Illustrating Muslim Culture, Ahmed Al-Refaie

Ahmed Al-Refaie (who is more popularly known as Owaikeo), is one of the Gulf’s leading illustrators and graphic designers, renowned for his creative and fresh representation of Arab and Muslim culture in his work. He has collaborated with companies such as Snap Chat, and given talks at Apple, Saudi Culture Week and more.

We talked to Ahmed about his journey as an artist, creative process and how illustration can redefine our understanding of Islamic art for the future.


When did your passion for illustration begin?


My passion for illustration started as early as the age of 10. I was always fascinated with cartoons and was inspired by them. My mother would buy me drawing tools and I just started drawing and never stopped since then.



Your illustrations frequently depict Muslim and wider Arab culture. Tell us more about the reason behind that?


As I have been drawing for many years, my ideas and concepts constantly change. Prior to focusing on these topics, I felt that I did not have a connection with what I created, I only created for the sake of it. This was unhealthy for my mindset and it was time for a change.


In 2016 I simplified my visual style and with that change came the inspiration to try something new. I felt that Muslim & Arab cultures are sometimes misrepresented or are only confined to certain art-styles and seasons. Therefore, I wanted to explore them, and with it came a strong connection of trying to dig deeper into the past and create art. I found gems waiting to be explored and I decided that I should bring upon these themes in a different light.



Are the characters you create based on people you encounter every day or entirely from your imagination?


My work is mainly inspired by anything and everything around me with a heavy dose of imagination. I do not create characters based off real people (unless thats the concept) but I like to represent a category of people depending on the idea of what I have in mind. I might find inspiration in something I encountered or a small piece of cloth that I would later turn into something completely unrelated. I am fueled by what I see and build everything from my imagination.


You have collaborated with local and global businesses on creative projects, which have been your favorite collaborations to date and why?

My greatest accomplishment is when clients approach me, not only for the art I create but also the cultural knowledge. My favorite collaboration was actually several projects with Snapchat where I created intro art and stickers for various events like ramadan, national days, etc. These were large projects collectively and varied in their subjects but it shows me that there is always room for the Arabic culture to be represented in a new way.


Your illustrations are so distinct and recognizable, how did you create a particular style that is easily attributed to you? Building a style is an ongoing process, I am never done but I certainly built the ground for this style. My current style is purely based on the principle of simplicity, I want to create a whole narrative in the simplest form possible. The style was driven by my message, bright colors are engaging, I also wanted to reimagine something old and make it modern. It is the principle, the idea, the message which all come together to form a style.


What makes a piece of illustration powerful, what do you hope to convey through your work?

For me personally it is the ability to bridge the gap between the old and new generation. The new generation is usually not interested in the old and that is very normal, we are only taught to like the old ways but never knew why. By creating a simplistic and modern style and representing culture and values differently, the new generation is curious and may be driven to explore as I have witnessed. This to me is a powerful way where audiences from different ages and backgrounds, collectively engage in one topic.


What inspired your series The great people of the Islamic Golden Age? Would you consider creating something similar looking at more contemporary personalities?

This series started off as a way for me to learn more about history and teach others along the way. There is this misconception that Arabs don’t have much to bring the table but in reality, a lot of what we see today from science, mathematics, astrology, etc. came from Arabs/Muslims. This series was so impactful to me and others as it helps put a face to these great minds and there creations. As for contemporary personalities, while there are a lot of great figures, I feel they have the representation that they create and can convey themselves. I strive to bring up the past as it’s almost forgotten and I want to create art that echoes the past.




It’s important for you to give back to the community through workshops and art talks. Can you tell us about “Nag Nega” on your Instagram page, what is it and why did you start this? Nag Nega, in Kuwaiti means to eat something in small bits but not a full meal. I wanted to create short tidbits of things I wished I was taught that would help me cut corners and be a better artist. I present small tutorials, lectures, tips, etc as a way to give back. The social media community is a major driver in an artist’s journey, it helps you keep creating and I wanted to say thank you to those who support me. Furthermore, I create to inspire, I want to see more and more people get into digital art and if the first step in their journey is a small view, I want to help.


What memorable responses have you had to your work? The community has been very kind to me and I get a lot of positive feedback. The ones that are near and dear are messages from different people that say that they found inspiration in what I do and they are inspired to make a professional career as an artist.



Islamic art and identity are becoming increasingly expressed through illustration, how can illustration redefine our understanding of Islamic art for the future? When it comes to the representation of Islamic art, every artwork created is an important part in shaping what Islamic art is. Previously, Islamic art was depicted in patterns, but now Islamic art can be depicted in any form such as characters, colors, topics and so on.



For more information check out https://owaikeo.com/


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