Spotlight: Rama Duwaji

New York-based Syrian illustrator and designer.

Spotlight: Rama Duwaji
Nasri Atallah

We sat down with New York-based Syrian illustrator and designer Rama Duwaji. Her art explores themes of sisterhood and engages with imagery of women of colour in healing spaces as a way to shift narratives. Commercially she has worked with VICE, Cartier, Spotify and most recently with the BBC on a documentary. We discussed balancing art and commercial work, exploring new mediums and what comes next.

Nasri Atallah: How’s life treating you at the moment?

Rama Duwaji: Life is good. I’ve been working freelance and stuff. I moved here a year ago so it’s been my first winter in New York, so I’m slowly coming out of that!

What kind of work are you doing?

I’m animating and illustrating. Recently animation has taken up 80% of my work.

I always wonder as an animator/illustrator, how much of your life is client work and how much are you able to dedicate to your own practice? Sorry if I sound ignorant.

[she smiles] I mean I feel it’s like a wave, the balance of work vs client work. Right now, I’m 90% client work because, well, life. Especially documentaries, that take up a lot of time. I’ve had less time for personal projects. But there isn’t really a separation. Whenever I have time is a good time to explore my own work. I have been doing ceramics though! It’s a new thing for me, away from my digital work.

Oh, nice! Is that a new part of your art practice or just a hobby you want to keep separate?

Initially, I just wanted to try it out as a hobby. It was creative but had nothing to do with the skills I’ve learned before. It’s a tricky thing as an artist, you don’t want to monetise all your hobbies otherwise, it becomes really stressful, and you lose the passion. But I have been illustrating the ceramics I’ve been making. I haven’tsharedthatanywhereyetbutit’ssomethingI’mexploring.

I was going to ask about that actually. You’re pretty quiet on social media, which is a good thing. Or rather a smart thing in terms of self-care. I often disappear for a month at a time. If you were posting Instagram stories five times a day, what would we see you doing?

Oof. Interesting question. I haven’t been in a social media mindset for so long. I do accidental social media detoxes. I only go on when it feels right, and it recently hasn’t felt right. I know as a freelance artist it’s not the smartest choice for my career. But mental health! If I posted five times a day, you’d just see me in the park, cooking. It’s not super aesthetically pleasing. I work in cafes around the city. Just things like that. Lots of process work.

Do you ever want to make an animated film? I don’t know why I have Flee or Persepolis in mind.

[she laughs] I get Persepolis a lot.

Yeah, when I said it, I felt bad. I’m like, ‘she’s heard this a bunch of times!

It’s an honour! I actually have been working on personal animations. I think a really cool aspect of animation I want to start working on is music videos. It would be cool to interpret music. Like an interesting challenge.

Who’s a dream musician to work with?

Damn, putting me on the spot. Joy Crookes. L’Imperatrice. I recently went to their concert here in New York, and it was the best I’ve ever been to.

That’s interesting. The themes you talk about in your work, sisterhood, authentic expression, and not caring about Western beauty standards – I feel like those are things that have been adopted or even co-opted by brands and the mainstream. Does it affect how you see your focus on those things?

I think the fact that it’s more normalised is a great thing. I even see it more in art, appreciation of certain features. I see it on social media. It’s so cool. I didn’t have that when I was younger, so it makes me excited for this generation. It doesn’t affect the way I illustrate because I’ve always been reflecting on my own experience and story. So that stays the same. It’s nice to see others on the same vibe now.

You’ve talked a lot about how important community is to your own mental health. How have you gone about creating community in a new place, especially these past two years?

That’s a good question. I spent the majority of the pandemic with my family in Dubai. I had wanted to move to New York pre-pandemic, so at some point, I finally moved. It was before vaccines were a thing, and I was in a new city where I didnt know as many people. I was trying to create a community when people weren’t being very social. I just started messaging cool creatives I knew from Instagram. And people are actually pretty open to meeting new people here. There’s nothing to lose. I’ve met a lot of great Arab-American artists that way.

What’s next?

I’m really interested in the ceramic work I’m doing now. I might share some of that. I think it’s been six months since I posted, which is a long time on social media. People just assume you’re not doing anything. Like your life doesn’t exist, even if you have a full life!

Photography: Mariam Naga