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Meet Deema Alawa, a Non-Traditional Illustrator Paving the Way for Representation

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A woman rolling her eyes, wrapped in a blue scarf with 'your hypocrisy hurts' on the front

Art has always been used to tell a story. Many of us grew up reading fairy tales filled with beautiful illustrations that still stay with us today. However, many of these illustrations tell primarily white stories and emphasize Eurocentric beauty standards.

BLENDtw had the opportunity to interview Deema Alawa, a rising illustrator and art director at The Tempest who is paving the way for diversity by creating non-traditional artwork.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background? Where did you grow up? 

I was born in New York, which is really bizarre, considering that I live in the countryside right now. I am someone who is Syrian-Danish, although it’s always very apparent in the way that I design or illustrate.

I’m a minority, so I’m really attracted to working in minority spaces, where people are similar to me, especially as someone who has serious imposter syndrome. I am a designer, illustrator, and currently an art director at the Tempest, but the fancier term that they use for it is “Chief Creative Officer.” I’ll always use “art director” because it’s more on my level.

How did you discover the world of illustration and design? 

I started illustrating when I was a child, but I don’t actually have a specific age for it. It was just like “here’s a piece of paper, let me just illustrate some horrible animal work.” I decided at one point to move to digital because I felt that it was too easy to be working on paper.

I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to get bored easily, so digital art was the next challenge or the next level up. When I started digital, it was on a really run-down laptop.

It was very bootleg photoshop that was breaking down every fifteen minutes. Awful illustrations came out of that. I’m never going to post those anywhere!

In 2016, I started taking it professionally, and that’s when I got the position at The Tempest as a Design Fellow. The Tempest is a global media company that is very focused on giving minorities and women a place at the table.

This is a platform that is for women, by women. Just being in a space where people are constantly trying new projects or being immersed in things that you never thought you would actually try out was amazing.

With the Tempest, it was like “you’re good at illustration, but you need to work on design a bit more, just for the internship.” When I got into this, it was like a new world, and I loved it because it was challenging.

My thought process was “I’m really horrible at this, but we’re going to try it out!” Hopefully I can say I’m a little better at every single facet I’m working on. I would say I’m a jack of all trades, master of none, but it’s been four or five years, and we’re getting there!

Your art primarily features women of color. What is the reason behind that?

I grew up in a very white neighborhood. It always felt like there was a divide. For example, I was talking to my little sister, and we realized that we’re never going to see someone like ourselves, and even if we do, it’s going to be in very limited areas.

That’s when I decided that I was going to work on a book featuring women of color, or anyone who stood out to me in some way. I also feel like there are so many perceptions of beauty, and it’s very white-focused.

Now, it’s recently changing to white people using black features. For example, the Kardashians. When you take things from other cultures, what are you contributing to society?

You’re not contributing anything but the idea that “I can take this and commodify it for my own needs.” That’s not helping anyone in the long run. If you could see yourself in even just one space, it does change your own perception of yourself.

On your website, you said that you create non-traditional artwork inspired by your Danish and Syrian heritage. Can you tell us more about how you manage to do that? Have you always been able to do this? 

When it comes to design work for brands, I’ve realized, especially with the New York Times, you’re going through artworks and you think, “I love this because it’s so individualized,” but you realize online that it’s another thing they stole from another platform.

Through my own artwork, I try pulling my own designs and what inspires me. A lot of that comes from my Syrian-Danish heritage. I’m not interested in mimicking very European or already-used designs.

I’m a very big fan of Pinterest. I know that’s a very niche website, but a lot of that is made up of very cultural things that tie into my Arab background.

Even in my website, I’m very into simplistic design. I pull a lot from Danish design, which is very simple. It gets the point across very quickly.

The Arab part of my heritage goes into illustrations. I don’t want to commodify everything. I always have journals with me that are filled with illustrations that are very much the cultural aspect of me.

However, those are not the works I will be publicizing. I don’t want someone to be viewing it out of the context of “oh that’s cute! I can use it as a wallpaper” or something. I want it to be just intrinsically mine.

Your first book has come out! Congratulations on that! How did you get this project? What is it about? 

In my first semester of college, I was just sitting in the dining hall on the phone with my sister, and then I got an email from Penguin Random House. It was for the book Amazing Muslims Who Changed the World by Burhana Islam.

I am one of those people who turns down more projects than I take because if a project isn’t tied to my values, I’m not going to do it. So when Penguin Random House reached out to me, I negotiated a bit, but I knew I was going to take this project.

