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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
Source:

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.

Book titled Amazing Muslims Who Changed the World, with drawings including Ghandhi, Muhammad Ali, and several others
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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.

A woman with her hair up, a moon earring dangling, in a tan shirt, beautifully illustrated by Alawa
Source:

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.

Woman staring ahead with a light blue-grey shirt with an orange thread waving back and forth in front of her
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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.

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Spotlight

Meet Thais Drassinower: A Latinx Woman Film Creator in Hollywood Pushing for Diversity

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A black and white photo of Thais Drassinower wearing black hat and tank top.

This past year, the prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) selected Thais Drassinower into the Newcomers program. Thais is based in L.A. as a female filmmaker. The year 2020 had the biggest turnout of women in the program and Thais was one of those representing female filmmakers!

This program offers career support and helps to new filmmakers in the industry. Apart from being welcomed into the program, Thais has a lot of history with filmmaking and in the film industry. We interviewed her to learn more about her history with film and any new projects she might be working on. 

1. Your hometown is Lima, Peru, what was it like coming to America and starting up in the film industry? What inspired you to pursue filmmaking as a career, and please tell me a bit about that journey. 

I’ve been a storyteller for as long as I can remember. I started writing stories as soon as I learned how to put two words together.

My grandma still keeps those early ones in her bedroom chest. I’ve also always loved film and would spend my free time as a teenager watching foreign film cycles at the local cultural center.

But as a young woman from a traditional family growing up in Lima – Peru, I never thought being a filmmaker was an option for me.

My diverse interests in story, psychology, and anthropology led me to advertising as a first step and it was then, working as a copywriter in Chicago, that I realized the power that audiovisual communication has on society and understood that there are archetypes in the collective consciousness that stories can portray in infinite ways.

That’s when I decided to become a filmmaker and assume the responsibility of sharing narratives that can shift our world into a more comprehensive, empathetic, and healthy place.

I started taking night classes at a local school after work and then decided to make the jump and apply for an MFA in Film which got me to NYC where I got my degree at Columbia University. That’s how it all started. 

2. Before transitioning to the film industry, you were a copywriter. Can you tell me what it was like making that transition to filmmaking? Did you encounter any major differences or have any difficulty with the transition to films? 

I was a copywriter for an advertising agency in Chicago which meant that, together with my partner, I came up with an idea for a commercial, wrote the script for it and then supervised the whole production and post-production process to make sure the idea was coming to life in the way we envisioned it.

The whole supervision part of the process was similar to being a film producer on a project. Being on set and watching the director work with the actors made me fall in love with the directing process. I think it has been a very organic transition and my years as a copywriter helped me build very important skills that I now use as a writer/director.

Film director and crew
Source

3. The entertainment industry can be cutthroat at times. Have you endured any hardships along the way? What did you do to overcome them? 

I’m still at the beginning of my career and it is definitely a challenging field. As a Latinx woman trying to break in, you have to work extremely hard and convince people that you deserve a seat at the table.

It’s an exciting time for minorities in Hollywood, the conversation is open and more studios are looking to champion diverse and underrepresented voices, but there is still a long way to go to achieve proper representation and I’m proud to be a part of this new generation pushing for change. 

4. You’ve directed three projects, “The Catch,” “Baby,” and “Memories of the Sea.” All of which are special in their own ways. Please tell me a bit about how you drew inspiration for these projects and how they are connected to you? 

Memories of The Sea was my first film which explores the sense of loss for a child. My dear friend and fellow filmmaker Sudarshan Suresh had written a beautiful script which we then worked on together to adapt for me to direct it.

I decided to set it in Brazil because that’s where I spent my first years of childhood and where I experienced a sense of loss myself.

I wanted to revisit the space and dive deep into the experience of seeing the world through a child’s eyes. This is a film about finding your own answers when adults don’t explain things to you. I think we often forget how intuitive and perceptive children are and this film attempts to remind us. 

Baby, my second film, explores what it means to grow up by messing up. It’s a film about a young woman who goes home for a weekend and has ​an unnerving encounter with her estranged father at a nightclub which reminds her that there are unhealed wounds.

Through a series of disturbing events that night, she will be forced to understand that the only person who can take care of her now is herself. I drew inspiration for this film from the memories of being that age and feeling lost at many points. Feeling like a grown up, but also like a child.

Feeling like I had all the answers, but then suddenly like I knew nothing. It’s a fascinating period in a person’s life and with this story and through this character I explore subjects such as sexuality and consent. 

