How did you get started as an illustrator? When I graduated from university, I was really lost, not knowing what I wanted to be or why. All I knew was that I didn’t want to carry on living in London, doing internships and struggling to make rent. So I left. Part of my courage to leave came from a talk by illustrator Nick White. He had stepped away from illustration and worked in various jobs for three years before figuring it out and making a big comeback. He said there are no rules about when you’re allowed to step into the world of illustration. As cliché as it sounds, I needed to see the world and have experiences before I could make work that is truly my own and holds any kind of conviction.
After three years, I moved back to London and finally developed artwork that I was happy to put out into the world. I was lucky to be part of an amazing community of freelance artists, who all made me to want to be a part of this industry. Instagram is how I set myself up as an illustrator, as it gave me a platform to build a portfolio while also being able to express my personality so that I was seen.
What personal experiences or circumstances have most influenced your work and approach? When I was arrested by the immigration police in Bali and held in questioning for two days. I had agreed to do a small branding job for a restaurant that was in the process of opening, and the fee for the job was only £50 or $62. The fee was a little token of appreciation from the owner, as we only ever discussed the project via email. I went to Bali, and about five minutes after I arrived at the site of the restaurant, the immigration police came in, demanding to see my passport. Though I was there on a tourist visa, they claimed that because I was on a soon-to-be commercial property, I was there for work. We told them that I was just a friend who was helping out, but they arrested us anyway and confiscated my passport. When we were in the immigration office, we were surrounded by officers who were deliberately speaking some parts in English, and joking amongst themselves about which one of them would “have” us and what they would do to us. It was the first time in my life that I had been made to feel so overtly sexually objectified and absolutely powerless. They held all the power, and the British embassy was of no help. In the end, the owner had to pay a bribe to get us released, which to this day I’m very grateful for.
You’ve mentioned that you’re interested in celebrating the female form. How do you find ways to pay homage to the female form in your work? I went to an all-girls grammar school, which I hated by the way, but my fascination with how women are viewed in society and how this affects the way we see ourselves began there. I identify as a heterosexual woman, and I feel like when I paint or draw the female nude, it’s more about reclaiming our own sexuality, rather than rendering it as an object that men feel entitled to or are sexualizing. I represent women of all shapes and sizes and colors because there is a lot of beauty in that, and when women see themselves reflected in the media, it helps them become more accepting of their natural shapes. It’s common knowledge that beauty standards have always been narrow in the media, and that the media is a powerful tool. So, can we please use it to create positive change and promote kindness towards others and ourselves?
What specific challenges did you encounter while creating the short film “Ugly”? What did you learn from the process? Initially, director Anna Ginsburg and I had intended to make a series of GIFs themed around Greek mythology. As we continued to develop ideas, we thought, why not make a full animation with a narrative? It was Anna’s idea to go down the poetry route, and we eventually landed on a poem called “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. Strange Beast, an amazing production studio Anna had worked with before, kindly offered to fund it for us. Anna and Strange Beast put together a treatment and sent it over to Mary Oliver’s agent, who replied with a short email saying no. We tried every way possible to get in touch with her directly, and eventually, Anna wrote a letter to her proposing our idea, while I made a couple of paintings and hand painted the envelope. On the day I posted the package, Mary Oliver died. We lost a legendary poet, and our project at the same time.
We felt a little defeated after this, however, we got back up on our feet and revisited the drawing board. Anna soon found Warsan Shire, an award-winning British poet who was born to Somali parents in Kenya. The poetry that Warsan had written, which had been adapted for Beyoncé’s Lemonade album, struck a chord, and led us to discover the poem “Ugly.” Attempting to portray this poem was a challenge in itself because it dealt with the struggles that come with being an immigrant and integrating into another culture, perceptions of beauty, and how trauma can affect your self-confidence. Anna was used to working in a much lighter and more positive style, but the poem does have an uplifting ending, which is that there is a lot of beauty in strength.
The next step was to get the rights to use the poem, and we were faced with a no from her agent. After failed attempts to contact Warsan directly, I noticed that her Instagram account was a business profile with a “call” button, which gave me access to her phone number. I sent her an iMessage with our proposal for the animation, explaining all the reasons why we wanted to work with her. She got back to me almost immediately and was interested in working with us, saying that she would speak to her agent. And that was our way in!
You’ve said that you’d like to “live in a world where people value themselves independently of the male gaze.” Are you seeing such independence reflected in the illustration industry today? There are so many artists and illustrators portraying this sentiment in their art, like Sara Andreasson, Assa Ariyoshi, Marylou Faure and Anna Ginsburg. There’s a big movement with models, such as Charli Howard and Emily Bador, speaking out and being advocates of self-love. There are also magazines, like She Magazine and Ash, which are covering these topics. Several brands, such as Beija London and Thinx, have started using a variety of different-sized models from an array of ethnic backgrounds. Even Nike has made a big effort to celebrate female athletes from all kinds of backgrounds, for example, it commissioned artist Charlotte Mei to paint taekwondo athlete Irem Yaman.
Who’s your favorite painter? Marlene Dumas. She has admitted that part of the reason why the hands and feet of her figures are so ambiguous and expressive is because she doesn’t like painting them. I like her honesty about this small bit of laziness in her work because it allows for imperfection to become part of the work process. Her paintings are both delicate and bold. She explores issues around sexuality and questions the perception of beauty, which are subjects I’m also very interested in.
What excites you about the field of illustration right now? I fell out of love with illustration for a little while before remembering why it’s an integral part of our culture. There are many interesting voices in the industry exploring a huge array of genres and concepts, but above all, illustration is about collaboration. It’s a collaboration between musicians, writers and journalists; fashion designers, filmmakers and animators; and designers, commercial brands and businesses. It’s research, it’s challenging and it’s learning.