Iranian Artist Hoda Ramy on Liberating Herself from Self-Censorship

Artist Hoda Ramy | Photo from personal archive

Amidst the echoes of revolution and the weight of censorship, an artist found her voice.

Born in Iran just a few years after significant societal change, Hoda Ramy grew up in a conservative culture hostile to women and their self-expression. Yet, raised by parents who nurtured her love for art, she developed a deep appreciation for creativity.

Ramy spent two miserable years studying finance before dropping out and enrolling in the only school in Iran offering animation as an undergraduate degree.

But her journey through academia was not without its trials. The stifling atmosphere of conservative education clashed with her yearning for self-expression. Despite the challenges, she persevered, honing her craft amidst the chaos, determined to carve a path for herself in the world of animation.

After years of perseverance, an opportunity emerged—a beacon of hope amidst the shadows. Acceptance into Pratt Institute’s MFA program beckoned from across the globe, offering a chance to break free from the chains of censorship and embrace artistic liberation. The path to New York was fraught with obstacles, from bureaucratic hurdles to financial strains exacerbated by international sanctions.

In New York, it took Ramy some time and courage to shed layers of self-censorship that had bound her for so long.

Now, Hoda Ramy is a successful Animation Director based in Brooklyn, renowned for her 2D and experimental animation expertise. With a background in motion graphics, Ramy seamlessly blends artistic expression with technical precision. Her distinctive style, characterized by minimalism and vibrant color palettes, draws inspiration from dreams and modern painters such as Cezanne, Matisse, and van Gogh. With a commitment to storytelling, her animations captivate audiences across media, from dynamic commercial animations to immersive films, showcasing a mastery of the craft and a dedication to pushing the boundaries of visual storytelling.

Ramy’s directorial prowess shines in projects like the official music video for Säje Voices’ track “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” which clinched a Grammy this year. Additionally, her work in the “Nobel Planta” documentary was featured in The New Yorker Documentary.

In an exclusive interview, The Urban Watch sat down with Ramy to explore the profound influences of her upbringing in Iran, the evolution of her artistic freedom upon relocating to the U.S., her notable accomplishments, and her dedication to giving back to the community in New York.

NURTURING CREATIVITY AMIDST ADVERSITY

Do you come from a creative family? Were you always a creative kid? 

My mother deeply admired art, particularly Dutch painters like Vincent van Gogh and Vermeer. She often shared her passion by showing us movies about artists, and I remember the spark in her eyes as she inserted “Lust of Life” into the VHS player, eagerly explaining the plotline to us.

She was proficient in various crafts, from embroidery to macrame, crochet, and knitting– a creative force in her own right. On the other hand, my father, an engineer and a builder, constructed a cozy library room for us. Within it, I had my own corner with my favorite books and movies, where I could spend hours drawing and painting. My father was an amazing painter and gave me my first lessons in drawing. 

What was your experience like navigating the professional landscape in Iran?

I wanted to pursue a career as an artist, but despite my parents’ passion for art, they encouraged me to choose a different path. I spent two miserable years studying finance, but you can never escape your destiny. I dropped out and took the national test to enter art school. Only one school in the country offers animation as an undergraduate degree and accepts only a handful of students yearly. Luckily, I was accepted.

I was overjoyed, but an art education came with its own challenges. The school was very conservative in its educational approach. 

After graduation, I worked as a freelance motion designer and animator for a while. Then, I got a chance to work as a motion designer and animation director at the international branch of the Iranian News Agency.

Can you share your experiences and obstacles when immigrating to the United States?

I was admitted to Pratt’s MFA program, but obtaining the visa took two years due to the travel ban in effect at the time. Overcoming the bureaucratic hurdles and restrictions imposed by the ban was daunting. Persistence, meticulous documentation, and guidance from immigration experts were crucial in securing the student visa, allowing me to pursue my educational aspirations despite external challenges. However, upon arriving in the U.S., another obstacle awaited me.

Financial difficulties arose due to sanctions imposed on Iranian banks, affecting international transactions and impacting my education. I pursued scholarship opportunities, part-time work, and financial aid programs to address these challenges. Strategic budgeting and guidance from academic advisors were essential in managing these financial hurdles while maintaining my commitment to education.