Finally, The Catch, my latest film, tells the story of two trapeze artists whose trust is threatened right before the biggest performance of their careers. The script was written by another Peruvian making waves in the US, my dear friend Camila Zavala who also produced the film.

What attracted me to direct this movie was the opportunity to explore the concept of trust between a couple with such high stakes and the idea of dancing between public and private spaces in the magical world of a circus.

The film invites us to reflect on the power of a bond and what it takes to break it. 

5. Many young people are looking into the arts as careers, but of course, they may face obstacles along the way. What would you say to someone who would want to pursue a career such as filmmaking? What advice would you offer? 

I say GO FOR IT. This is a challenging career, but all good things in life require you to work hard for them. The enjoyment comes from the hours you put in day to day. I find that the most important things are consistency and your community.

Do the work, go out and shoot, sit down and write, even if you don’t end up showing that “thing” to anyone, practice makes a master. And surround yourself with a group of peers who will champion you and who you will champion. Help each other out.

Film is a collective art and you can’t do it alone, having a group of colleagues that you trust is crucial for your career. Find them. Either at school, at writing groups, at online forums. Find them and nurture those relationships. They are the most wonderful gift that a film career can give you. 

I started writing a blog for young female filmmakers who are working or hope to work on their first feature film. There you can find advice on how to embark in the journey both from my personal experience, and also from interviews that I make to first time female directors.

Check it out and hope you find it helpful, I’m always available through there for any questions you might have.  

Best of luck to you all! 

6. What are your plans for the future in filmmaking? Do you have genres or films you are particularly interested in? 

I’m currently working on my first feature film which I hope we can start pre-production for once we achieve a new normal after COVID-19. I am interested in telling stories through a female perspective in the genres of psychological thriller, psychological horror, and drama.

As I mentioned before, it is also very important for me to portray diversity on the screen through my narratives and I look forward to keep sharing stories that build empathy and hopefully invite the audience to reflect and discuss.

From growing up in Peru and moving to L.A, to transitioning from copywriting to filmmaking. Thais has achieved many great things that other young filmmakers aspire to achieve.

We hope that by reading this article, many young filmmakers or others wanting to join the industry can get some inspiration from Thais and perhaps one day join the Newcomers program like her.

Thank you Thais for your time and we wish you luck with your first feature film and your BAFTA Newcomers program!

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Spotlight

Alicia White Leading Project Petals to Repair Communities

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Alicia White, CEO of Project Petals

Nonprofit organizations are driven by a social cause. They help families in need, repair communities, teach children new things, and give hope to those who need it most.

Alicia White, the founder and president of Project Petals, had all of this in mind when starting her nonprofit. She is an advocate for all those living in low-income and under-resourced communities. Not only is she an entrepreneur, but she has also worked with the United Nations and done grant work with domestic justice civil rights issues within her community.

BLENDtw had the opportunity to interview White regarding her history with Project Petals and moving forward with her program. 

1.) You started Project Petals with the vision to help low-income and under-resourced communities. Can you tell us a bit about what the process of starting up a new business was like? What were your struggles along the way? 

The process of starting my organization has been rewarding, and I learned so much through the process. My organization started out as a volunteer-led project in Queens, New York. It was important for me to form an organization to improve the environment, support communities and future leaders.

It was challenging starting my first environmental project, and I wanted to make it less difficult for anyone coming after me. Also, to help youth learn the leadership skills needed to make an impact in their communities.

Starting a new organization for me had its challenge, but I learned so much along the way. I had to essentially learn what it was to set up an organization in what felt like overnight. Through extensive research, I had to file paperwork,  create a website, the logo, the structure of the organization, and just typical start-up activities fell on my shoulders.

Like most black women founders, my biggest struggle was finding and securing funding. For example, in 2019, Black-led organizations received less than 4% of grants and funding. That percentage dwindles when you are a woman.

2.) COVID-19 has been challenging for many small businesses and has caused people within many communities to struggle to make ends meet. How have you seen this affect them and what has Project Petals been doing in response to this? 

COVID-19 has hit the communications that my organization works, extremely hard. My organization had to change from working on the ground with large amounts of volunteers to working remotely, with fewer volunteers on the ground.

Through all of this, we were still able to support our community leaders and neighborhoods with the tools and resources that they need to improve their environments. Like every other organization, we have to abide by COVID-19 safety restrictions and guidelines to keep everyone safe while still actively providing the services that are needed to make an impact.  

3.) Going forward with Project Petals, what do you envision with your company? Where do you see it going in terms of growth? 