I got to illustrate a couple iconic figures that mean a lot to me. For example, Muhammad Ali is someone I really look up to. I am very much into the idea that you have to give a platform to people who are like you, or even people you look up to.

The book is about Muslims way back in history to those in the modern day, the most recent Muslim being Malala. The age range for this book is 8-12. This is the point where those sorts of books that stick with you will stick to kids.

This is exactly the sort of book I would have wanted my ten-year-old sister to read when she was younger. Every single person who worked on this was Muslim or in that minority sphere.

I got to work with the art director, editor, and the author herself. I didn’t expect to illustrate a book until I was forty, but now I’m nineteen and I’ve done it!

Unfortunately, Hijabi Muslim American women often face the most discrimination in the workforce. Have you experienced any challenges as a hijabi Muslim American woman? 

One of the things you can see in my illustrations is that I don’t try and brand myself as this or that because I know it is limiting.

For example, if I was to brand myself as a hijabi illustrator/designer, I would then get very specific projects and then hardly anything after that. Even as just a Muslim American, I am getting projects that are very specific, such as Amazing Muslims.

I haven’t had anyone, yet, directly me tell that I don’t fit into their brand because I am a hijabi Muslim American. My identity as a hijabi did play a lot into my imposter syndrome.

Even applying for roles, it was always a question of “am I even going to get this? Are they just going to go through my bio and say this will not be a fit?”

In terms of imposter syndrome, it goes into the fact that the people I looked up to in design starting out were all men.

Obviously, the art world is a bit wider than that, but even if you look at older artists, you have Frida Kalo, but then beyond that, it’s just men. It’s really important, in the beginning especially, to find a place where people are similar to you.

You’ve worked with the famous publishing houses Penguin Random House and Kastor and Pollux. What advice do you have for young women who want to pursue that path of design and illustrating?

One piece of advice I have is that you have to put yourself out there. With Penguin Random House, the art director actually discovered me off of Instagram.

I also involved myself with platforms on the side such as Girl Gaze, Women Who Draw, and networks that are free to illustrators. These are especially great for those who don’t want to pay fifty dollars a month to join an art directors’ club.

Those are the exact sorts of things that, if you have a presence online, even if you don’t feel like you’re ready to be serious about art or design, as long as you have a presence online someone is going to be looking for you, even if you don’t realize it.

With Kastor and Pollux, I actually emailed them and said “hey these are my designs! I would love to collaborate with you.” I would say also be completely ready for rejection, because that has happened ninety-eight percent of the time.

For example, in the past month, I probably sent out fifty emails to different publishing houses and different art directors saying “here are my services, I’m one hundred percent here to talk about any project in the future.”

It probably isn’t going to happen now, but once you’re on someone’s radar, it might maybe in the future. I also think having a website does legitimize people a lot.

It is someone publishing houses do go over. Once again, even if you can’t afford it, Wix does have free websites. It does have a watermark, but you’ll be fine. No one cares about that. 

Tell us a bit about Speak Up and what inspired this project.

It’s not set fully. I’m still working on getting an agent and the rest of the logistics. Three years ago, I wanted to make sure that my sister didn’t have only Hermione Granger to look up to.

In my family, the idea is that if you feel like there’s an issue, you have to take a stand on your own, or you have to find out what you can do. So I started this book of people who I personally look up to.

One of the people featured in it is Yusra Mardini. She was a Syrian refugee escaping Syria. The boat was damaged, but she and her sister swam in the ocean to shore.

They saved fifty people. From there, she got to go to the Olympics. I felt that this story needed to be shared with the non-Syrian audience as well.

Everyone should know these powerhouses. Gloria Steinem is great, but we need to know the others. People don’t want to hear the same stories about suffragists, who were part of a white movement.

The Tempest’s “40 Women to Watch” campaign is such an interesting project. What brought this idea to fruition, and how did you find these women?

This was a campaign for The Tempest and it was something that I was very excited about because I’m very into the idea that everyone should get a platform. 40 Women to Watch is coming out next month.

It’s similar to the Forbes Under 40 list, but it’s focusing on women and others who do not fit the cisgender male category. It’s made up of the people you knew in history and the people that you didn’t realize existed, people who have not had a platform in the past.

One of the fun things about this is that we did throw nominations to people in the team. For example, we have two members who are extremely passionate about what they do. The list is divided by categories such as “sports” and “design.” It’s going to be similar to the way Teen Vogue does 21 Under 21.

What’s a typical day like for you for illustration? 

