I met the wonderful Syrian illustrator, Rama Duwaji, after a long Ramadan day at a cafe in Dubai over some Arabic coffee and strawberry sorbet. I saw Rama’s work serendipitously on Instagram (how life works these days) as she was posting snippets from her upcoming graphic novel “Razor Burn”, a culmination to one of her classes at Virginia Commonwealth University. Lucky for us, her project received a grant to be published! Yay!
I hope you enjoy our conversation below! You can follow Rama @ramaduwaji to see more of her work and creative journey.
How long have you been making art, or as you say “art-ing” ?
I think I considered myself to be an active artist once I changed the purpose of my social media account into one specifically dedicated to my art. I stopped posting random things and used it as a platform to showcase my work. I would say this was about a year and a half ago where I made it my new year’s resolution to start taking my art more seriously and to put it out there.
How did social media help with your creativity and production?
There were artists on Instagram that I really admired so I would talk to them and they would see my work. It created a community to talk to other artists and people who were like me. Other than my closest friends, I wasn’t really surrounded by many people who were super motivated in creating art.
Where did/are you studying?
I initially wanted to study in America, but then decided to be closer to my family. I started university in Qatar where they have a special program dedicated to the arts, and then transferred to their branch in Richmond VA after a year.
How has your experience been living in the states?
I like the independence and my alone time. It’s very important to me. Having my little house, and my little plants, and eating my little food, and making my little art, and having my own life. I really enjoy that. I like Richmond. There isn’t really much going on there but I’m not very outgoing or a party person so it’s fine for me.
Where is your favorite place to work from?
I want to say my desk, like every professional artist should, but I’m not really a professional artist yet so truth is I like to work on the floor with my papers and tablet spread out in front of me.
Tell me a little about your art and art-making process…
As a child I always had a sketchbook. Looking back at it, it’s the worst art I have ever seen in my life *giggles*, but I really admire my past and little me in continuing to have a sketchbook. I barely have any patience now. Since I was young, like back in high school and middle school, it was always pen on paper. I don’t know where my love for drawing portraits came from but if you go back to my early posts you will see a bunch of faces, which also makes me wonder whether I have evolved as an artist and a person...I hope I did! I still do work in a sketchbook, but when It comes to making final pieces, especially in university, it’s super convenient for me to work on my iPad. I still don’t want to fully admit that a lot of my art is all digital and I like my work to have the aesthetics of pen on paper.
What inspires you?
I get really excited and ready to draw when I see a distinct and interesting face. Whether it’s in real life or in a movie or a photo, some people’s features are just begging to be drawn and it makes my hand itch for a pen and paper!
What other interests do you have?
I’ve recently been interested in animation and it’s different forms. Its definitely a new art form with its own set of rules, so it’ll be fun to see how that works with my existing art. As for non art related interests, some good Solange and yoga is always the ideal relaxing activity.
And now about your book! The first time I saw the panel you posted on Instagram with the girls holding up the tip of their noses to see how they would look like with smaller ones, I was like, that’s me! I have been there!
It actually pisses me off talking about it *giggles* because everyone who talks to me about it says how relatable it is and I’m just like, it’s cool, but I so wish it wasn’t something that so many girls go through.
Its like an ongoing theme in my life and my friends’s lives. One of my best friends who is Afghani was always complaining about her nose and we were talking about it one day and she was telling me a childhood anecdote about struggling with her appearance, and I told her I went through something very similar. The more we started talking about these shared struggles with friends during our adolescence, the more I realized that many of us had very similar experiences. It’s such a critical age and it can really shape how you think about yourself.
This led me to think of a way I could possibly propose some kind of change through my art, so I decided to make a graphic novel for young teens. Something that would be relatable and accessible to them.
What to expect in “Razor Burn”?
It’s basically about a girl going through puberty and experiencing life in high school amongst her peers. It’s not supposed to be in a particular place, however her classmates are mostly depicted as white, so you can take that however you want. It’s never specified where she is or where she’s from. I would say she is racially ambiguous, but mostly a brown girl.That’s why I also made it wordless because I wanted the language to be universal. I take you through her “getting ready” scene which evolves into some kind of toxic self-scrutiny with regards to how she sees herself. You see her going to school around her peers and constantly comparing herself and dealing with anxiety and body dysmorphia.
I didn’t want to make it outright about bullying and peer pressure. It was more about her looking at other people and feeling like she should look like them, rather than like oh they are talking about me. The focus of this was all about her own mental health and looking outward.
I didn’t include the family part because it was a larger discussion and I was limited to a certain amount of pages. But I think that is what I want to do next since it’s such a powerful force that can really mess up with your head.
What do you hope to achieve with your book and your illustrations?
My hopes are for young readers to see a little character that looks like them. Even though they might not have gone through all of what she’s gone through, I hope that it will open up their eyes to things that are happening around them. I hope for more representation and addressing topics about self awareness.
Any last words for other emerging artists or people who are just embarking on their art journey?
It’s easy to get distracted and sometimes you just don’t feel like making art. I like to always be productive so its frustrating when you kind of have a block but… just keep swimming. I don’t think you should be scared to pick up a pencil, I feel like your creative juices are just there and once you pick up a pencil they will start bubbling all over you. And it will be great!