I see Project Petals eventually moving to a national scale. The need for environmental support and community development is needed now more than ever. With the climate crises on the brink of causing further catastrophe, it is vital that Project Petals is able to serve as many communities and leaders as we can. 

4.) You have a program called, “Youth Builders Program.” Can you elaborate more on what it is and what sort of programs it offers? And how this program can be of help to those participating in it?

Our Project Petals Youth Builders Program helps young people gain the leadership skills they need to improve their communities and futures. Our program connects youth in grades 4-12 to engineering, architecture, urban planning, environmental science, tech, and design professionals who can offer mentorship, experience, internships, and inspiration through monthly workshops.

We work to catalyze the next generation of environmentalists, community leaders, and professionals in these fields. Our program inspires them to develop a passion for these fields, thus working to create a more sustainable, diverse, and equitable world. One hundred percent of all of the youth show great leadership potential. We believe by fostering this leadership and giving them access to a network of professionals; we will start to build more resilient communities. 

5.) Before Project Petals, what sort of jobs were you doing? What led you to want to become an entrepreneur and what advice do you have for anyone also planning to pursue entrepreneurship? 

Growing up, I always had ideas that I wanted to bring to reality, but as a young person, I didn’t know how to, and I didn’t think it was possible for me to do so. As an adult, social entrepreneurship gave me the opportunity to take my ideas and actually use them to make a positive impact in other people’s lives and the environment.

If I had to give any advice, it would be to have confidence in your ideas and in your skillset as you may face many obstacles, nay-sayers, and challenges along the way. Failure is par for the course and is a good lesson plan to succeed. 

We hope that by understanding Project Petals, White, and how entrepreneurs can shape the future of the community around them, we can then better understand how to make our community and the world around us a better place. Thank you to Project Petals and White for this opportunity and we hope this program thrives in the coming years! 

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Spotlight

Using Instagram Art to Promote Anti-Racism: Meet French Graphic Artist Aurélia Durand

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Portrait of author Aurélia Durand wearing a yellow shirt and laying next to some of her pieces of art.
Source: Aurélia Durand

Instagram artist, Aurélia Durand, has been using the platform to promote her anti-racism art. She has a website on which she sells posters, stickers, and cards that she has designed herself. Her art is focused on celebrating diversity and equal representation. Durand’s dream is to help form a united community and an inclusive future for everyone. BLENDtw had the opportunity to ask Durand a series of questions about her current work on Instagram, the book she illustrated, and her goals for the future. 

1. Who or what inspired you to start creating art? What keeps you motivated?

When I begin working on a new artistic creation, I listen to music to put myself in a zone where I feel good and am inspired to create a meaningful message. I find that music settles the mood and atmosphere around me. I create to stay positive, and staying positive is essential for my well being. I need to be creative; I am addicted to creativity; imagination, drawing, and seeing the idea evolve is exciting. The most fulfilling feeling is to see people interacting with my work.

2. If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? What advice would you give to young black women with dreams similar to your own?

Create for yourself; don’t try to make the same as everyone else. Find your voice; follow your instinct.

3. What impact do you hope your art will have on our world today?

I hope my art empowers people and makes them smile. 

A piece of Aurélia Durand's art work featuring four people behind a pink background with the title
Source: Aurélia Durand

4. In what way does art communicate with and reach people better than other means do? 

It’s upon us; it happens because of many factors. I think that visuals are more impactful than words. It is universal, we see it, and we quickly react to it. 

6. You just recently illustrated a New York Times bestseller, “This Book is Anti-Racist.” What inspired this project? What do you hope readers take away from it?

I hope readers want to take action for antiracism in there every day life after they read the book.

My publisher, Quarto, contacted me at the end of 2018 to participate in the book’s conception as the leading illustrator. I have never met the author; unfortunately, due to the current global pandemic and social distancing regulations. 

The book, “This Book is Anti-Racist” was released in January 2020 and became a best seller in June after the Black Lives Matter movement spread globally. We sold more than 150,000 copies! The book has been popular in schools, but people of all ages are reading the book. It includes about 20 exercises for readers to do while thinking about how they can take action to build a more inclusive society. 

7. Do you have any plans or projects you are working on? How can people help support your cause?

I am working on many new projects, but I can’t talk about them as they are meant to be a surprise. In October, I will be participating in several talks with Adobe, Ladies and Wine, and the AOI association. The projects are very exciting and I have confidence that they will have great success when they are completed. 

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