In Conversation with Character Artist Zakia Abdullah
by Huriyah Quadri
Zakia Abdullah is a character artist who graduated from the University of Hertfordshire with a first class honours degree in Games Art in 2017. She has worked for Rare (Microsoft Studios) and Natural Motion (Zynga).
Huriyah Quadri (HQ): So, Zakia, talk me through your journey. Have you always wanted to be an artist?
Zakia Abdullah (ZA): As early as childhood, art, science and technology had always fascinated me. I came from a background where art was not seen as a successful career path, but rather a hobby. My parents wanted the best for me, so I was originally going to pursue being a pharmacist. Over time, I realised that being an artist was an integral part of my life; I had to take it to the next level. Since then, I have started to pave my way through the industry and I hope to inspire and motivate others by making the seemingly impossible, possible.
I realised that being an artist was an integral part of my life; I had to take it to the next level.
HQ: At what point did you realise that you wanted to be a character and concept artist in particular?
ZA: I was originally a self-taught artist, focusing on the raw fundamentals instead of labels (e.g. ‘illustrator’); this prevented me from being pigeonholed early on in my career. It was during high school that I discovered what ‘concept art’ and ‘illustration’ meant, but I was still relatively new to the field. However, over time my traditional work became more heavily influenced by artists such as Feng Zhu, and Adam Adamowicz, who pushed the boundaries of what it means to be an artist/designer in this day and age. University was the time to make the transition, and at this point, I had felt it was the right step moving forward. During my second year of university, I decided to specialise as a character artist. I hope to eventually move forward into a concept art or lead role.
HQ: Are there any games that have inspired you?
ZA: I’ve been inspired by character-driven games, such as Lineage II and Soulcalibur to name a few; but my love for games roots way back to the Super Nintendo and N64 days. Currently, artistically speaking, Ninja Theory’s Hellblade has been a key influence, especially when it comes to their 3D scanning workflow.
HQ: You were a guest on the radio show, InspireFM, a few years ago to talk about creativity in the Islamic community. What do you think creativity in the modern day Islamic community looks like?
ZA: We are building the platforms for the coming generations to speak and have a voice, but it is still the early days. I predict that in the coming years there will be a higher number of Muslims entering the mainstream entertainment industry, which will hopefully provide a new perspective and visual aesthetic to current media. I’m glad to be a part of this, and I hope to influence and inspire the new wave of Muslim artists.
We are building the platforms for the coming generations to speak and have a voice.
HQ: What is Muslim representation like in the gaming industry? Both on screen and behind the scenes?
ZA: As a general observation, there has been a limited amount of representation of ethnic minorities in the entertainment industry as a whole. In recent years, however, the perception of Muslims and ethnic minorities has changed from being the enemy force in games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, to a strong antihero in Price of Persia. We’re still figuring out what is permissible and to what extent it is permissible in this current age.
HQ: There’s often a divide in thought when it comes to what is Islamically ‘permissible’ in terms of artwork. As a Muslim, what kind of hurdles have you had to overcome to do your job?
ZA: As a Muslim, I’ve faced many obstacles along the way. I’ve had to battle through hurdles most of my adult life, and I’ve had to come up with creative solutions for them.
The real heart of the issue is around drawing beings with a ‘soul’. Though this is relatively subjective, the main concept revolves around the artists’ intention to ‘create like the creator’ out of artistic arrogance. I’ve had to be careful in order to make intentional decisions that don’t conflict with my religious views. Specifically, I admire and study rather than imitate or recreate human beings; this motivates and challenges me to work harder and push myself, both as an artist and as a Muslim, in order to progress while still respecting my faith.
I admire and study rather than imitate or recreate human beings.
The field is relatively new, so more work does need to be done to investigate rulings around Islam and art. I hope the stigma around drawing and being an artist within our community changes, as we need more strong role models within the creative industry. We also need to gain a better understanding of the grey areas as technology and definitions change over the coming years.
HQ: What are your thoughts on the way women are depicted in games?
ZA: Things are looking up in terms of female depiction in games. For example, Hellblade has a strong female lead. The challenge for the coming generations is to continue the work that has already been done. But this can only be done if more women occupy roles of leadership so they can have a greater say on what gets approved and what doesn’t.
The challenge for the coming generations is to continue the work that has already been done.
HQ: What is the thought process behind creating a character and how much control do you have over what they look like?
ZA: My workflow varies depending on the project I’m working on. But generally, it starts off with the concept artist’s design for the look of the characters. The design is approved by an art director and then sent to production, which includes a character artist, technical artist, and animator. The character artist does have a say in the characters’ look, but the degree of creative freedom really depends on the project. Games are now utilising 3D scans, so the role of a character artist is beginning to change.
HQ: Out of all the projects you’ve been involved in over the years, what are you most proud of?
ZA: I’m most proud of the project Ascent, mainly because of the amount of work achieved in the short span of three months. We were able to make a game demo with two playable levels in Unreal Engine 4. I was proud of what we did as a team, and I found my feet as the art director and team lead on the project; it gave me the chance to lead a project through from pre-production to production and release. In the coming years, I hope to play a bigger role in a team, such as a principle or lead.
HQ: What makes you tick? What are you most interested in doing with your art?
ZA: Science, psychology, history, and culture have always made me tick. I’ve always been keen to learn about how we perceive things, from objective and subjective points of view. Just being able to see the world through another perspective brings a whole new meaning to what we see.
In addition to art, I’ve been an avid gamer for most of my childhood and adult life. What fascinates me is the ability to combine my hobby and love in order to create worlds, especially when creating interactive experiences moving beyond the 2D plane. Besides the professional work, I want to push the development of personal projects in the coming years in the form of either a book or a gallery show.
What fascinates me is the ability to combine my hobby and love in order to create worlds.
HQ: What advice would you give to other Muslim women interested in being gaming artists?
ZA: Don’t be afraid to break stereotypes. Don’t be afraid to practice your faith. Don’t compromise what’s most important to your spiritual, mental, and physical wellbeing. Stay hungry for knowledge, but try not to be too hard on yourself; you are good enough and will do well as long as you put in the hours and have the passion. Challenge yourself reasonably and keep taking criticism on board and applying it to what you’re working on. Become comfortable with being uncomfortable, and keep reaching for the stars.