Cover Talk: Ahmed Alrefaie, Artist Behind FOLK Issue Cover Art

The cover art of our Winter 2021 FOLK-themed issue, guest-edited by Ali Al-Jamri, is by Kuwaiti illustrator and graphic designer Ahmed Alrefaie.

He answered a few questions in the lead-up to our official launch tomorrow.

You’ve talked about watching Japanese cartoons and drawing cowboys and aliens. When you were growing up, did you see folkloric art from the Gulf, and traditional characters, around you? When did you realize you wanted to engage with folk-art traditions?

Ahmed Alrefaie: I did grow up watching Japanese cartoons like many people in the region, but I always had an interest in drawing and being inspired from what I see. Folklore in my time was forgotten and I did not know much about it. But in 2016, I decided to explore this theme, along with traditions, in order to find a better perspective. We are so used to old being uninteresting. But, as I found out, it was mostly how it was delivered that was so. When I started exploring these themes I suddenly realized that these themes needed better marketing and, through my art, I was able to get myself and others interested in things that may have been forgotten but revived through art.

We love your “Villains from Middle Eastern Folklore” series. What drew you to this project of bringing these folkloric figures (Tantal, Bu Deryal) into digital art forms? Why villains? What makes villains so compelling? (Is your مشعوذة also a villain?)

Ahmed Alrefaie: Drawing on my previous remark looking at things differently, I wanted to bring something that is negative and wrap it up into something fun. This way we learn what was in the past in a more digestible manner. There were a great deal of villain stories that were made in the region in order to scare off children. Parents were just too afraid something bad would happen to their children so they started making up stories of villains that roam the streets so their children would stay home. These are probably from more than 100 years ago, but I thought — let me understand what these creatures are and what their stories are. Since the stories are old, there are multiple versions of each villain’s tale and I took a lot of liberties in coming up with designs that match. Villains in always spark interest, there is always a human side to things, we wonder how and what leads a person to do what they do. This intrigue is what drives a lot of people to unravel mystery.

Why as figurines? Did you imagine children playing with them? Can you imagine them being produced?

Ahmed Alrefaie: Given that these were made for kids, I imagined them being toy figures, something I as a child would collect. By packaging them as toys, these villains are caged and exposed and no longer scary, making this whole concept an interesting one for the old and new generations. I did want to actually make them as toys, and many requested them, but upon researching and inquiring at factories, the pricing is extremely high, as molds would have to be done for each one, along with painting and packaging. I hope one day to be able to; but, for now, they remain in their current medium.

How do you do research when looking to put a “face” to folklore, as you described it? What sorts of folk-art traditions (or photography, or other art forms) inspire you and your work? 

Ahmed Alrefaie: These stories were shared across the Middle East, and their true origin is unknown. I researched a few online sources and compared how some countries name them. I took the common attributes such as a villain would have “seven eyes” and I would imagine how the entire thing would look like. Of course I went further and added fun accessories for each, like this one villain that loves shampoo. This is almost the same process in every project; some are more clear with more recent photography and books but for the most part, I like to digest this info and reintroduce it in a completely different light.

Your work is engaged with different aspects of the past, such as important individual historical figures from philosophy and science to archetypes and traditional professions. What draws you to re-imagine the past, and to bring these figures from the past to new audiences?

Ahmed Alrefaie: I believe to move forward we have to learn from the past. By doing what I do, I am able to learn so much in many subjects and share these findings with others so we may all learn. Muslim and Arabic cultures have seen many advances in science, technology, mathematics, etc. and I wanted to explore important figures and what they brought to the table. While most of us may have briefly heard about those figures, it is another to learn about what they did and how it still impacts us today. I wanted to shed light on these figures as a form of appreciation and a thank you for all the amazing accomplishments that help make our lives better moving forward.

Prints and stickers of Alrefaie’s work are available at