In Aurélia Durand’s artistic universe, people of colour take centre stage
How the 28-year-old French digital illustrator found her voice as an artist.
Step into Aurélia Durand’s workspace and you will find an array of screens — “too many” if you ask her. But as a digital illustrator, these displays are Aurélia’s most indispensable tools. Her computer and tablet are her canvases, her stylus a pencil, marker, paint brush and eraser. Welcome to art in the 21st century.
Aurélia's mother is from the Ivory Coast and her father is from France — the 28-year-old’s heritage and childhood influence many of her decisions as a digital artist. Growing up as a black girl in the suburbs of Paris, she remembers feeling uncomfortable in her own skin. “I would say to my mom, ‘I don’t want to have my hair anymore. It’s too big. Everyone’s laughing at me. I don’t feel included.’ I grew up thinking I was wrong. Until I was 16, I was trying to be someone I was not,” she shares.
Through her illustrations and animations, Aurélia celebrates people of colour and their experiences. “I am going to create a universe that is more colourful, the universe that I wish I had when I was growing up,” she says. “In my characters, I want to make people of colour and especially black people shine and feel good and happy about their hair, happy about their roots.”
The black and brown bodies depicted in Aurélia’s creations are bold and vibrant, often drenched in the richest hues of purples, oranges, pinks, yellows and blues. “It is a joyful demonstration, a celebration,” she explains of her work. “It is bringing something new for the dominant culture.”
Her latest collaborations with Apple and Facebook have propelled her work onto internationals platforms like the Caran d’Ache headquarters in Geneva, the Champs-Élysées Apple Store and the Facebook Community Hub at the Cannes Lions Festival — accomplishments she is still trying to wrap her head around.
In the midst of her busy schedule, I chatted with Aurélia about fusing art with tech, the importance of representation in media and finding her voice as an artist.
Emma Yee Yick (EYY): How did your childhood and the environment you grew up in influence your decision to pursue art?
Aurélia Durand (AD): When I was younger I liked to draw and I liked to be creative. I didn’t think I would do art as a profession, but I think I’ve been going in this direction all of my years. My parents believed in me and saw something in me and they pushed that. When I was in high school, I had to make a choice of what study I wanted to do. It was clear that I didn’t want to do anything related to business, commerce, medicine. I was always good at drawing and my parents pushed me to apply for art schools in Paris and I did.
I was accepted in a preparatory art school, which is a year where you learn everything about art and then you can apply for universities. During that year, I discovered my passion for art. I went to a lot of museums, I met a lot of creative people and it really opened my eyes. It was everything I ever wanted. In high school, it was really strict, you couldn’t do anything creative, I wasn’t feeling myself. But when I was in this art preparatory school, I became more open to creativity. I felt connected to the other people. What is cool is when you go to art school, you meet people like you. You talk about art, you talk about experiences and it really shaped me.
EYY: You studied art and design in both France and Denmark. What were the greatest takeaways from these experiences? How did your education influence your career goals and mission?
AD: I was accepted to a big university after prep, I moved to another city in France, Dijon. I didn’t know what I wanted to do — if it was architecture, urban design, product design, painting, performance, so for a year I tested everything out. But it became clear that I loved to draw. I specialised in product design. I felt it was cool to design objects. For that, you have to draw a lot, especially human interactions with the objects. So, I liked to create scenarios and draw people. I was pretty good at it, but I wasn’t so good at making the object prototype. I was spending more time drawing than in the workshop working with the physical materials. I didn’t think I would pursue illustration because I felt you did not live off that. I thought it was just a passion.
EYY: What was it like being a woman of colour in art school?
AD: In the school it was mostly men, men who were pretty old, so they had an old-fashioned way and I felt it was really hard for me as a woman and a woman of colour to bring some subjects and try to argue with them. So, I also made a strategic choice to avoid those topics. When I went to art school, I wanted to talk about what it meant to be me: a mixed-race person and I wanted to show that through my visuals but I didn’t think it was the right place, so I waited a long time to do what I am doing now.
At school, we had a library and I was looking at some references and most of the references were men: artists, architects, designers. No one was a woman except for the architect Zaha Hadid. She was the only one, yet she was still portrayed with a certain masculinity. I was also looking for artists who talked about multiculturality and there was nothing. So, it was really hard work to find inspiration. I had to find inspiration in something else, like in films, actors, singers, music because it’s where people of colour are most represented. It was a bit complicated to find my voice as an artist in the beginning. I didn’t know who I could be as an artist because no one was there or represented.
At school, I was the only woman of colour in my class, the only black woman. My teachers, there were no women of colour or even men of colour. There were maybe two or three male students of colour and we were three hundred people in the school! We were maybe five people of colour in total. It’s strange, because in art school it is cool to be different and to bring something new to the table, and that’s what kept me going.