If I were to get a project now, it would take a couple days. Typically I start at night, because I’m most creative at night. I go and make a mood board, and that would be just Pinterest for two hours.

It’s just “here are some ideas that would work with this project.” The second day would be me thinking about the idea and what works best.

Once I actually start the illustration process, it’s once again very late at night, when I’m fully de-stressed from everything going on in the day. It takes about three hours to perfect the line art and move on to the coloring. The color theory itself is interesting.

For me, I don’t use a color palette setup. I just use one swatch to cover the whole thing. Right now you’re seeing a lot of reds because when I start out my illustration, the background color is always red, and I work over it with skin tones to create a warm, lively undertone.

Lastly, do you see illustration and design as a long-term career goal for you? 

Art and design is something that has been working out for me so far. I do think it’s going to be something that’s going to be in my life in the long run.

I am very much the type of person who gets bored easily. I like always having something going on. Creating in itself is a passion for me. So I do see this in the long run, but I’m not sure how it will turn out.

Amazing Muslims Who Changed the World is available to purchase on Amazon and from other sellers in both ebook and hardcover format. To keep up with the rest of Deema Alawa’s work, check out her website.

Spotlight

Meet Scott Hughes: The Entrepreneur Who Built One of the Largest Online Book Communities

Are you a book junkie? Find out how Scott Hughes built OnlineBookClub, a free online community for book lovers with over 2 million members.

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Scott Hughes

Are you a book lover?

If you are, then you need to check out OnlineBookClub.org, a free online site for book lovers around the world.

The online site features book reviews, book & reading forums, and useful tools that enable you to store, track and list books you have read or want to read.

Scott was only 19 when he launched OnlineBookClub.

The idea of creating OnlineBookClub originated after Scott, a book fanatic, realized that there were too many restrictions for in-person book clubs such as tight deadlines on book reading, a limited selection of books, and little freedom to pick books to read. 

Scott wanted to leverage the power of online discussions and create a flexible space where people all over the world could easily find people to chat about any book at any time. That is how OnlineBookClub came to life. 

Building the online platform was a rewarding experience for Scott, but it was far from easy.

For 7 years, Scott ran the business and paid himself nothing from it. During those years, he worked odd jobs to pay his living expenses and put food on the table for his two kids. 

“I remember one month I had to go to the coinstar machine at the bank with my spare change on the 10th of month just so I could cover the rent, but I did it.”

The hardest part of creating the platform for Scott was finding time to run the business while juggling his day job and raising two kids. It was difficult for him to find a work-life balance but he made it work despite the hardships. 

At the end of 2014, Scott finally took a leap of faith, gave up his side jobs, and went full-time at OnlineBookClub. He knew that to make it work, he had to devote himself completely to the online site.

And his efforts paid off. 

The platform is thriving with over 2.7 million registered users as of November of 2021.

Scott’s team recently released an e-reading app meant to compete with Amazon Kindle, called OBC Reader, which is available on both the Google Play Store and the Apple Store.

The revenue of the platform primarily comes from paid online advertising and professional services to authors and publishers, such as editorial reviews and manuscript editing.

Scott is proud of the work he has accomplished so far, especially of the community he has built.

“OnlineBookClub has always been filled with kind people who have a strong sense of togetherness and community. It’s like a second family for us.” 

Scott’s journey has been full of ups and downs, but through it all, he is grateful for all the experiences-good ones and bad ones.  

When asked to advise young entrepreneurs just starting, he has the following to say:

“The journey never really ends. If you make a million dollars, then you might chase a billion. Even if you reach all your financial goals and lose interest in that side of things, your mind will create new different goals. So it’s never about reaching some destination. When you look back on it, in many ways the most challenging times are also seen most fondly.”

He also believes that entrepreneurs need to be driven by something other than money. 

“I’ve found in my anecdotal experience and just from watching the world around me that those who desperately chase money are the least likely to find it. In contrast, when you work hard on yourself and your real dreams, money chases you. Money–and even health and physical fitness–are only really ever a means, not an end in themselves. Without some kind of vision or passion to be the real end, the real goal, the real dream, it’s like driving a car with no gas.”

Scott’s story is a great reminder that anything can be achieved with perseverance, passion, and hard work.

So, if you are just starting, make sure to stay tuned for his upcoming book, “In It Together: The Beautiful Struggle Uniting Us All,” which will be released soon.

You can connect with Scott on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter for more information about OnlineBookClub and get updates about his latest projects. 

