Mona Mekkawi: International Production Set Designer and Art Director Reveals How She’s Building a Career Challenging Mundane Ideas and Creating Unforgettable Ones
"I believe good designs and new ideas can heal the world and balance it."
Mona Mekkawi has come a long way since the moment she made a top 8 list chosen for design school at Cairo's Higher Institute of Cinema in Egypt. Today, her impressive profile boasts over 200 projects including cinema, commercial ads and music videos. Having worked with acclaimed directors and listed companies including Unilever, Vodafone and most recently, Vogue, Mona is the perfect world teacher.
Mona's Egyptian Childhood
Mona grew up with art and song in her home. Both her parents are talented painters. "I think I got those genes from both of them. Maybe that's the reason art grows very strong in me. They helped me to be a dreamer and an artist." The Mekkawi family is a unit of resilience. Mona's dad navigated a painful cancer journey with his mum and shortly after that his dad. The family sold their assets to afford medical bills. But Mr Mekkawi never lost hope and eventually started his own family with an equally positive partner, teaching Mona and her brother to chase their dreams as hard as she could.
"My father is a real hero and a real honest man. He never made us feel that we needed anything. He got us into the best schools and invested a lot in our education to become a better generation." The investment paid off for Mona, who ended up at one of Egypt's most prestigious art schools.
Launching a career into production design and art direction
Mona recalls a smooth journey into the Cairo Higher Institute of Cinema to study Set and Production Design. "Thousands of students apply and go through a lot of tests and exams. I was lucky to be in the very top 8 who got accepted in this department beyond thousands and thousands of applicants from all over the Arab World." Since her freshman year, at 17 years old, she started working in the field of cinema and advertising in Egypt and the Middle Eastern region.
"I always wanted to Design for films since I was a little kid. When you want something so bad and believe you can have it, the whole universe helps you to get it, and that's what happened to me." She describes her commitment to learning as a complete immersion into the world of creativity and innovation, where she found her true self.
Creation from Paper to Reality
Mona is a predominantly a visualizer of concept. "Sometimes, I dream of bits and pieces of my creation while sleeping, and I wake up to document it to try to solve the puzzle after. For the process, I usually start by understanding the concept or script and analyse its philosophy, history, emotions, social influence, and other aspects. Then I start my research and communicate clearly with the team to make sure we are all on the same page and mood."
Obtaining clarity after concept analysis is imperative. "When we find a clear track, I start sketching and do colour analysis. Then I start simplifying the idea to my team." Organisation of her team's task list is the next step once the concept is approved.
"I emphasise the details and give every one of my team a task. Within time, depending on how big the project is, we are executing and doing constructions on set. Then it's ready for the Director of Photography to light. Actors are invited at this stage to feel the reality of the set and to start blending within it to give us the best results of true acting."
Whenever Mona creates, she feels isolation to desolation and negativity around her world. "I feel I am responsible for creating perfectly and not to give up because I believe good designs and new ideas can heal the world and balance it."
Every concept is different. Mona's work has taken her across a spectrum of topics, including human rights.
Working with the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
When award-winning film director, Amr Salama, contacted Mona about a project for the UNHCR, she was about to board a flight. But she didn't hesitate to say yes. After all, refugees didn't have the luxury of time. Mona started preparing for the idea while flying to her next destination.
"The video was about refugees and especially about the Syrian crisis. I wanted to create the feeling of an abandoned place that shows what happens to countries in wars, why they have to leave their homes and lands to the life of refugees. The director's idea was smart and yet was a challenge to me. The idea was to create a very big puzzle of a painting - a sinking boat with victims trying to survive at their last breath - to show how innocent people suffer. We used child actors to take the puzzle apart together. Then, with the same pieces on the other side and in different positions, it creates a picture of a new country that lives in peace and welfare. It's every kid's dreams to find himself in a country that's good enough so that they don't have to leave it one day with all their hopes and dreams.
Being a woman in a mostly male-dominated industry in the Arab World
The reality of Mona's professional network is that more men are involved in her industry than women in the Middle East. Out of her own experience, she believes that women exert extra effort to platform ideas. "As a woman, especially in the Arab world, I suffered a lot from industry inequality professionally, financially, and behaviourally."
"Sometimes, your ideas - either good or bad - are firstly related to you as a woman. I hear things like 'that's a great work for a woman or perfect work from women, or you shouldn't expect more from a woman.' You rarely hear that about a man. No one receives an opinion from a man by putting a filter first that this is coming from a man. This happens with women, and we need to reach a point where a woman's idea is treated as a person's idea, not as "good as a woman's idea" or "good as a man's idea." Mona also believes that part of the problem lies in how women see themselves.
"I believe women need to stop looking to others to give themselves permission to move forward and give it to themselves. I know women in the Arab world have been through a lot, but we need to stop stressing on the lack of confidence we got from suffering in our societies. We need to change that by learning and always getting better through education and knowledge. We need to believe in ourselves and that we can reach the impossible if there was anything that's not possible."
Mona is adamant about creating a sisterhood of support. "Women need to support each other and not let society stereotypes stop us from reaching and discovering new talents and new potential in other women." While comparison with other artists is a very human reaction, Mona has her own way of handling it.
Handling Comparison and Rejection of ideas
For the highly sought after Art Director and Production Set Designer, the comparison tool can be used as a compass that pushes her into new creative territory. "I isolate myself from time to time to learn and absorb a diverse range of arts and work. Every time I feel I am close to comparing myself with someone, I understand its the urge and alarm to learn more and get better knowledge. I also read a lot, and see as many movies and documentaries as much as I can every day. I make my own analysis and review for everything I see, and I do the same with my own work."
She's also candid about how she handles rejection. "Honestly, I feel so bad about rejection, and I hate it, but every time I get rejected, I feel I should work harder. I share some thoughts and ideas with my notebook. Every rejection I faced made me who I am today. I believe every rejection I'll face in the future will help me present myself to be a better version of me."
Advice for young artists
Well aware of how difficult and frustrating this journey can be, Mona offers what might seem clichéd but clear advice. "No one will ever be able to help you if you don't help yourself, no one will ever believe in you if you don't believe in yourself. It's essential to try to know yourself and to seek out knowledge. Please be authentic and don't copy other people because you will always have a better version. Believe in your own vision. Know your strengths and know that there are no terrible weaknesses once you've learned about and accepted them. Don't panic when nothing is going on in your career, your day or your life. It's the best time to work unencumbered and with no deadlines. It's a phase of freedom! Don't panic when you're not working. Every good, bad, or hard time you go through is changing your mind and your vision and will definitely influence your next project."
Those who work with her know Mona as a collaborator, whose vision translates into artistic expressions of excellence, her clients could not have anticipated. She’s also skilfully transitioned into costume design and will be directing her first short film soon.
For those of us who are fans of Mona's work, she simply wants to be known as a passionate artist who helps create peace and new art to the world, her society and the country she came from.
Follow Mona on Instagram @monamekkawi