Posted 28 July 2022
Interview by N'Tanya Clarke
Mention Rema Kahsay

Art director Rema Kahsay on the inequality of her industry and being supported by community

Rema Kahsay is an art director, an avid researcher and proof that there are many routes to success. Having entered the industry without any prior training, she credits access schemes such as Creativity Works and The Prince’s Trust as helping her chart her path. Whether it’s on set or in prop houses – where she frequents to get insight on who to contact for jobs – she’s fostered relationships with creatives, making not just industry connections, but genuine and lasting friendships. Having worked across a wealth of projects – from music videos to front-page magazine spreads and even theatre – Rema tells us about powering through the still white-male-dominated industry and the rewards of reaching out to people you want to work with.

Rema Kahsay

Rema Kahsay


Art Director and Set Designer

Based

London

Previous Employment

Waitress (2017-2021)

Selected Clients

Donae’O, PUMA, Netflix, Tomi Agapè, GLAMOUR, Ruby Jack Jewellery, Tiggs Da Author, Tiana Blake, PLACES + FACES, PWR Magazine, CRACK Magazine, Potter Paper, Meme Crochet, Amaria BB, Diplo, AWA, Jevon, Blade Brown, Davido

Social Media

Instagram

Website

Portfolio site

What I do

How would you describe what you do?
Essentially, my role entails bringing the client’s vision to life in physical form. I started out as an art assistant on music videos, and have worked towards multiple projects, including set design, production design and art direction. This can range from painting a backdrop, making or sourcing props, researching and finding references for a brief.

I have a range of collaborators and projects, ranging from musicians such as Tiggs Da Author, Donae’O, Tomi Agapè; and brands such as CRACK Magazine, Boots, GLAMOUR, PUMA, Netflix, Sky Studios and more. However, I am not limited to just big names; I also really enjoy working on small scale jobs with friends and new people. It gives me a chance to explore my creativity when the brief isn’t as rigid.

“I enjoy working on smaller projects with friends and new people. It gives me the chance to explore my creativity when the brief isn’t as rigid.”

Better, Tomi Agape

Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
I don’t believe you have to have any particular skills to enter the art department world, but I think having the drive, passion and the desire to learn can take you far. The film industry is very nepotistic and it is very much about who you know.

I got my foot into the industry through a scheme called Creativity Works, based in White City, which helps 18 to 25 year olds from underrepresented communities gain knowledge in the creative industry through masterclasses with industry experts. Through this program, I was put in contact with a director who was looking for a runner. From that experience I was able to apply to more runner jobs.

Some traits that’ve helped me get commissioned are: taking initiative and thinking on my feet, anticipating needs, asking questions when I’m unsure of something, going above and beyond and offering help even when not asked (but not at the expense of burning out) and doing my own research outside of jobs that I get.

An example of my research includes taking myself on day trips to prop houses – where many art teams hire their props from – and seeing what they have and asking what their hiring process is. Then, when I land jobs and I’m asked to hire from prop houses, I have the required knowledge.

Joy Crookes, Female Magazine, with set design by Rema

What are some of your favourite projects from the past year, and why?
I have quite a few: the music video for Ca$h Train by Blade Brown featuring Not3s, where I assisted in the creation of a fake tube platform and worked on the lighting; Joy Crookes’ feature in The Female Magazine, where I draped a lush mixture of fabrics to create backdrops; set design for PWR Magazine’s first issue, where I made custom-painted backdrops by myself for the first time, and set design for …cake, which was my first time working in theatre with a primarily Black and queer cast and crew.

What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work and the projects you take on?
My community! I am a Black queer, first generation, working-class immigrant, and all those identities inform what I’m inspired by.

Surrealism is also an inspiration of mine, as it pushes the boundaries of the concept of reality.

What’s the weirdest thing on your desk right now?
A fake skeletal arm, from my uni days studying Archaeology. I never finished my degree, so I see it as an accolade from those days.

“I am a Black queer, first generation, working-class immigrant, and all those identities inform what I’m inspired by.”

How I got here

What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
When I first started out, I had no clue about my specific interests in the world of film and television. In the first two years, I’d tried out a couple of different things, from runner jobs to style assistant jobs. It wasn’t until one day on set, that I witnessed for the first time, a set designer creating a set there and then that I knew it’s what I wanted to do. I emailed her and asked if I could assist her. She didn’t get back to me till months later, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t hear back from people – a lot of the time they are just busy and will when they find the time.

I’ve been doing set design for almost four years now, and I still feel like I have so much to learn. It’s an exciting and scary feeling all at the same time.

Rema kahsay art direction creativelivesinprogress 03

PWR Magazine Issue 1, set design by Rema

Rema kahsay art direction creativelivesinprogress 04

If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Creating folders and mood boards of things I find inspiring. I use Instagram a lot, so I have a direct link to where I am sourcing work from, and I like using Pinterest to create visual mood boards, which are also easily sharable with other people.

