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Comic Artist Deena Mohamed on Representation, Authenticity, and Egyptian Art

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By Amina Zaineldine

Imagine a Cairo where wishes are for sale in cans and bottles at the koshk on your street corner. Deena Mohamed did, and it won her Best Graphic Novel and the Grand Prize at Cairo Comix Festival in 2017. Mohamed, 25, is a comic artist, illustrator, and designer. With a uniquely Egyptian setting and authentically Cairene themes, her urban fantasy graphic novel trilogy Shubeik Lubeik is a fresh, humorous, magical, and emotive handling of the crisscrossing stories and identities that call Egypt home.

“Visibly Muslim Women”

Shubeik Lubeik is the most recent step in the colourful route that is Mohamed’s artistic career. Her breakthrough began with her webcomic Qahera, a web-based cartoon commenting on social issues such as Islamophobia and misogyny. The protagonist of this project — which Mohamed started as a joke on Tumblr — is a visibly Muslim female superhero named after Cairo’s Arabic name.

“I don’t really consider Qahera a ‘superhero’ character so much as it [the comic] is an editorial strip – so it’s a satirical cartoon that uses the tropes of superheroism to make a point, rather than a superhero comic that addresses political issues,” Mohamed told Egyptian Streets in elaboration on the character she created.

Egyptian Streets asked Mohamed whether, as some would believe may occur, she faced criticism or discouragement for putting visibly Muslim women and struggles unique to Egyptians in the foreground of her work — instead of walking the narrow yet safe path of easily marketed archetypes and less controversial issues. Her response suggested that the wrong question was being asked. She may not have met any resistance, but for reasons not always to her taste.

“It’s kind of a myth that people won’t support ‘diverse’ work. What actually happens is the opposite – people want you to write about ‘the issues’ (for Westerners, Islam and feminism, for Egyptians, feminism) but they want you to write about it in a very specific way,” she told Egyptian Streets.

“They want really superficial, easily-quoted takes,” she elaborates. “They love women empowerment, if women empowerment means sharing [online] a hijabi superhero comic without ever reading the messages behind it. […] At some point you start to feel very patronised.”

She goes as far as wondering whether the acknowledgement she is receiving is simply a means for those publishing or sharing to appear in a better light themselves.

“Am I included because I’m good at what I do? Or am I included because people wanted themselves to look good? Is anyone actually listening? Does anyone actually feel empowered by this?” she asks.

These concerns do not hinder Mohamed from imbuing her work with political messages. In fact, she uses her platform to lace her visual stories with political statements at varying degrees of subtlety. Shubeik Lubeik, for instance, makes a point of placing class separation in Egypt under a magnifying glass.

Art, Authenticity, and Values

However, at times, what is seen as a political statement is merely Mohamed’s insistence on accurately representing the people and the settings that feature in her story.

“I like to create things that feel both needed and natural,” Mohamed told Egyptian Streets. “A lot of people find it strange that I represent visibly Muslim women when I’m not [i.e. not hijabi], but I’m creating stories set in Egypt, and this is how the majority of Egyptian women look, and yet it is not how most women are represented, so to me its just part of telling stories based on where I am that I am familiar with, and would like to see.”

Mohamed, who was featured along with four other women in a Washington Post article headlined “5 Women Changing Their World For the Better”, explains that her choice of themes is the coming together of a number of factors: her own experience, her artistic preferences, her interests, the statements she wants to make, and the art and stories from which she draws inspiration.

“I don’t think I could change it if I tried, and I shouldn’t if it is sincere and it is doing what it’s supposed to do,” she says.

Mohamed believes that the occasional introduction of Western themes does not make stories written by Egyptians any less authentic. Just as Westerner have written about other nationalities, Egyptians can write about places they have not experienced themselves. Nevertheless, she feels that there is a lack of appreciation for art “made by Egyptians, for Egyptians”.

“I think we need to make a market for it and we need to encourage it. Even if that art is “Westernised” because Egyptians have to learn from Youtube tutorials created by Indian people about American programs, what does that matter? Is it good or not? That’s the question,” she argues.

Sincerity and originality are among the criteria that constitute what Mohamed considers “good” work, however they are not the only ones on her list. The moral value and message in art can also have a bearing on its quality in her view.

“There’s a lot of Egyptian art I really hate because even if it’s incredibly original since no one else has done it before, guess what? It is still classist and racist. So, like, at the end of the day – is it interesting? Is it good? That’s what matters.”

Graphic Novels in Translation

Qahera was first started in English given the lack of activity of Arabic users on Tumblr, the platform where Mohamed first began to share it. But as Mohamed became more immersed in the Egyptian comic scene, she was inspired to create stories that needed to be told in Arabic. This led her to writing Shubeik Lubeik in Arabic from the off.

“I’ve always had an interest in koshks in Cairo. I just think they’re really interesting because they’re always so colorful, and somehow just always convenient and available. But they’re also so colorful because they’re literally covered in soda brands and junk food boxes,” Mohamed told Egyptian Streets. “It’s a really interesting reality of capitalist life.”

However, given the roaring success of the trilogy’s first two installments, Mohamed is now translating the graphic novels into English herself, and they are due to hit bookshelves in 2021. How, then, will these deeply local themes be translated into English?

“I fully believe it will never be as good as the Arabic,” Mohamed said of the translation. “Hopefully the English speakers will never need to know what they’re missing out on!”

Nevertheless, sacrificing this bit of authenticity does not seem to faze her.

“It’s about time, because we’ve always been reading work that’s been translated or subtitled or adapted from other languages and countries, and I love that the process is reversed,” she continued.

Its Own Reward

Mohamed’s successes are ongoing and topical. Her books are currently among the books being sold at the Cairo International Book Fair, where she has in previous years signed copies of Shubeik Lubeik.

She was also the artist behind the Google Doodle of January 20, which celebrated the 106th birthday of Mufidah Abdul Rahman, one of the first Egyptian women to work as a lawyer, and the co-founder of the National Feminist Party.

But to Mohamed, one of the greatest joys of the work she does is the feedback she receives from readers with whom her stories resonated.

“Drawing and writing a graphic novel alone is really lonely work, so more than achievements and recognition, I just really love interacting with people about it afterwards. In fact, the only reason I like awards is because it hopefully means more people will read it and then I’ll get to know what they thought about it,” she concluded.

(Courtesy: Egyptian Streets)
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