 

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Spotlight

‘Halloween Kills’ Cast & Crew Explain the Slasher

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(from left) Karen (Judy Greer), Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Allyson (Andi Matichak) in Halloween Kills, directed by David Gordon Green.

Article by Riley Farrell

The cast and crew of Halloween Kills told Blendtw why the latest slasher’s gore is anything but gratuitous in a year like 2021. 

Jamie Lee Curtis, Andi Matichak, Anthony Michael Hall, Kyle Richards, Malek Akkad, David Gordon Green and Jason Blum tell horror fans to expect carnage. After all, Halloween Kills must live up to its title.

Chainsaws buzzing and bats swinging, Halloween Kills is a current-day cathartic catastrophe – and no character is safe – according to producer Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions.

Halloween Kills is the 12th movie in Michael Myers’ macrocosm, with the 13th, and allegedly final, movie coming out in 2022. When seriously injured Laurie Strode thought she killed Michael Myers after 42 years of trailing him, his annual bloodbath recommences. Sick of living at the mercy of “pure evil,” the town’s vigilantes revolt against the boogieman. 

 

“Subtlety is not this film,” said director David Gordon Green, on fitting in as much bloodshed as possible in 105 minutes.

 

The cast filmed Halloween Kills two years ago and shelved it due to the pandemic, until now.

Picking up where Halloween (2018) left off, the film explores the aftermath of collective trauma, said Green. Given everything that’s ensued in the last two years, viewers do not have to live in Haddonfield to understand suffering, and inversely, resilience. 

 

“We’ve taken a slasher movie and it’s landed in a time of cultural relevance because of our public consciousness,” said Green. “Though [the movie is] grotesque, there are moments when we feel the humanity underneath the surface of this movie monster.”

 

Halloween Kills brought back two characters from the 1978 Halloween in Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) and Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards), the two children who Laurie babysat during Michael’s initial attack. Hall and Richards did not require much persuasion to hop on the franchise, said Green.

 

Halloween kills

Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween Kills, directed by David Gordon Green

The callbacks of all-grown-up characters, of course, evokes nostalgia. But the twist on the trope is that, instead of running from Michael, the kids now face him head-on, said Richards. Hall, who described Halloween Kills as a “thrill ride” and “freight train,” said the slasher hinges on human resilience.

 

“We summoned something deep in themselves and decided to fight back, we’re not just survivors but fighters,” said Hall.

 

Resilience as a motif snugly fits within the cultural zeitgeist, even earning a title as Forbes’ 2021 word of the year. Though coincidental, the visceral and violent images in Halloween Kills harken to audiences’ nihilistic experiences of the past 18-months. Producer Malek Akkad said the slasher film can paradoxically be pertinent yet escapist for viewers who’ve experienced the horror genre by simply reading the news.

 

“It’s tough for everybody right now and this movie’s just a fun release,” said Akkad. “There’s nothing more cathartic for people watching than to see a final girl like Laurie.”

 

For reference, the final girl trope, pioneered by the character of Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween, represents the heroine left standing at the end of a horror movie who is charged with defeating the antagonist. Film theorist Carol J. Clover coined the term in her 1992 book, ‘Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.’ The final girl has been observed in many films, including The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Alien, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream.

 Scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis said she was unaware of the meaning and dialogue surrounding the final girl until recently. She argued, even though the trope has immense cultural significance, the original idea of the final girl is uncomplicated.

 

“The term is just about the tenacity of women to survive because, the truth is, women have survived through a lot,” said Curtis.

 

No characters know survival better than the Strode women. Andi Matichak, who plays Laurie’s granddaughter, and Curtis agreed that their favorite behind-the-scenes moment centered on feminine resilience in spite of harsh conditions.

 

Halloween Kills

Michael Myers (aka The Shape) in Halloween Kills, directed by David Gordon Green.

It was a frigid 4 a.m. shoot, and the three generations of Strode ladies were alone in a truck, coated in fake blood, with only each other and a camera rig for warmth, Matichak described. This moment was the last time Laurie, Karen and Allyson were on screen together.

 

“It was a powerful moment to lean on each other and feel the weight of the project,” Matichak said.

 

Cutting through the sweet moments is the slasher at the heart of the story, said Curtis on the “high octave, frenzied” plot of Halloween Kills. For audiences who’ve lived through the chaos of the past two years, Halloween Kills should match their fast pace of existence.

 

“The past is irrelevant, you’re so in the present moment,” said Curtis.

