Sep 26, 2023

Expanding the possibilities of Interdisciplinary Art with the visionary mind of Tarek abdelkawi

This interview was conducted by Giraffics own Producer Reem Khalifa.

Once more, we dive into the genius minds of artists around us, and our artist of the month is no other than Tarek Abdelkawi, graphic designer and illustrator whose gravitating work has pinned him as one of the most sought-after artists in the market. 

Abdelkawi is an award-winning artist who graced our creative cloud when working on Diseny's First Totem Problems. He acted as the leading concept artist behind the episode's Afro-inspired visuals. Famous for his colorful, hippie-spirited work, Abdelkawi infused the episode with the right balance of colors, patterns, and soul to create the perfect visualization for the characters and their settings. Read below for a more in-depth peek on how he does it.    

1- How do your different creative outlets (e.g., music, visual arts, teaching) influence each other and contribute to your overall artistic journey?

It's hardly ever that I discuss one medium without exploring the effect it has on the other. I've always been fascinated by the parallels found within seemingly different disciplines, and I believe that we, as humankind, have forgotten or been accustomed not to see how everything is related: from what lies within us to the unforeseeable extent of the universe. While there might be a lot to unpack in the aforementioned statement, for me the relation between music and visual arts is rather a simple and an often more direct one. And so, it comes to me naturally that, while teaching one, referencing the other becomes essential in rendering an idea more clearly, and - more importantly - in a way that doesn't limit its manifestation into one form. 

2- Can you share any insights into how your music and visual arts intersect, and how this fusion enhances your creative expression?

It is quite often, while conversing with colleagues on a musical piece we're working on, that I compare the dynamic changes of the music with natural landscapes; the sudden and overwhelming landslide, the unexpected reveal of the sun amid thick and gloomy clouds, the playfulness of light rays as they silently get filtered through the tall forest trees ..Etc. By using such imagery, the music becomes much more than a careful sequence of notes, and grows closer to being an organic image of life. Another example would be one of the spaces I designed in the episode "1st Totem Problems" off the Disney+ anthology, Kizazi Moto. The space was the interior of a vast ceremonial hall, with a tall waterfall-like feature right in the center of it. While working on it, my thoughts revolved around designing elements and objects that both served the space aesthetically and provided sounds which, when manipulated by the scene characters, would produce the basis of what would be the music score for this scene. That way, there would be no division between sound and vision; making the setting more realistic and coherent.   

3- What are some of the challenges you have faced in balancing your different creative roles?

Understanding time, and how it affects us as well as our journeys of development. In this day and age, it's very easy to find ourselves impatiently demanding to reach a certain status at will. This can possibly prove to be a harmful distraction to the journey, especially when our endeavors are driven by fear and ego, instead of the motivation to explore and reveal the wonders and beauty inherent in the universe. Another challenge would be not giving in to the image that others have created for us. For instance, in my case, I'm often expected to play a certain role and only that for a group of people. That can be: a guitarist, a hand lettering artist, a concept artist, an architect ..Etc. I believe that playing to everyone's desire will eventually be disappointing to one group or another, and of course to myself. Worse yet, it will be an act that lacks truth and honesty.

4- What do you enjoy most about teaching and mentoring, and do you have any advice for those aspiring to follow a similar career path?

Helping others gain their vision. Giving someone the chance to create something, whether it is for their personal enjoyment or the benefit of their surroundings. The spread of this eye-opening energy is what makes me feel like a useful vessel in aiding the world. The main advice I would give to those starting out (and anyone really) is this: learn from the masters - the masters that YOU choose. In time, you will develop the skillset you need to move past those you revere and walk towards uncovering and realizing your own visions. And always remember to look inwards.

5-Have you encountered creative challenges in your career, and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge I've encountered, more than once, is getting my teammates not to settle for easy solutions and to push ourselves towards more unique endeavors. I overcome it through the act of showing. I put in the extra hours to try and create a demo of my vision. This shows everyone a glimpse of what we can possibly achieve when we push our ideas further and their reaction is usually "ahh now i get it!". This is when they start getting on board with conviction and enthusiasm.

6-If you could describe your dream project that combines concept art, art direction, and music, what would it entail?

An immersive film. Almost like creating a space or an alternate life that people can step into. It's also an attempt to bring dreams to everyone. And in those dreams, the viewer lives and watches what they choose. They would be free to follow the main narrative or to roam around in the vast land created within.

7-What advice would you give to aspiring artists and creatives seeking to balance art, music, and teaching in their careers?

My advice would be not to give in to the fear of not reaching a certain status, since enjoying various disciplines might have its effect on how much you've developed in each one.

