Illustrator Samya Arif describes her artistic journey
As a visual artist, illustrator, graphic designer, and DJ, Karachi-based Samya Arif, aka OCEÁ, has garnered global attention for her artwork for a wide range of media, including record sleeves, book covers, and movie posters. Her work embodies women and the places they occupy, focusing on insights into cultural and societal norms from a female viewpoint.
Arif, who has a degree in communication design from the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture, has also worked as a DJ and designer with the Forever South electronic music collective in Karachi.
“The name [OCEÁ]. was inspired by oceans because in Karachi we live by it. I was also born in a sea city.” Her illustrations have appeared in several publications, including Vice, the BBC, and The New York Times. Yet, when she started out, there was no sign that she would be headed for a career in the arts.
Even though she lives and works in Pakistan and is passionate about the prerogatives of Pakistanis, Arif was not born in the country.
“I moved here when I was seven years old,” she said. “My dad used to work in Spain, and my parents were based there for 10 years. My siblings and I were all born in Spain, but then my dad’s job didn’t work out and we moved to Pakistan. Then, my mom’s a patriotic woman. She’s very close to her family. I think she really missed it while living in Spain.”
The Early Journey
She adored drawing as a child, and her parents were always exceptionally encouraging. When the time came for her to make a decision on her tertiary education, they were keen on her studying architecture.
“Both of my parents were appreciative of art and architecture. They lived for 10 years in Spain and got to travel all over Europe. I think that instilled some appreciation for art in them,” Arif said. “I was lucky enough to have parents who recognized that interest in me and were always encouraging.” She says she can remember her mom spending afternoons with her where they would just color or draw things.
Arif’s parents were also considering the practical aspect: as an architect, their daughter would be financially independent.
Keen to please her parents, Arif enrolled at the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture.
As she put it, “I started studying architecture, but my heart was not in it. I was always looking at the people who were drawing and was just like ‘Why am I here?'”
Arif actually wanted to go into fine art but felt the shift would be too drastic for her parents to accept, so she switched to design instead.
“With design, you’re more likely to get jobs with companies and advertising agencies and have a nine-to-five.” This mindset also coincided with the path her parents wanted her to take in terms of job stability and financial independence.
“Once I started studying design, a whole world opened up,” Arif said. Typography, graphic design, and advertising subjects were more practical options than fine art. She didn’t study illustration as a subject but took courses in photography.
“I would get design and topography projects and include illustration,” she said.
Making Her Own Way
Finding no job as an illustrator after graduation, she became a web designer at a digital agency. Her colleagues saw her flair for illustration and started giving her jobs in that area to complete. She also began working as a creative manager at a chocolate outlet, and as a designer at a non-profit for people with disabilities.
Arif has worked on various projects worldwide, including the Mumbai-based Taxi Fabric. Those designs were showcased in a Coldplay music video. The British band’s seventh album’s music video, “Hymn for the Weekend” extensively features her work. In it, Chris Martin sits in the back of a cab decorated with her mural across the seat.
Google, HarperCollins, and Penguin Books are among the other corporations she has worked with.
Arif is aware that she had no formal training in illustration.
“Whatever I’ve learned has been on my own, and while you work at it, a style develops,” she said.
That style has certainly been taking her places.