The connections I’ve made. I don’t believe in creating relationships just for the sake of it, but forming intentional genuine relationships with the people you meet is very helpful for the progression of your career and mental health. I am nothing without my community – they are the ones who have encouraged and helped me to believe in myself. They’re the ones who’ve come through when I’ve needed to borrow things to create sets or provide advice when I’ve been stuck or anxious about how to execute something. They have been one of the most important parts of my career progression.

“I am nothing without my community – they’ve encouraged me and helped me to believe in myself.”

Schemes and workshops or courses. I entered this industry in an unusual way, with no experience or knowledge. However, free schemes or initiatives – even if they were a day or a week-long – have aided me in expanding my knowledge of what I wanted to explore and do. I’d definitely recommend looking into [access schemes such as] Creativity Works and Prince’s Trust if you’re looking for opportunities.

What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
My biggest challenge was initially imposter syndrome, which later developed into knowing that I do belong in this space, but had to prove to a majority white male industry that I am more than qualified.

When people started to hire me independently, rather than as an assistant, I had to contend with feelings of inadequacy. The funny thing about imposter syndrome is that those thoughts of my work are very much in my head and not true at all. But it took time to push through it and believe in myself. What helped me was continuing to do what felt scary. Also, understanding that people who hire you don’t notice such feelings of yours unless you actually show it. There have been instances where my anxiety level was through the roof, but the clients and collaborators were more than happy with the set designs I ended up creating.

“The funny thing about imposter syndrome – in relation to all the work I’ve done – is that those thoughts are not true at all; they are very much in my head.”

As I’ve become more confident in what I do, my battles became more about the film industry itself, which is very white and male-dominated. With that comes the struggle of constantly proving that you can do your job, especially as a Black woman who works in a manually intensive job, I’ve received a lot of backhanded, sexist comments questioning whether I am strong enough to do what I do, and complete disrespect around my craft.

Over the years, I’ve been learning how to efficiently communicate my boundaries on set, from telling people to be careful with my props, to telling people I do not accept the tone with which they are talking to me with if it is rude. On the job, I’m constantly learning what I have tolerance for and what I won’t tolerate.

How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work? Do you have any advice or learnings to share?
I’m still trying to figure it out, to be honest. I am most active on Instagram and it definitely has helped me in getting a lot of jobs, as creatives are always looking for people, especially for last-minute call-outs.

Right now, I am trying to transition my methods of self-promotion. By taking the time to create a website and being able to refer people to that, instead of reaching out to me via Instagram, as I am not always on it.

If you’re not at a place where you can create a website, creating a simple portfolio helps.

I use Canva – it has many of Photoshop’s benefits, but simplified. If you want to create a portfolio with Canva, use presentation mode, and on the first page put your full name, email, phone number and your main job title. In the layout, put the name of the project, any images, the production or company name and your relevant team credit.

Rema’s Canva portfolio

What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
I started out in this industry in 2018, and it wasn’t until October 2021 that I felt confident enough to go freelance full-time. Over the years, I’ve taken a lot of part-time jobs – like working in hospitality and ad-hoc agencies – so I could have some control with my time and prioritise my creative work, as it was coming in very spontaneously for me (it still does).

I am still learning how to handle my finances as a freelancer, and it does still feel scary. There’s no shame in saying that I’ve had to sign up to Universal Credit at times to support myself, as the money I was making as a part-time freelancer whilst also working a part-time job was not enough to sustain my living.

When it comes to my fee, it depends on how big or small the project is. This is something that I am working on and learning when it comes to charging higher personal fees, but my greatest learnings on money have come from asking other experienced creatives in my industry.

Someone once told me that to figure out how much you should be charging, you should: count how many hours a week you can actually work and multiply it by four weeks (a month), calculate your living expenses (such as rent and bills) and divide your living costs for the month by how many hours you can work in the month, then you have your hourly rate.

This is just a guide, but can help with gauging the absolute minimum rate. You can also go on BECTU [Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union] and check what the starting rates are for your relevant role. BECTU is a union for filmmakers with lots of resources on fees and other things.

The absolute lowest you should go is London Living Wage, which is £11.05 per hour.

Set of ...cake, set design by Rema

How did you go about landing your first clients?
A lot of my first clients have been fellow assistants that I’ve met on set, and that is why I say the connections you make are important.

Through talking to these people who then became clients, we connected and built rapport based on the kind of things we wanted to create. Our interests aligned and when the opportunity arose, we’d plan to create something together.

I’m also my own hype man and a bit of a social butterfly. There’s been many events and spaces which are not industry related but because we are in London, creatives exist everywhere. I can introduce myself to people as a set designer and it starts interesting conversations about what my work entails and keeping in contact for future projects.

My advice

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
Keep pestering via email. Jokes aside, don’t be afraid to reach out to people you’d like to work with or work for, and don’t be discouraged if they don’t reply immediately. By letting them know you are available – even if they have an assistant – it just takes that one day of the assistant not being available, and you can step in and get the chance to work with the person.

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar career?
Go to prop houses like SuperHire (one of the biggest prop houses) to meet people in art departments; the general vibe in there is pretty friendly. The carts there have names of production designers and what project they are hiring from – I sometimes like to look up those names online and see what their work is like and if I’d like to connect with them.

Interview by N'Tanya Clarke
Mention Rema Kahsay