Alicia Souza, or the Goddess of Cute, as one of her Facebook followers has dubbed her, knows that starving artists have no fun. When you follow her on social media, you are introduced to recurring characters: the caricature of herself, often pictured with a bag of chips, her dogs Charlie Brown and Lola Bear (endlessly begging for treats), her guinea pig Henry Oats and, also, Souza’s triumphs and disasters in the kitchen.
Each of these elements – a distinctive style, adorable pets and the occasional burnt cookie – have turned Souza into something of a brand. She has been widely written about for her collaboration with Chumbak, an accessory brand that redefined Indian cartoon kitsch, but also for her ability to carve out a sizeable audience, kick-start her own company and power her freelance career, all through social media – despite the fact that she has never made an actual professional portfolio of her work.
Souza often uses crowd-sourcing to generate content for projects and to create a space where she collaborates with, and responds to, her audience through her art. For instance, Souza created the series Old Wives Tale, Pet Peeves, and Learn Something New Everyday by building a quirky archive with her Facebook followers. This practice of creating series featuring recognisable characters weaves narratives and gives followers something to look forward to – as proven by the riotous success of comedian Mallika Dua’s Instagram videos, which feature recurring characters like Make-up Didi, and Racist Dadi. In a sense, social media has afforded Souza a busy freelance career, but also the opportunity to create a space online where she can express herself freely and put a slice of her personality up for display through her work.
Souza grew up in Abu Dhabi and now lives in Bengaluru. Over the phone, she told Scroll.in that she considers drawing to be almost a form of yoga.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t spend as much as time as they should doing things they love,” she said. “I feel really lucky and privileged that I get to draw as a part of my job. But apart from for work, I try to make sure that I get time to draw for myself too.”
Although she formally studied graphic design in Melbourne, Souza had a short stint working at a bank, which she insists was not as dull for an artist as most would imagine. The experience helped her sharpen her business acumen and taught her how to manage her money – an important lesson for women and for creative entrepreneurs. Most importantly, Souza feels life at the bank taught her how to interact with different kinds of people, a crucial professional and life skill for someone who lives her life and art through people – observing and drawing them, picking up on things that make them unique, dealing with them as customers, audience members and fans.
What sets Souza’s work apart from the scores of young artists making cute images, is that she meticulously records and visualises the idiosyncrasies of people and scenarios. Inspired by children’s illustrations, often entering a cartoon-like territory, her work is characterised by a pop of colour, stylised doodles with whir of text and image. You do not have be an art or kitsch enthusiast to crack a smile at these images. Souza’s art has a quality of joy, humour and wholesomeness that is special without seeming trite. She celebrates laughing at oneself and taking pleasure in the mundane.
Unlike her contemporaries, most of whom retail merchandise with e-commerce platforms, Souza has her own website. She worked with brands like Chumbak early on in her career, but started experimenting with transposing her illustrations onto products when she was still in design school at Melbourne. Now, she has plunged into the merchandising space head-on with no plans of stopping.
“I had a stall at Soul Sante [an indie crafts mela in Bengaluru] years ago, where I sold some of my products,” she said. “The response was great, and we got so many requests and enquiries after that, I created a sort of pop-up store online, which I assumed would run for only a couple of months…”
Instead, Souza was flooded with more requests than she could handle. Thanks to an eager partner who promised to handle the production and manufacturing, aliciasouza.com was born. Now she not only retails on her website, but also with e-commerce platforms like Flipkart and Amazon and regularly receives offers from brands and designers to collaborate on projects.
Souza also jumped on the adult-colouring books bandwagon way before the craze began. She began by creating the Color in and Let Go Calendar, which centred around the idea of colouring as a meditative and de-stressing activity. Once again, the books became hugely popular, resulting in an ongoing series. Souza has also collaborated with indie jooti brand Fizzy Goblet to create a range of colour-in jootis, which come with a complimentary set of water-resistant acrylic paints.
This foray into merchandising stems from the fact that Souza loves to get her illustrations on to any surface she can get her hands on. Designing on and for products is her way of constantly experiment with media and illustration styles. Her products range from posters and notebooks, to flip-flops, cushion covers, photo frames, laptop-sleeves and phone cases. She believes people want to consume art optically but also tangibly, they covet it in material ways. She seems to have struck a perfect balance between creating work that satisfies her creative conscience, as well as fulfilling the curiosities and wants of her growing fan base.