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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.

Deema Alawa smiling in a grey suit jacket, placing her hands on her hijab
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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.