Cosmic Relief in Crayon: the Illustrations of Rahill Jamalifard

Amidst the dormancy of 2020, musician Rahill Jamalifard (Habibi, Roya) returned to an old companion: a box of crayons. The New York musician and artist spoke with Cell Vision's Samantha Singh about illustration, portraiture, and her new book 'I’m This I’m That I’m in the World.'

words and interview by Samantha Singh

Portrait of the artist by Lauren Davis. All other photos and illustrations by Rahill Jamlifard.

For a source of diversion amidst the dormancy of 2020, New York-based artist Rahill Jamalifard turned to an old, oft-overlooked companion: a box of crayons. Impressing pigment upon the page became somewhat of a daily meditative practice as Jamalifard set about producing the likenesses of some of her most significant influences, allowing for her to return to the familiar medium while also engaging with a beloved other: music.

Perhaps best known as a musician and DJ, Jamalifard fronts psych-rock outfit Habibi as well as post-punk band Roya and is currently at work on a debut solo album. Her projects draw from a vast inspirational arsenal partially catalogued in her first collection of illustrations, I’m This I’m That I’m in the World, recently published by Pacific. The book of crayon portraits spans 54 pages, featuring Jamalifard’s impressions of eminent artists, including Pharoah Sanders, Lou Reed, Ramesh, and many more.

I reached out to Jamalifard to learn more about her roots in visual art and her new book, I’m This I’m That I’m in the World.

CELL VISION: How are you doing? Where are you currently, and what have you been up to lately?

RAHILL JAMALIFARD: I'm doing well, grateful for good health. Happy it’s finally spring. I’m currently upstate, where I’ve been living the past year. Been working on music, cooking, and playing soccer.

CELL VISION: Congratulations on the release of I’m This I’m That I’m in the World! I understand drawing was one of your first modes of creative expression from childhood. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship to it?

RAHILL JAMALIFARD: Thank you. Yes, drawing was the first mode of expression that I can remember. I always loved art class in grade school, I never paid attention to the teachers’ instructions, and thankfully, my early art teachers encouraged individual discovery.

I remember winning my first art competition in second grade; you had to draw a portrait of a made-up character with an accompanying poem. Mine was called “the dope,” and I still remember the first line, “the dope, he had a great big nose.” I remember it was framed in the hallway for the year, and I was very proud of that. Ha. I wish my parents were the type of parents who held on to that kind of stuff.

CELL VISION: Have you taken art classes, or is illustration something you picked up on your own?

RAHILL JAMALIFARD: Well, as mentioned, I never liked taking instructions, so in college, I took one painting class, and it completely ended my relationship with painting. I didn’t like the rules. But before college, I had a few incredible art teachers who emphasized the importance of art and creative exploration, which inspired me to figure out drawing and painting on my own, outside the classroom.

CELL VISION: The title of this book feels like a proclamation, which I love. I think I first saw it as you making a statement about asserting your own personhood by sharing your perception through depictions of others in these portraits, but before I go about projecting my own opinions, where did it come from?

RAHILL JAMALIFARD: The title came after looking over a bunch of song lyrics from every artist I drew. I like it, too; it sounds like a proclamation a child would make, and that sort of uninhibited rawness brings a smile to my face.

CELL VISION: How did you choose your subjects? Some I recognized immediately, and some were not as apparent to me. Who are they to you, and how many are included in this book?

RAHILL JAMALIFARD: Such a broad spectrum, much like the past year has been a wild card of emotions. I was just going off the day to day; one day, I’d be listening to the same Lee Morgan song for hours, and the next day, I’d put on Love’s Forever Changes. You know, mood was just subject to all that was unknown, and the music came to me accordingly.

I think this past year, we have all collectively revisited/rediscovered/dived deep into the realm of music for some kind of cosmic relief. I went down memory lane more than a few times and also spent more time with different artists. The portraits were a homage to whatever sort of comfort each of the artists brought me, whether it was that day or somewhere in the past that I tapped back into. They all represent some kind of joy and comfort to me.

CELL VISION: Have you always been interested in portraiture, or was this project a new venture stylistically?

RAHILL JAMALIFARD: I love portraits; I was just thinking of Alice Neel’s paintings today, so much emotion and vulnerability, such a direct intimacy in such a gentle way. I love it. So, yes, I’ve always been drawn to portraits.

CELL VISION: Were any of the pieces particularly challenging to make? Or particularly fun?

RAHILL JAMALIFARD: For some reason, capturing Alice Coltrane was difficult. Her expression is so individual and distinct. I had a rule where I said, No do overs, everything I started, I finished, but with Alice, I redid hers, only because she deserves her aura to be properly captured (which hopefully I did)!

Nico was fun because it was all about finding the right technique with the crayons, and Lonnie Liston Smith I enjoyed doing because [Visions of a New World] is one of my all time favorite album covers, and I really felt like I was looking into his world as I was drawing it.

CELL VISION: I’m sure a lot of fans of your music were delighted to learn that you draw, too. Do you think you’ll be sharing more of your visual art in the future?

RAHILL JAMALIFARD: Oh, I have so many ideas, all in due time :)

Check out Rahill Jamalifard's 'I'm This I'm That I'm In The World' and her Instagram via the links below.

Check Out 'I'm This I'm That I'm In The World'
Rahill Jamalifard Instagram