‘Until lions have their historians, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ – an Igbo Proverb from Allies and Decoloniality
Designers are often informed by cultures and tradition to create. In Dimeji Onafuwa’s Allies and Decoloniality, the concept of ally-ship is discussed and how complex it is when discrimination is unintentional, a product of current society’s makeup. How then, should contemporary designers attempt to “be inspired by” and create respectfully? The answer is thorough research and sensitivity to culture and history, as exemplified by Reimena Ashel Yee.
Hailing from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Reimena is an illustrator, writer and designer passionate about incorporating history and culture into her art and stories. Having never “studied” art, Reimena’s STEM background and personal introspection result in playful but also intensely methodical and immersive stories. Her webcomic The Carpet Merchant of Konstantinniya showcases the detailed research into the era’s history. I find her approach to writing and illustrating about a culture not her own as exemplary and one that should be acknowledged by more creators.
Set in 17th century Istanbul and 18th century England, the story centers on Mehmed Zeynel Abidin deCordoba, a Muslim carpet merchant, and ‘his relationship with faith, love and home in the aftermath of his death by a vampire.’ This summary reveals one of the reasons why The Carpet Merchant is successful in being a respectful depiction of another culture: It tackles various moments in life during a time long past, but remains relatable to contemporary readers. This is due to the timelessness of the concept of personal discovery. In an interview, Reimena reveals that focusing on Zeynel’s mundane life was intentional, ‘to educate readers about a historical context that isn’t commonly seen in fiction, grounded in academic research preferably written with local perspectives.’ In the following page, Zeynel explains his family’s long history of scholars and his insecurities about his own identity.
Zeynel’s doubts and anxieties can be sympathised with as the question of religious and family identity are examples of ‘forms of universality’ that Dimeji describes. Zeynel is a character that seems alive, comfortable in his culture and the comic a lens into his life. This, I believe, is what sets Reimena’s work apart from those that “appropriate” cultures for “decoration”. How often have we encountered media that stereotypes a particular group of people and culture? This is Zeynel’s story and he is telling it.
In addition to this depiction of a Muslim character, the graphic elements within this comic were purposefully referenced because they are inextricably linked to Zeynel’s character arc. Each pattern used in the comic’s panels have been carefully researched to remain faithful to the historical context. In Reimena’s supplementary text (Yes! There is supplementary text!), she explains that the comic is done ‘in homage to the Ottoman book arts’ in association to Zeynel’s scholarly background.
As for the actual carpet designs, they have been lovingly illustrated with patterns that Reimena explains the symbolism of. (Providing receipts, if you will, about where she draws inspiration from).
Reimena acknowledges that these everyday objects were more than decoration, they were ‘like books’, ‘a form of storytelling’ for the women who weaved them. As a whole, The Carpet Merchant ‘was written to be like a carpet’, telling through themes expressed in these carpets Zeynel’s life story. Being aware of the existing connotations to the designs she was using, Reimena’s comics attempt to immerse the reader into the canon of the time, not exoticise cultural elements.
When designing about a culture not of your own, there is a difference between ally-ship and appropriation; something Reimena is well aware of and actually addressed within the comic. This commentary is done through Zeynel’s perspective and his experiences with Orientalism during the 18th Century in Great Britain. I was especially touched when Zeynel breaks down after enduring a British customer’s exoticisation of his culture and origins. It made me reflect on some painful interactions and misunderstandings about my culture that I still encounter even today. (Although I am Chinese Malaysian, I do not eat dogs nor live in treehouses.)
In the following panel, Zeynel and Mora express disgust at a British masquerade they’ve been invited to, disturbingly themed after Turkish culture. It is also the panel Reimena calls the ‘most viscerally gross’ illustration to draw. I found it witty to have a character call out Western Orientalism, the example of how not to create based off a culture not your own.
Lastly, when designers rely on something for inspiration, it is only appropriate to give back and acknowledge those sources of knowledge. This could be a word of thanks acknowledging the people and culture from which inspired you to create or even donations in support of these sources and other marginalised creators. Reimena donates every dollar given to download the full comic as a PDF to the Turkish Cultural Foundation, The Met Museum in addition to haveing a patronage fund to support Muslim, Turkish or POC-centered creative work. Are we truly doing enough to acknowledge what informs us and our practice?
To conclude, Reimena’s extensive work into The Carpet Merchant is an excellent example of how designers should attempt to represent a culture respectfully and with sensitivity. Her efforts to portray Zeynel’s culture and background should be applauded, especially when the work has such educational merit to its readers. Design scholar Dimeji says that ‘emotionally careless designers are often incognisant of ways their actions might be discriminatory’. We as designers, have to do better and create with conscience and care.
- Alexander Lu, “Artists You Should Know: Reimena Yee blends culture and history into rich emotional tapestries”, Comicsbeat, Accessed April 10, 2019. https://www.comicsbeat.com/artists-you-should-know-reimena-yee-blends-culture-and-history-into-rich-emotional-tapestries/
- Dimeji Onafuwa “Allies and Decoloniality: A Review of the Intersectional Perspectives on Design, Politics, and Power Symposium, Design and Culture” The Journal of the Design Studies Forum (28 Febuary 2018) Accessed April 4, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1080/17547075.2018.1430995
- Reimena Ashel Yee, “About-Reimena Ashel Yee”, Reimena Ashel Yee, Accessed April 10, 2019. https://reimenayee.com/about/
- Reimena Ashel Yee, “The World In Deeper Inspection- The Carpet Merchant of Konstantinniya”, Reimena Ashel Yee, Accessed April 10, 2019. https://alcottgrimsley.com/