I’m writing this on the morning before the UK enters a second lockdown, watching the results of the most important US election in modern history teeter on a knife-edge. Today, the hues of precarity and anxiety that have coloured this year’s skies are especially bold. Feelings like these have, of course, loomed heavy for all of us during 2020; but for members of the global Black diaspora, an abiding sense of existential uncertainty has long been part of our experiences of life.
It has taken until this year, until the arrival of a potentially lethal virus and the pause it has imposed, for the world to open its eyes to the pandemics of racial injustice and systemic violence that we have long faced. It’s a realisation that has provoked anger and outrage, with crowds made up of people of all creeds and colours rallying together to take a stand and call for change, to make it unequivocally known that Black lives matter. Seeing these scenes play out on the streets of cities across the world has stoked a dwindling flame of hope with fresh fuel.
I’m writing this on the morning before the UK enters a second lockdown, watching the results of the most important US election in modern history teeter on a knife- edge. Today, the hues of precarity and anxiety that have coloured this year’s skies are especially bold. Feelings like these have, of course, loomed heavy for all of us during 2020; but for members of the global Black diaspora, an abiding sense of existential uncertainty has long been part of our experiences of life. It has taken until this year, until the arrival of a potentially lethal virus and the pause it has imposed, for the world to open its eyes to the pandemics of racial injustice and systemic violence that we have long faced. It’s a realisation that has provoked anger and outrage, with crowds made up of people of all creeds and colours rallying together to take a stand and call for change, to make it unequivocally known that Black lives matter. Seeing these scenes play out on the streets of cities across the world has stoked a dwindling flame of hope with fresh fuel.
Among those guarding it with the greatest passion and urgency are the creatives who have made of their practices and platforms beacons of progress. As exemplified by Edward Enninful, who has converted British Vogue into a forum for forward-thinking values; by South African photographer Zanele Muholi, whose life’s work -- a holistic chronicle of Black LGBTQ+ existence spanning nearly two decades -- is currently the subject of a solo exhibition at London’s Tate Modern; by artists and thinkers like Martine Syms and Aria Dean, who have mapped out blueprints for new Black subjectivies; by the pioneering designers, stylists, photographers and creative directors whose testimonies you’re about to read below; and by so many others there’s neither time nor space here to list, Black creatives have proven themselves indispensable agents in the fight for lasting transformation.
It is the hope that they and their work represents that ensures that when we protest for the rights of Black lives, we are not solely protesting for our right to exist, but rather for our right to thrive; for our right to lives lived without fear. In a year that has brought an avalanche of reminders of the bounties placed on our heads, the work of Black creatives has inspired resilience, outlining futures that are brighter than the dark times in which we currently sit. Here, we invite ten distinguished Black creative voices, emerging and established, to share what has fuelled their sense of hope alive over the course of 2020, and what’s keeping it alive for the future ahead.
Misan Harriman, photographer, creative director and founder of What We See
“Observing the murder of George Floyd as a Black man, I was reminded of all the buried trauma, all the little and big things that I’ve personally been through due to the colour of my skin. But photographing the marches and observing the allyship and solidarity of people from all walks of life has given me a sense of hope that I’ve never had in my life before. This year’s social justice movements have shaped my whole calling. I’ve realised that the answer to what I must do has always been sat within the camera I’ve always held -- to use the tools of image making, whether through film or photography, to show the full spectrum of the human condition. Some of those things are things we don’t want to see, and others will give us hope. But I hope that my lens will help everyone understand who we are, who were, and who we could be. “What gives me hope is the people that I’ve met that shouldn’t care about me, or don’t need to care about me, and do. It’s the children that are educating themselves on history that they haven’t been taught at school. It’s all the grassroots organisations that are growing and helping people understand what institutional racism is. They’re people that don’t necessarily know what to do, but they’re out there because they know that what they’ve seen is wrong. That’s been a really big deal for me. Understanding that, in general, people are good, and that they have a collective voice to make the future a better place -- that gives me hope for what the future holds.”
Priya Ahluwalia, designer and founder of Ahluwalia
“This year has made me less scared of being vocal, more fear- less; it’s really highlighted that things need to change. I used to worry that if I discussed such-and-such a topic, then so-and-so might not put me in their magazine or shop. Now, I actually don’t care. I’d rather just do what I think is right. It’s definitely also informed some of the things that I’ve been looking at in my work; I’ve really been considering the idea of protest and the different things it means to people across the diaspora, whether they’re in the UK, Africa or the Caribbean.