In addition, releasing myself from a self-censoring mentality was a significant challenge. Overcoming this ingrained tendency to self-censor required a conscious effort to embrace authenticity and express my thoughts freely. Engaging in self-reflection and participating in expressive arts played a crucial role in breaking free from these mental constraints. This shift empowered me to share my true self without fear of judgment or external restrictions.

“Releasing myself from a self-censoring mentality was a significant challenge.”

Hoda Ramy

How has your work changed once you allowed yourself to create freely? What themes did you start exploring that you couldn’t before?

In Iran, being a woman often translates to feeling insignificant. Teachers in school were overly critical, fostering a sense of inadequacy. This atmosphere cultivated an unhealthy relationship with my identity and body. Feminine voices were suppressed, with encouragement to speak deeper. Art considered too revealing faced censorship, sometimes covered up by commissioned artists.

It took me a long time to allow myself to create freely. In the U.S., I approached my senior thesis cautiously, opting for metaphorical expression over directly exploring my identity. I used symbols like birds to convey deeper meanings. Gender seemed troubling to me, and I was hesitant to depict body parts, resulting in flat, childlike characters. However, as I embraced creative freedom, I began celebrating the beauty of the human form, recognizing that it’s just that—a body. I’m currently pitching a short about womanhood and body dysphoria. 

Hoda Ramy’s animation still from Säje Voices’ track ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.’

It’s ironic how, even in the U.S., patriarchy persists. The overturning of Roe v. Wade was shocking to me. Across the globe, patriarchy endures, constantly attempting to strip away women’s rights. Interestingly, Iran was among the first countries where women could vote, preceding even Switzerland.

PROJECTS SHAPING THE FUTURE

You were recently selected as the art director for the Emruz Festival. This year, the festival is centered around the “Woman, Life, Freedom” Movement that erupted in Iran after the tragic murder of Zhina Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Morality Police in September 2022. Could you please elaborate on the festival’s significance and your role in it?

This project holds immense significance in providing a platform to amplify the voices of Persian female artists from all over the world. Collaborating with a team of talented Persian women creatives, I play a pivotal role in shaping the festival’s artistic direction. Through my creative leadership, our team works cohesively to establish a safe and empowering space where these artists can freely express themselves.

This ongoing collaborative project promotes inclusivity, cultural exchange, and the recognition of unique narratives that are often unheard of. Together with my team, we actively nurture a powerful space for connection, understanding, and the flourishing of creativity among Persian women globally.

As the Director at The Animation Project (TAP), a nonprofit organization, can you provide insights into your role and share how you contribute to shaping the future careers of youths in New York City? What specific impact do you aim to achieve, and why is The Animation Project crucial in supporting the aspirations of these individuals?

I am a fervent advocate for equal opportunities, and at TAP, we embody this principle by offering a comprehensive program that goes beyond conventional education. Our initiative is a unique blend of therapy, education, and workforce development, providing untapped creatives with the skills and confidence to thrive in the media and animation industries.

TAP stands out by providing direct-service software training, career readiness mentorship, and personal development guidance. We recognize the equity gap in opportunities for young talents and aim to bridge that gap by offering focused training on industry-standard programs coupled with essential workforce guidance.

Our impact goes beyond technical skills – it’s about instilling confidence, fostering creativity, and creating a pathway for diverse voices to be heard. Through TAP, we aim to empower the next generation of storytellers, animators, and creative minds who might otherwise face barriers in pursuing their dreams.

You’re also an adjunct video advertising professor at CUNY. What has the experience been like? Would you consider a future career in academia?
Hoda Ramy | Photo from personal archive

Being an adjunct video advertising professor at CUNY has been an incredibly rewarding and enriching experience for me. The intersection of art and education has provided a dynamic platform to share my knowledge with aspiring artists.

The experience has been characterized by the joy of witnessing students’ growth and development and seeing their passion for video advertising evolve into tangible skills. The classroom setting at CUNY has allowed me to engage with diverse perspectives, spark meaningful discussions, and push the boundaries of creativity.

Reflecting on this experience, the idea of a future academic career appeals to me. I am deeply committed to continuing my role in education, driven by the belief that nurturing the next generation of creative minds is a responsibility and a privilege. 

Simultaneously, I want to explore avenues beyond academia. I plan on steering my creative energies towards establishing an animation studio to bring a feature animated film to life. 