8- What are your thoughts on AI's influence on the role of a concept artist?

It's a tool worth exploring. Yes, it might get some people from using your heads, hearts and hands, but then again that's the sad nature of many of our technological advancements which are meant to bring us more convenience; yet subsequently cause us to be weaker in so many ways and generally more detached from nature and the truth. As is the case with TV or the internet for instance; after a while the debate of whether something is good or bad becomes redundant and relatively useless as the thing in question becomes an integral, almost inescapable part of our general lifestyles. 

9- What are your strategies for protecting your copyrights and original work in the age of AI?

At the moment, none! I generally don't tend to think much of that matter. AI or not, posting our work - and ourselves - online already puts us at a very vulnerable state. And yet, we all keep saying that we've "read the terms of agreement" and have "agreed" to it. Everything we do online is tracked, way beyond what we would like to know. This is why it's the least of my concerns at the moment, especially that none of this will stop me from creating things, in a way that has always been enjoyable and meditative for me.

10- What was the biggest obstacle you encountered while working on “1st totem problems”?

Knowing how to redirect my energy towards serving the creative vision set for the film instead of following any preconceived ideas I might have had about the look or feel of the film. One might easily find themselves in such situations pushing to just prove their perspectives, whereas they should find a way to be beneficial elements in the bigger picture. 

11- How will your experience with “1st totem problems” affect your approach to concept art in the future?

It has definitely made me more aware of the pipeline required to get such a project to life. I may not be able to pinpoint everything I've benefited at the moment nor be certain about how it would affect my approach in future projects, but I'm sure what I've learnt from that experience will resurface clearly when the time comes.  

12- Can you share your thoughts on your experience with “1st totem problems”?

Quite insightful and inspiring. I definitely appreciate the space that I was given by my art director, Ahmad Gamal. For instance, if I was tasked to design a building, in my head I would naturally find myself roaming in and out and around that building; listening to the sounds I imagine are there, and making up stories of things that happen around it.  Those off-script ideas wouldn't all necessarily make it into the final design or seem very apparent in it, but they surely have helped in leading me to the final thing - all while making my time designing them much more amusing! 

13- Can you tell us more about the sources of inspiration for your unique concepts in any project you worked on?

Philip Glass! This is another way where music and visuals intertwine in my world: while an obvious source of inspiration in a project like this could be the act of looking at visual references from relevant contexts, a different and more indirect source of inspiration for me has always been music. The effect of music on me in such scenarios is quite similar to pricking the skin with needles (as you do in microneedling) to make it more receptive to a solution applied to it. In a way, the music I choose to listen to while working (which at times can take me quite a while to pick) opens something up in me. You can say it metaphorically opens up my brain pores, and at which point I find myself perceiving visual references with more depth. Better yet, it enables me to reach within and find ideas that seem to have been sleeping in there. Many times my ideas come from something within. I believe that traveling inwards connects me with a vast, ethereal creative network that governs all creative endeavors. For me, the music of Philip Glass is what usually enables me to make that great connection.

One would think life consists of separate building blocks stacked above one another, but through Abdelkawi's eyes, life and art are a spiraled fusion of various elements and channels that sometimes meet halfway. Through our interview, we were able to get a glimpse of how Abdelkwai's creative mind interactively works with different mediums. 

Abdelkawi's interview started with discussing how he juggles from one creative medium to another. He sees the connecting threads between different disciplines and is fascinated by how everything is connected to one another, forming a continuous thought of creativity and creation. But with such passion diving into various creative fields, finding the time to do them all can be challenging. Abdelkawi's trick is to understand your time and learn what roles you should choose over the other; otherwise, we would find ourselves buried in people's impossible expectations and eventually lose the love for what we do. Aside from doing art, Abdelkawi teaches it, and enjoys building pathways for his students to help them develop their own style and vision. Of course, we had to dive into the world of AI, and Abdelkawi doesn't seem to fear it much. As of now, he believes that despite it making us more detached and co-dependable, it is soon to be an integral part of our lifestyle and worth exploring and working around. Our interview then shifted to his work on the First Totem Problems. As our leading concept artist, Abdelkawi was very detail-oriented, creating life and spirit in every object he designed. And because of his wandering imagination, he struggled initially to focus his energy on the central vision set for the film without following pre-existing ideas in mind. However, this helped him become more aware of what it takes to do a project of such scale and benefited him in ways that will resurface in future projects. Finally, Abdelkawi left us with what inspires his work, and it's no other than the music of Philip Glass, quoting that it " opens up his brain pores'' and helps him dive within and connect with his "internal creative network."