“One thing that’s given me hope is witnessing the most widely attended civil rights movement in history -- it’s really captured the attention of more people than ever before. People have been educating themselves, and education leads to understanding and empathy. And we’re seeing charities and movements that are pushing for the implementation of a Black curriculum and the teaching of Black history -- the fact they’re gaining traction gives me hope. Still, there’s a lot of work to do. We need to keep the conversation in public conscious- ness and push things forward in a way that affects systems of power. One way that’s happening is that there are more Black-owned businesses in fashion than ever before. At the end of the day, Bianca Saunders, Nicholas Daley, Mowalola Ogunlesi, Grace Wales Bonner -- we all get called Black de- signers, but we’re actually Black business owners. And that’s a huge source of hope -- change, after all, has to come from the top down.”
Rasharn Agyemang, creative director, photographer and stylist
“It’s taken me years to really feel empowered and not give a shit about people’s complexes with the colour of my skin. Around two to three years ago, I was getting a bit depressed. I was experiencing rejections for opportunities that I was eligible for, and I felt like I was being racially profiled to the extent that I stopped creating for a while. Eventually, I said, ‘Just go for it,’ to myself. ‘Fashion has been your dream since you were 10 years old.’ When I just accepted that, as a young Black creative, you will always have to deal with people being intimidated by your skin colour, I became fearless. I just started talking about my culture, about being a gay Black man, and started to really put that into my work.
“When the pandemic first hit, I was terrified that it was about to destroy all of the hard work that I’d been doing since that realisation. But actually, COVID made people sit still -- it made people really look at my work. And then when BLM happened, I was posting stuff and speaking out, and even more people started to notice -- even people who used to ignore me. At first, I was really suspicious of anyone who contacted me. I even called a few of my mentors and asked them for advice. ‘Use these opportunities to your advantage, don’t feel any shame,’ they said. ‘It’s your time to shine.’
“I think we really need to celebrate each other more as Black creators, to get out of this headspace of thinking that we stand alone. We need to not just be seen on magazine covers; we need to be presidents of companies, fashion directors and editors in order to have a truly authentic voice. I’m now see- ing these kinds of changes being made, and I just hope that they stay. As long as things keep improving in this direction, I think the future is pretty bright.”
Bianca Saunders, designer and founder of Bianca Saunders
“It’s been quite difficult to discuss the past few months, as I feel it’s a period we’re still going through. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was so worried about what the end result would be, but I do think that many positive things have come out of it. People have really been able to understand my work, which has always been quite multifaceted -- it’s not just the clothes, it’s also any creative project that I put out. “It’s also been a year of reflection, of taking the time to focus. Previously, I was so used to celebrating a moment in different ways, but not actually living in it. Always looking forward to the next thing coming along. But we’ve now all really had time to do one thing and sit with it for a good amount of time, which is really good practice for any creative.
“Though it can sometimes be difficult to admit it, things are getting better. I’ve moved into different stages of my career, which gives me a sense of hope. And the most difficult thing has been getting over the challenges of this year and finding new solutions. I’ve gained a new sense of confidence from having to push myself further than I ever thought I could. We still have to figure out how the rest of the year will look, but I’m really grateful that I’m still at the beginning of my career; I still have the knowledge and ability to run every single part of the business, and if I have to do it all in isolation again, I know I can.”
Ola Ebiti, stylist
“The solitude that the pandemic has brought has really al- lowed me to look inwards and reflect on what I want to say and how I want my voice to be perceived. It’s given me more time to research and actually produce things that are 100% my vision. My eyes have been opened to a lot of things that I’d taken for granted, and I think I’m a lot more honest, and a lot more guttural with the way I respond to things.
“I’m a genuinely hopeful person, and I think it’s really important for POC creatives to keep the conversation going, because we’re the ones who can eventually advance it. I’m Nigerian, so during the #EndSARS protests, I’ve been think- ing about how I can lend my creative voice to the movement and actually create work that can hopefully either inspire people or help to keep that momentum and the visual language around it going. It’s something so strongly about, it represents the beginning of the biggest social change in Nigeria of our time. Another thing that makes me hopeful for the future is just seeing so many people create great work within the context of the pandemic. If you can still find a way to produce and create within all of these limits, that demonstrates an ability to overcome great obstacles. if you can do that, just think of what else you can do.”