In the near future, my journey will be a harmonious fusion of education and animation. I seek to enrich students’ artistic development while shaping the animation and storytelling landscape. 

“Nurturing the next generation of creative minds is a responsibility and a privilege.”

Hoda Ramy
Could you share some of your most significant accomplishments or projects with me?

I had the privilege of collaborating with many talented artists, and one standout project was the “Nobel Planta” documentary, which was featured in The New Yorker Documentary. This endeavor was a captivating fusion of live and animated footage depicting the lives of an elderly couple running a plant shop. Working as a 2D animator alongside Amanda Bonaiuto, a distinguished indie animation director in the U.S., was an absolute dream and a significant milestone for me, especially as I was new to the vibrant New York art scene.

Following this, Hamid Rahmanian approached me to contribute as an animator for his Puppet Shadow Theatrical Performance, “Song of the North.” This innovative project, blending dance, shadow puppetry, and animation, presented a formidable challenge. I animated over 180 backgrounds (80 minutes) for the show, which premiered in Paris and continues to captivate audiences. The show went to the Chicago Puppet Festival in January 2024, creating much buzz.

“Song of the North” performance at the BAM Fisher on Oct. 29, 2021. | Photo by Richard Termine

Campaign for New York’s Future was another fantastic opportunity for me. Collaborating with other talented animation and illustration artists, we contributed to Futures NYC, an initiative using art and design to envision a city anchored in care, compassion, dignity, and power for all New Yorkers. My three distinct animations addressing housing, public health, and community building were well-received and featured alongside other artists’ visions in the campaign.

More recently, I had the pleasure of directing the official music video for Säje Voices’ Grammy-winning track, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” This labor of love, fusing my creativity and passion for music and animation, premiered on Forbes.com. It is truly humbling to have my project showcased on such a prestigious platform, marking another milestone in my artistic journey.

NAVIGATING THE CREATIVE PROCESS IN TODAY’S ANIMATION INDUSTRY

What are some of the current challenges in the animation industry, and how do you navigate or address them in your work?

The animation industry is highly competitive, with entry proving challenging. However, a significant issue lies in its tendency to conform to prevailing trends, resulting in a lack of diversity and stifling originality. Many artists struggle financially, forcing them to seek employment in corporate settings or related fields. In contrast, I’ve embraced being an independent artist and teacher. This decision allows me to contribute to the creative community while maintaining authenticity in my work and ensuring financial stability.

What trends or advancements do you find particularly exciting or impactful for the future of animation?

Animation’s expanding role beyond traditional entertainment opens up new opportunities in various sectors. This shift benefits the animation industry and enhances art education overall. I’m particularly excited about animation’s broader application, extending into areas like marketing and product enhancement. Its versatility as a communication tool is a game-changer, providing artists with new avenues for creativity and innovation.

What are your future goals/dreams?

Looking ahead, my aspirations are grounded in a passionate pursuit— I aspire to become a full-time filmmaker dedicated exclusively to producing animated content. While I recognize this may seem ambitious, my heart lies in the art of animation. I am keen on channeling all my creative energies into bringing captivating stories to life through this dynamic medium. Behind this goal lies a reservoir of untold stories that I am eager to share, and I am committed to navigating the challenges ahead to realize this dream.

Any advice for aspiring animators?

For aspiring animators, my advice is simple yet profound— work diligently and then push yourself to work even harder. Dive deep into the world of animation by watching and studying extensively. Allow yourself to be immersed in the craft. When it comes to getting started, don’t hold back. Let your creative energy flow freely. While some ideas may initially seem daunting or unattainable, don’t be afraid – just go for it. Embrace the challenges, learn from them, and persist in your creative journey. Remember, the more you invest in your passion, the more it will flourish.

***

You can check out Hoda’s work on her website: https://www.hodaramy.com/ 

Connect with her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/hodaramy/

Or follow her on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/hodaillustrations/ 

Demi Vitkute

Co-Founder & Editor

Demi Vitkute is a New York-based journalist and editor who’s passionate about reporting on the fashion industry, its problems, and its changemakers. She’s a founder of The Urban Watch Magazine and has written for The Washington Post, Inside Hook, and Promo Magazine, among others. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Emerson College.

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