In art, people are interested in new stories, you just have to be good at telling those stories. I also thought a lot about why there are not so many people of colour in art schools and I think that a big part is that the families, the parents, don’t want their kids to do that because they are afraid that they won’t have any jobs. But there is definitely more to it. If we want that to change, if we want to have more representation, we have to have more people of colour who lead, who are in the arts, who are in the media, so that they can make decisions and speak up and say, “Hey, we need to be represented.” If there are only white people, they see themselves in art and so they don’t see a problem.
EYY: Now as a digital illustrator, your art celebrates black and brown bodies and exudes with an uplifting sense of joy. What messages do you want to convey?
AD: When I grew up my “friends,” they are not my friends now, were a bit hard with me because they didn’t like me. They thought, “Oh, you’re black, I don’t want to hang out with you.” They were pretty violent with me. I was really sad and I would say to my mom, “I don’t want to have my hair anymore, it’s too big, everyone’s laughing at me, I don’t feel included.” I grew up thinking I was wrong. Until I was 16 I was trying to be someone else who I was not.
And today, I want to show that it was hard to feel included, but now I am going to create a universe that is more colourful, the universe that I wish I had when I was growing up. In my characters, I want to make people of colour and especially black people shine and feel good and happy about their hair, happy about their roots.
I also grew up with this happiness, my mom always liked to put African music and dance and she wanted to make us feel happy. Dance is also a way to connect with people and in a funny way it makes everybody feel good. That’s why I also animate dances to spread good vibes. I’m not an extravagant person, I’m pretty simple. I have some big dreams, but I like to feel happy and I want people to feel happy, that’s my goal. The colours also give this happiness, the colours are there to bring good vibes and also to show more colours, more nuance, it’s vibrant but it tells stories, the colours are telling stories for me.
EYY: How would you describe your style?
AD: If I had to define my style, I would say it's simple lines, it's not too many elements, it’s plain colours. I like that. I think my style is evolving more and more with the projects I’m doing, my patterns change, I like to have geometric patterns, really structured: rectangles, squares, circles, lines, but it can change. We’ll see how it is in one year, I am open to new things happening, but I like to keep some control.
EYY: Walk me through your creative process.
AD: It’s a good question! It’s always different. I do draw with a pen and a sketchbook but it’s become rarer and rarer just because now I have my style, I defined it and I don’t have to look for shapes, I think I have them in my mind. Before I was drawing a lot with sketchbooks, I have a lot of them. But now I don’t do it anymore, I draw directly with my tablet. When I paint, I work with the colours on my computer and then I use that as a reference to paint on canvas or wall. I would like to do more outside of my computer but I don’t have the space yet.
My main expertise is to work with my tablet and my computer. I do animations also, but I’m open to explore new things. I’m also good at having new habits and adapting to new technology and new techniques. To compose an illustration with colours, I work a lot with the shape and the colours, not one before the other, I do the shape and the colours together because I need to see how they combine together. I don’t have a specific palette of colours, I use a lot of purple, orange but then I also like to use blue, green, yellow to highlight. I also like to work with pastels, or really bright colours or really dark colours, but not in the middle I don’t like that.
EYY: What compelled you to start using social media to share your work?
AD: I started to share my work on Instagram three years ago because I felt people of colour were not enough represented. Also, because in Denmark, there is not that many people of colour and I felt a bit lonely [Aurelia studied and worked in Denmark for six years]. I could not relate to any stories around me, so I needed to do something for myself and to feel more colours. The winters in Scandinavia are really hard, it’s really grey and dark so I decided I would use colours and draw people of colour and tell more about my story.
EYY: Do you have a favourite piece of yours? Why?
AD: I like all of the illustrations I do. When I print them, I see them in real life and I’m amazed. There’s a book I am working on called “This Book is Anti-Racist.” I am illustrating the work of a writer, 160 pages of illustration and I think it will be my favourite. It is everything I am fighting for and that I’m talking about. I think it will help people to talk about race and everything that surrounds it.
I also am amazed by the projects I did for Facebook and Apple. In the beginning of my career, I only dreamed of working for them and now they are coming to me and asking me if I want to do something for them! They have recognised my style and it’s crazy. It’s much more than just doing the illustrations, it’s events, workshops, which is why I really like these projects.
I also like these two illustrations. The first represents all of the animations I have done so far. I think it’s cool to see all of my animations together, it brings some good vibes. The second piece [pictured below] I like is this woman in the bathtub. I called it “Hygge,” which is a Danish word that means “cozy.” I like the message it transmits, to be calm, to take time for you. I like the structure of it. It’s one of the first illustrations I ever did with more elements and decor.
EYY: What advice do you have for younger generations of women of colour looking to pursue a career in the arts?
AD: My advice is to not listen to people who tell you it’s not possible or that you won’t succeed in art. It’s true, it’s hard. It’s not the easiest job you can find because you need to prove a lot. But if you have patience and you have desire in you and you feel this is what you want to do, you should do it. You need to believe in you and connect with other creative people so you have each other and you grow and you get experience together.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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about the author
Emma Yee Yick is an editorial fellow at Malala Fund. You can find her eating platanos, musing on urban spaces and chasing sunsets.