Deena Mohamed '16: Illustrating Cairo in Comic Panels

Have you ever imagined an alternate universe in Cairo where wishes are granted?

Deena Mohamed ’16 took home the first prize for the best graphic novel category in Egypt’s largest comic book festival, Cairo Comix, for Shubeik Lubeik, a novel that paints a picture of this alternate universe.

“I've been drawing for as long as I can remember,” said Mohamed, who studied graphic design at AUC and was freelancing as an illustrator since she was a high school student. Many comic book enthusiasts, or those who keep an eye on viral social media trends, may remember her as the artist behind the groundbreaking digital comic series, Qahera, which portrays Egypt’s first hijabi superheroine fighting sexual harassment.

In a Q&A with News@AUC, she expresses her passion for art, discusses her choice to study it and adds her insight on the art scene in Egypt and around the world.

What is Shubeik Lubeik about?

Shubeik Lubeik is a graphic novel about wishes! It takes place in an alternate universe Cairo where you can buy and sell wishes on the street; the more expensive a wish is, the more powerful it becomes. I was inspired to work on it after researching the history of Egyptian and Arab comics; I wanted to take a traditionally Middle Eastern motif - like wishes - and give it a contemporary context.

Graphic novels appeal to me because I love visual narratives, and they allow me to tell a longer story. I don't think it was a deliberate choice so much as a natural progression of my interests.

Why is receiving an award at Cairo Comix Festival important?

The existence of the Cairo Comix Festival is important as a unique gathering of comic artists across the region as there are not many opportunities for artists to meet. Comics, as a genre, need more recognition, and artists need the encouragement. Since comics are not properly distributed to a wide audience, to be granted an award encourages people to read a book they might have not read otherwise.

I've actually won at Cairo Comix before, for Best Digital Comic Series, and both times it definitely felt like an acknowledgement of hard work and motivation to work harder.

Why did you choose to study graphic design at AUC?

For me, AUC was a practical decision. I received a scholarship and IB would allow me to graduate earlier than a traditional applied arts or fine arts program. When I enrolled, I was also given flexibility with my courses, and was able to study things besides my major.

How do you find the AUC program?

The graphic design program is growing in strength at AUC and is only going to get better. I initially disliked graphic design as a discipline – I thought it was a little cold and corporate. But afterward, I began to understand the role design plays in every medium and how necessary it is even for an illustrator – I have my professors to thank for that.

I like how our curriculum is so focused on Arab and Middle Eastern graphic design; it is one of the few resources in the region and worldwide on the subject, and again, that's largely thanks to our faculty.

Qahera went viral. How did that help your career?

Qahera was definitely a very formative experience for me. It’s what got me into comics and what gave me so many opportunities and exposure. It's actually thanks to that, that I'm able to work in this field securely, as I don't need to worry about connections or getting my name out.

As a freelancer, what are your favorite types of projects?

I actually have the privilege of being able to work on projects I really like - most of my freelance work has been with NGOs. I've done comics sponsored by UN Women to raise awareness for health, family planning and girls’ education. Recently I worked on an amazing project with the Center for Applied Human Rights on navigating risk, managing security and receiving support.

This year, I presented a comics workshop in Port Said sponsored by the Goethe Institute and the Alliance Française and I participated in a workshop and brainstorming session held at the Kharabeesh headquarters in Jordan with the Womanity Foundation for the new season of an animated web series about women's rights in the MENA region. I also collaborated on things like an infographic video about the history of Palestine.

Basically, I do a lot of stuff that’s worth doing and I'm very grateful for it.

What are some of the challenges artists face, especially freelancers?

A lot of people need designers, but nobody appreciates design. Right now, design is a very difficult field for a fresh graduate who is underpaid and overworked. It's a challenge understanding your worth and finding a balance between working hard and working right. Luckily, it is also a great field for independence and freelancing.

For me, it is essential to focus on the quality of your work. No career move or promotion will make you stand out from the crowd as an artist – it's the work you produce that counts. An artist is only as good as their portfolio and that's actually a blessing because it means the university you graduate from or the connections you have are less relevant, which is healthy for any field.

How true is the claim that in Egypt, working as artists or studying art is not accepted?

I think my family was more accepting than most as they saw me working in the field even as an undergraduate. But, I will say it is actually somewhat easier for girls to work in the arts in our current society, at least in things like fine arts and design. Our society, particularly wealthy classes, do not place the burden of financial responsibility on women. So, "pursuing your dream despite financial instability" becomes easier. In a sense, sometimes you get a little bit of freedom by being considered less capable. It is a double-edged sword.

What are your aspirations for yourself and the art scene in Egypt?

I would like the art scene in Egypt to receive more recognition. Not just for fine or contemporary art, but for the rapidly growing field of digital art and comics art. Again, it’s important for artists to start being recognized so they can afford to be artists and encourage artists across Egypt who may not have access to the resources that we have. Becoming an artist should not mean sacrificing your future or financial stability.

Worldwide, I would love to change the stereotype of the artist as "a person who follows their dreams despite the obstacles" to "a person who follows their dream because they are providing a valuable service that is utilized across society and is appreciated for it."

The art scene basically needs community organizing and financial support. It doesn't need anything changed or added; the art scene exists to be a dynamic and creative environment. If it isn't, then it's just a farce.