 

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Spotlight

Waving Through A Big Screen: ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Cast Talks Film Adaptation

With Ben Platt reprising his Tony-winning role as the show’s titular character, a whole new Hollywood cast takes on Broadway.

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A boy and girl laughing

Content warning: mentions of anxiety, depression and suicide.

Article by Riley Farrell

All that it takes is a bit of reinvention for Dear Evan Hansen to move from the theatre to theaters, hitting eardrums on Sept. 24 this year.

With Ben Platt reprising his Tony-winning role as the show’s titular character, a whole new Hollywood cast takes on Broadway. Platt, Julianne Moore, Amandla Stenberg, Amy Adams, Danny Pino, Kaitlyn Dever, Stephen Chbosky and Steven Levenson explained the movie’s newfound reach and relevance in an interview with BLENDtw, among other publications.

The Plot Thickens

A boy between two trees in a forest

Dear Evan Hansen

Begrudgingly in therapy for anxiety, high schooler Evan Hansen is tasked with writing daily letters to himself, hence the movie title. After Evan’s peer Connor Murphy kills himself with Evan’s letter in his backpack, Evan’s page is mistakenly thought to be a suicide note from Connor. 

Evan tells a well-meaning white lie that soon darkens with self-interest to get closer to the Murphy family, which includes Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), and Connor’s mom and dad (Amy Adams and Danny Pino, respectively). Via fake emails and a fundraiser, what once began as a misunderstanding spirals into an operatic betrayal about teens and their screens. 

Oh, How Times Have Changed (Or Not)

A boy and woman sitting on a couch

Dear Evan Hansen

To address the obvious, it has been a long time since DEH initially premiered in 2015 – but the cast said the musical remains relevant. Things have changed: a pandemic rocked our worldviews and Ben Platt, shockingly, aged.

Platt, 27, played Evan in the original musical version. After the movie trailer dropped in 2021, Platt faced online backlash over playing a character a decade younger, even though he lost 15 pounds and changed his styling routine to appear youthful.

“As a parent, I saw a teenager in Ben’s demeanor,” Julianne Moore, who plays Evan’s mom, said in Platt’s defense.

Speaking of something that’s aged us all, COVID-19, the ideas explored about mental health in DEH six years ago seem timely today, said Dever.

“This film is about feeling isolated, after the pandemic, we’re looking to feel heard,” said the Booksmart actress.

A 2021 study from the National Institute of Health found that anxiety symptoms increased during the COVID shutdowns, making ordering delivery and asking peers to sign your cast daunting. This film was a refreshing counter-narrative on what anxiety looks like, demographically and behaviorally, said Stenberg, who shared an on-set story about the stakes of DEH.

Chbosky, the author of Perks of Being Wallflower, showed a letter to Stenberg that a teenager had written to him after reading the novel. The reader expressed how his suicidal ideation disappeared after reading Chbosky’s book. That book saved him, said Stenberg. After that experience, Stenberg said she felt the movie served as an opportunity for mental health representation, not tokenism.

 “I was excited to be playing a Black girl who is on medication,” Stenberg said of her high-achieving teen character, Alana Beck.

There’s no one face or behavior associated with anxiety, Stenberg said. Stenberg said she’s been prescribed medication as a teenager but has only recently come to terms with the shame she felt about mental health.

 

Movie Magic

A boy alone on a stage wearing a tie

Dear Evan Hansen

The year isn’t the only context that’s changed. The medium by which this sensitive story is delivered has transformed from the live stage to the screen. Freedoms of editing and re-filming takes helped storytelling, said Chbosky, who felt ‘obsessed’ with the spotlighting of each character.

Via camerawork, Chbosky and Levenson said they more innovatively explored symbolism and imagery. The film’s juxtaposition between social media and nature – contrasting screens with sunlight as motifs – is about duplicity in the dark and authenticity in the light, said Chbosky.

 “You can’t have truth without the lie,” said Chbosky.

The filmmaking medium aided in communicating the perils of presenting a fake self online, said Levenson. 

 “We wanted to play with the idea of how fast lies can spread online,” said Levenson. “How untrue things make you feel great and the complicated nature of that.”

Expanded audiences can enjoy the story now that it has transcended the Broadway medium. Though fans of the original musical will encounter changes to the original stage material, Platt said he thinks Evan’s move from the stage to the screen is a step towards accessibility. The message of DEH is magnified when more audience members are added to the conversation, said the Pitch Perfect actor.

 “No matter what, it’s important for me to communicate that there’s nothing that makes you unlovable,” said Platt.

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