The Daily Heller: Najeebah Al-Ghadban Makes Fragments Whole

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Collagist and illustrator Najeebah Al-Ghadban, a native of Kuwait, has lived in New York since 2009. She graduated from School of Visual Arts’ BFA and MFA Design programs, and then started her career as a book designer for Abrams, designing covers and interiors for cookbooks, art books, photo books and the like. Under design director John Gall’s supervision, she learned a lot about how to make a “book feel special outside of the design,” she says. In 2018, she joined the NYT Mag Labs, an experimental division of The New York Times Magazine. Headed by Caitlin Roper and Debra Bishop, they had conceptualized the first few issues of the print-only children’s section that was destined to become a monthly. Al-Ghadban is currently an art director at Apple for the Books team. “I’m definitely curious to see how my publishing and editorial background can play a role in this new medium, but more so to grow and expand the ways of execution for my design thinking.”

Al-Ghadban says physical collages became “a ritual” for her in 2013. She makes them to “forge a container for thoughts or feelings that I can no longer hold on my own.” We spoke recently about her inspirations and processes of making what I admit is among my favorite artforms.

Has the collage been—or has it become—your main expressive medium?
I’ve tried to scribble with words because language is transformative for me. But collage is most definitely my more successful expressive outlet. Maybe because it’s the hardest for me to affect or control. Sometimes things I don’t want to reveal slip through—it’s a very honest mirror.

There is considerable figurative fragmentation in your work. Does this have a special meaning for you? What is the symbolism of cutting and fragmenting?
Fragmentation is a way for me to pull every piece of a figure apart to then find a way to put it back together. I’d like to hope my work can be interpreted by people in ways that connect with them personally. For me, I would say that perhaps fragmentation is a visual way to say, “I am still here. Not like I was. Not like I want to be. But the only way I can be.” Once you cut an image apart, there’s no going back. So if collage is a ritual, it’s a ritual for acceptance.

Your collage is also assemblage. You tie your visual elements together with string, wire, pins and more. Is this technique, style or metaphor (or all three)?
It’s mostly metaphor to me. Using string or wire or any external object adds weight and meaning but also activates the (often) empty background. With objects and wire, there’s something about what shadow and light can add in terms of meaning and movement. But in general, the short (nails or pins) or long (wire, thread) lines become the arrows that deliver the urgency of the feeling.

You have been working as a book and magazine designer. Does your collage influence your design?
Absolutely. With magazine work, especially, it’s helped inform my approach towards working with illustrators both as an art director, in regards to building trust and collaboration, but also as a designer, in terms of creating meaning through layout and pacing. The relationship between words and art will always be curious to me. In my collage work it’s about transforming words into images indirectly, but in design it’s more direct.

It’s also a privilege to be able to sit on both sides of the line with editorial work—having been art directed and having art directed illustrators. Making things is vulnerable, and being guided by someone who can help you understand what you might be doing brings more understanding to my own craft. Likewise, understanding other illustrators’ crafts and thinking is equally as valuable since everyone’s approach is distinct. With books, I’m most excited when I’m commissioned to use my collage work, because I do love creating cover art for stories through that medium. But it has loosened me up in terms of how I design covers. Collage has taught me to be more playful, open to chance, and far less rigid.

You are soon to leave NYC for California. What is your plan? What is your goal?
After 11 years in New York and 11 years living away from home, I find myself curious about exploring new environments and seeing how they might shape me and my work. The only goal/plan I have is to challenge myself to experience something new. I won’t deny that it’s terrifying to walk away from everything that is familiar to me to explore a different field of design and a new coast, but there will be lots of sunshine, and that’s enough for now.

Where do you want to take your work?
With collage, I try to let intuition lead me through each evolution and phase. At the moment, I’ve been very curious about animation and movement. I started to experiment in the fall with little loops, but a dream project would be to make a music video or short film of some sort. With all my work, I mostly want to continue to find ways to connect and interact with humans, no matter the medium—to have one long meaningful conversation that can carry on through my work long after I’m dead.