Illustration is a unique and versatile form. It occupies a space between drawing and painting and connects the publishing industry with the plastic arts. In Egypt, illustrators seem to be on the rise thanks to a growing publishing industry.
Bassent Dawoud is one such young artist. A 2020 graduate of the New Cairo Academy, she has just the childlike spirit needed for a career making children’s book covers. Cats and miniature houses are her favourite motifs, and her images radiate a peaceful but fiesty joy. Her birds and animals are especially animated, and she creates them using scraps of paper.
Bassent studied Islamic architecture at the Faculty of Arts for one year before switching to applied arts at the academy. But, having studied such works of art as the Ahmed Ibn Touloun Mosque, her understanding of Islamic ornament comes in handy.
A dedicated researcher, her curiosity and passion have enabled her to find a niche in just a few years. “I have always liked ‘Red Riding Hood’, and I have a passion for the unique relation between humans and other subjects, mainly animals. I loved the shape of Anubis, so it became the first character to develop during my experiments at the Academy.”
Her first children’s book illustrations were made in 2019 following a request from the Iraqi author Qassem Saudi, to be followed by a number of significant collaborations with Nahed ElShawaa’s Noun Publishing House in 2020.
Dawoud’s interest in collage gives her images a unique energy. “It took me a lot of hard work to develop and study character design. I use ink and different kinds of pen and paper. I never do sketches, prefering to draw spontaneously, but I’m not easily satisfied with my works. I enjoy creating new styles using bits of paper. Experimentation is one key to my modest success,” she smiles confidently. “That is why I think of Picasso as the greatest master.”
In 2020, she contributed illustrations to children’s magazines like Samir and Qatr Elnada. She contributed a group of collages on women’s issues to Agenda, the yearly group exhibition at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
Born in 1996, she was also nominated to participate in the second round of the Annual Art Fair, held in January 2021, representing the younger generation. She made five 50 cm by 50 cm collages using paper to create circular forms inspired by Iranian and Sufi art – the artist as opposed to the illustrator came through with blinding clarity.
At the Diwan bookshop, where I met Bassent, even as she was showing me her books she indicated that she prefers to be known as collagist. “I belong to the realm of collage, though I don’t care much about the classification of the art I produce. A painting, a book cover, whatever – what counts is my true enjoyment doing collage,” she says.
“The weird thing is that I never used to like children,” Bassent goes on. “Actually, it was the online collage drawing workshop with children, sponsored by a cultural organisation in Kuwait, where I spent my childhood with my family, that improved my relationship with kids. It was during the first wave of the Corona pandemic and it allowed for more interaction with them, which turned out to be one of the most exciting experiences in my short career. It helped me to have a better understanding of child psychology and the way children think.”
Last month, one of her playful cats was displayed at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair’s illustrators wall, along with work by artists from 63 countries. “Now, after I completed the drawings for six children’s books, I can say with confidence that I do not deal with children’s book drawings as a separate genre. I do art in general, which happens to be liked by children and publishers alike. I believe that the artist’s mission is to explore and express the tempo, or rather the culture of his community, and display a vision of its complicated social issues in a brand new style.”
Bassent will be taking part in Cairo Prints, a group exhibition of posters, which hosts 150 artists, due to open on 30 May at a number of cultural organizations in downtown.
Nana’s Tales, a series of three stories by celebrated writer Fatma El Madoul and published by Al Sherouk will appear during the Cairo International Book Fair – to be held on 30 June – marking another major step in her career.
“The Corona years have not increased book sales it seems, but I believe more publishers have started to apply some professional marketing techniques, encouraging more children to read and buy books than ever before. And this might improve the whole process. ”
Bassent is currently eager to enter the creative writing realm, so that she can produce her own children’s books by herself. “This requires a lot of reading and learning,” she says cheerfully. “But I like a challenge.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly