At work with: Olivia Ahmad, Varoom

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Olivia Ahmad is a London-based curator and editor specialising in graphic arts and design. Since 2014 she has been curator at House of Illustration in London, and in 2018 Olivia took up the editorship of Varoom, the UK-based illustration magazine published by the Association of Illustrators. The second issue under her leadership has just been published.


Tell us about your typical Monday journey to work
My working week is spent at House of Illustration in King’s Cross where I curate exhibitions about historic and contemporary illustration. If I can get a seat on the tube I’ll sometimes read through submissions for Varoom on the way, but mostly Varoom’s Monday is real-world Saturday and I work from home. It’s about eight steps from bed to desk so the journey is usually pretty uneventful!

Describe the state of your desk and what you can see in your office
My Varoom ‘desk’ is the table in my front room, so it has to be pretty lean. I live on the fourth floor of a 1940s block that has low-rise houses all around and my desk is by the window so there’s definitely potential for some Rear Window-style procrastination, but there are also shelves of the illustration and graphic design books and magazines I’ve been hoarding since I was at art school that tend to inspire some sort of action.

On the wall opposite there’s a print of a crocodile by Rambharos Jha from his book Waterlife published by Chennai-based publisher Tara Books (who I’m obsessed with) and who we featured in last year’s activism-themed issue of Varoom.

Which magazine do you first remember?
My friends had quite an efficient communal magazine library: we’d take it in turns to buy Kerrang, NME, Melody Maker and The Source (and Q if we were feeling flush) and rotate them until we were all up to speed. My school’s art room had a few battered copied of The Face that we redesigned covers for – I remember a few; Leonardo di Caprio on leopard print, one with a Nosferatu-looking Alexander McQueen and another one with Sharleen Spiteri hugging Method Man (it happened!).

Which magazine matters to you the most right now?
Eye magazine is my longest-term love, and newer entries are Weapons of Reason and Good Trouble. But the magazine I’m reading most at the moment is Tricontinental, which was published regularly in Havana from 1969 to the 1990s. It was produced by OSPAAAL, a sort of NGO that promoted anti-imperialistic ideology and solidarity between Cuba and countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

They are amazing documents – the covers are a riot of revolutionary ideas and inside are articles written by a really wide range of radical thinkers of the 20th century – Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Jane Fonda – illustrated with drawings and photomontages by their in-house designers. I’m looking at them in preparation for an exhibition on Cold War Cuban graphic design that opens at House of Illustration in September.

Can you describe your magazine in three words?
Surprising new illustration.

What’s your editorial focus?
Varoom has always been a space for critical discussion on contemporary illustration, which is a broad field that includes editorial and children’s books as you might expect, but also fashion, animation, game design, graphic novels, advertising, design for environments and loads more besides.

What particularly interests me about illustration is its tangible connection to society at large – illustration is meant to be ‘read’ and understood by people. Many illustrators work on personal projects, but even if someone is working to a very tight brief on an ad campaign devised for a big brand, what they create says a lot about what we value (or at least what we’re told to value).

With that in mind I try to choose a theme for each issue that will be relevant to new developments in illustration but that will also connect with issues and phenomena that people outside the industry can relate to.

Tell us about the redesign of the magazine
The magazine was set up in 2006 with Adrian Shaughnessy as editor, and Varoom’s taken quite a few different forms since then; from large-ish full colour to newspaper formats. When I came to it last year, the format was great for large images but meant that features felt a little tightly packed.

Aldo Caprini and Fraser Muggeridge at Fraser Muggeridge Studio redesigned the magazine for the current issue. The first thing they did was make the page size a little smaller so that we could gain another 48 pages while keeping the print and postage cost the same. This format gives Varoom a more substantial book-like feel that I love in magazines like Eye on Design and Kajet, and also lets us give much more space over to images.

In a way, designing a magazine about illustration has similar challenges to designing an exhibition – the space needs to ‘frame’ the images in an unobtrusive way, but create an overall identity. Rather than using a grid, the current issue treats each article a little differently, depending on the subject matter.

The studio’s own typeface ‘Option’ is used throughout, which is really readable, but combines lots of different letterforms in unexpected ways and adds an understated point of interest.

Where do you think Illustration stands in today’s creative discourse?
Illustration has suffered from a lack of serious consideration for a long time, which I think is partly to do with cultural elitism, the idea that it is somehow lesser than contemporary art because it is made to a brief.

I think it’s also to do with the clear relationship that illustration has with commerce – most of the illustration we see is commissioned and paid for, which has led to the perception that illustrators are merely service providers, rather than innovative creative practitioners responding to specific communication challenges.

This is thankfully changing though, thanks to the efforts of illustrators who have been making work they believe in and distributing it themselves to set the agenda for the wider industry. These efforts are supported by Varoom, House of Illustration and many others – brilliant festivals like ELCAF and active platforms It’s Nice That have done a great deal to highlight how vibrant the field is and share it beyond the illustration community.

What’s going to be the highlight of the week for you?
We’re working on an exhibition at the moment about Posy Simmonds, who is probably best known for her editorial work for The Guardian and is one of the UK’s greatest satirists – her cartoons and graphic novels sendup British middle classness and patriarchy in the most barbed and brilliant way.

This week Paul Gravett, who writes about comics for Varoom, and I are popping in to see Posy to have a rummage in her studio to find the last few pieces of artwork for the exhibition – there will be gems, no doubt!

What are you doing after this chat?
I’ll be working at House of Illustration today, and this evening I’ll be mulling over the next issue of Varoom which will be about illustration and fantasy – I won’t be Googling ‘fantasy illustration’ again though – it brings up a whole new world of misogyny that I’d need another bank holiday to process!

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