both book illustrations as well as murals, which is something that I found I enjoy.
BM: Can you share some of your creative inspirations? Whose work do you admire recently?
Right now my creative inspirations are cave formations, after I visited some amazing caves in Beirut and fell in love with the endless lines and shapes the rocks make. As for actual people whose art I admire, they’re endless. Some top favorites at the moment are Carson Ellis, Rithika Merchant, Betsy Walton, Ronan Bouroullec, Rachel Levit Ruiz, and always, Lucian Freud.
BM: What tips do you have for aspiring artists and illustrators?
I don’t feel like I really have enough authority to give people tips yet, since I’m still kind of in the process of figuring out what works for me as an artist. But if I was to give someone advice it is: don’t box yourself into one style and medium or art form all too soon. I do enjoy painting and working with multi media and textures, but I don’t make much of it because I think I’m just better at ink drawings? Its also more accessible and more “likeable” for my Instagram audience, which definitely should not have been my focus, but its easy to fall into that validation trap. I’m just now in the process of working to find that sweet spot between my love for illustration and for some of the more fine art aspects that I enjoy. I also enjoy digital art and its flexibility, and that's ok, different mediums work for different things, and I think that mutifacetedness (is that a word?) in art is something to embrace and use to your advantage.
Call for submissions: BILADI, BILADI
A transnational zine for the cultural and academic boycott of Israel
Calling all Palestinian artists and artists in solidarity with Palestine! We are seeking submissions for a zine highlighting the need to engage in the cultural and academic boycott of Israel!
We are accepting submissions in the form of comics, illustrations, poetry, prose, photography, and design! Submissions can be in Arabic, English, or French.
Illustrations and page designs should be formatted to fit within 15.5cm x 14cm. Please send us black and white files (grayscale mode) with high resolution 300 dpi minimum, TIFF format only. Submit to email@example.com
Profits from sales of this zine will go to support The March of Great Return by funding grassroots, Palestinian-led organizations on the ground.
Appel à participations: BILADI, BILADI
Fanzine transnational en faveur du boycott académique et culturel d’Israël
Appel ouvert aux artistes palestinien.ne.s et à tous.tes les artistes soutenant la Palestine! Nous attendons vos contributions pour un fanzine qui mettra en lumière l’importance et la nécessité de s’engager et s’impliquer et dans le boycott culturel et académique d’Israël!
Toutes les contributions sont les bienvenues: bande dessinée, illustration, poésie, prose, photographie, design et autre! Les artistes peuvent s’exprimer en Arabe, Anglais et/ ou Français.
Merci de nous envoyer des fichiers conformes au format suivant : TIFF 300 dpi minimum en noir et blanc (mode niveau de gris), 15,5 x 14 cm.
Tous les profits résultant de la vente du fanzine seront versés à des associations palestiniennes qui oeuvrent sur place pour changer les choses, en soutien à La Marche du Grand Retour.
We want to extend a huge thank you to everyone who submitted their beautiful artwork to our Resist Orientalism poster contest! It was a hard decision for our judges, who had no shortage of beautiful artwork to pick from. But we are very pleased to announce the winners: Christina Atik, and Lina Habazi. Congratulations, Christina and Lina!
Bigmouth Comix: How did you first get interested in art and illustration?
Lina Habazi: I have always been artistically inclined and I’ve been drawing since I was very young. Neither of my parents or any of my siblings are artists so it sort of came out of nowhere and I taught myself by copying artists I admired. It was only recently when I began to focus in on subjects that I relate to in terms of my Palestinian-American identity.
BM: What does resisting Orientalism mean to you?
LH: Resisting Orientalism means reclaiming my identity from those who choose to define it for me. As an Arab-American, Muslim, hijabi woman, I am no stranger to stereotypes. Growing up, I have always needed to explain my identity and the reasons why I dress, speak, and believe the way I do because society generally has a distorted idea of who I am. By reclaiming my identity, I define it in a way that offers a true representation of myself.
BM: What were the main ideas behind your poster submission?
LH: I wanted to address the expectations and misconceptions of being an Arab-American woman. While creating my poster, I felt like the phrase "صوت المرأ ثورة" (“A woman’s voice is a revolution”) was the perfect rejection of [Orientalist] ideas. Being born and raised in the U.S., I have learned to proudly express my identity in a way that fuses both my American and Palestinian sides. It is often expected that women who are caught between two identities would be better off choosing one and completely losing touch with the other. In my poster, I challenge what that kind of woman is supposed to look like by portraying the combination of my American and Palestinian cultures through fashion and self-expression.
BM: Any tips or advice to aspiring illustrators?
LH: My biggest tip is to create the art that you want to see in the world. It took me a long time to realize that I have my own unique experience that I can speak about through my art. Nobody else has your story so it’s up to you to tell it.
Bigmouth Comix: What does resisting Orientalism mean to you?
Christina Atik: Resisting Orientalism for me is cherishing, discovering, and evolving my culture. There is beauty in our hair, our skin, big noses, thick eyebrows, wide thighs. There is beauty in our language, music, literature, and art. I feel like these things are robbed from us, they’re belittled and thrown away.
BM: What were the main ideas behind your poster submission?
CA: The main idea is the attack on women’s bodies, particularly on their sexuality. There’s a lot of shame when it comes to [women's] sexuality...I was taught from a young age about how fragile, precious, shameful and weak my sexuality was, and when I got older, I saw it being attacked from all corners. The woman I drew is who I hope to be: grounded, tough, and larger than life.
BM: How did you first get interested in art and illustration?
CA: I started out by leaving small notes and doodles for my roommates and friends around the house, like telling them we ran out of coffee or chocolate. It was easier for me to translate thoughts and ideas into images instead of talking or writing (I was never good at those).
BM: Any tips or advice to aspiring illustrators?
CA: I’m an aspiring illustrator myself, I’m still trying to figure out a lot of things. I guess my advice would be not to put too much pressure on yourself to produce things, sometimes people can’t draw for days or weeks or months, and that’s fine. I was very hard on myself and taking the pressure off made drawing fun and spontaneous again.
Christina's work can be found on her Instagram @daydreamsforjack.
Both Christina and Lina's posters are available for sale in the shop! As promised, we have screen printed them in house, in a limited run of 40. They are $20 each, or if you buy one of each and use the code RESIST at checkout, $30 for the pair!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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