How creativity, visibility and history can combine to shape the new world
We speak to the creatives leading sessions during Black History Month as part of our New World programme with Today at Apple.
- Siham Ali
- 26 January 2021
New World is a 12-week programme of free hands-on virtual sessions and Creative Guides taking place throughout February, March and April. Hosted by Today at Apple and It’s Nice That, these sessions will be focused on exploring the power of creativity to bring about change, fostering connection and collaboration, and learning new creative skills to rebuild a better world.
The past year has seen two simultaneous shifts. We’ve seen the rise of arguably the most global racial-justice movement in decades, and yet at the same time we’ve also witnessed disturbing lurches in the opposite direction across dozens of countries. Even so, the positive push for equality and representation continues across the globe with no signs of submission, from pro-choice movements in Poland to the fight for racial equality in the US and beyond. But where does creativity come into this fight against inequality? And how is it being used as a tool to subvert the status quo?
These are some of the questions that we’ll be exploring throughout February as part of our New World programme of virtual sessions and Creative Guides in partnership with Today at Apple. During the US’s Black History Month, we’ll be joined by three leading creatives, who will each discuss their own creative practice and where they find inspiration, before leading a session to demonstrate and teach one particular skill or technique. We’re delighted to announce that these sessions will be moderated by the writer, curator and activist Kimberly Drew, who recently collaborated with Jenna Wortham on Black Futures, a collection of radical, imaginative work by contemporary Black creators.
We’re also incredibly excited to announce that the three creatives leading these sessions will be Tré Seals, Shan Wallace and Joshua Kissi. In their own very unique ways, these artists and designers all approach their work with a profound understanding of history. But that’s not to say they’re backward-looking; instead they see history as a way to forge a fresh vision for the future. As we’ll see, history can be a powerful resource for artists and designers, helping them to rewrite false narratives and educate a society in need of some stark lessons. To explore this topic further, we spoke to this group of artists, who look to the past in hopes of redeeming the future.
Bronx-based photographer and director Joshua Kissi is one of them. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once warned the world of the “danger of a single story” during a Ted Talk. During our interview, Joshua references the novelist to reiterate the importance of variety and nuance when telling Black stories, something he seeks to do in his work. Joshua is a self-professed “West African griot”, a storyteller and poet in an oral tradition. “I really truly think of myself as a griot who is passing down stories for future generations,” he says. For Joshua, the celebratory nature of Black storytelling has inspired his own craft: “Our history is passed down through music, celebrations, food, intimacy, the list is endless. I really try to encompass the art of Black storytelling within my photography and filmmaking.”
Joshua picked up his first camera at 18 years of age and immediately found his calling. He also points to the family albums that gave him an introspective look into his motherland: Ghana. On reflection, Joshua recognises that was when he first noticed photography’s role in leaving a legacy and lineage behind.
12 years later and Joshua sees himself as a mirror, one that the Black community can look at and see themselves reflected back in: “I saw that there was a gap and that something was missing. I truly believe when you see yourself in creative work, it registers differently. That’s why inclusivity and equity are so important for the world.” Before completing any piece of work, Joshua sets himself a goal to spark a connection with the viewer, whilst conveying the multifaceted nature of Black America.
From his Jump Ball series, which explores the unifying relationship between basketball and the Black diaspora, to his documentation of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Parade entitled Banded, Joshua is committed to educating and usurping the idea of a “single image”. Speaking about the latter project, he says: “The Mardi Gras Festival I shot in New Orleans opened up people’s perspectives of what they thought Black culture was, especially here in America, by showing Black people’s connection to indigenous Native American culture.”
Likewise, using creativity as a tool to educate and enlighten the world is at the very core of Baltimore-born photographer and activist Shan Wallace’s work. The 29-year-old describes herself as a nomad who is intrinsically tied to her beloved city of Baltimore. She has dedicated her entire practice to filling in the gaps of Black history through her archival work.
Like Joshua, Shan believes that without nuance, there is an omission of truth. “I spend a great deal of my time learning how to contribute to our complex and multifaceted history,” she says, adding: “For me, the goal is to make work that offers balance and to make images that people are proud of – images we can celebrate now and in years to come.” Certainly, for both artists, it’s about connecting the dots to eventually showcase a much larger and more colourful image, one that rejects the homogeneous Black narrative we’ve often been taught.
Shan’s work is inspired by the stories and people that form the bedrock of Baltimore – from the social to the economic. She tells It’s Nice That: “Archiving became a top priority because I realised I wanted my community and myself to be authors of our history. Archiving is collaboration, it’s communal, it’s a labour of love, it’s my offering to my people.” Looking to the future, Joshua echoes Shan’s sentiment on ownership and authorship: “I am working towards telling stories of connectivity and providing a space where we are the main authors of our story. That’s crucial in helping us move forward as a society.”
Tré Seals, the DC-based designer and founder of the type foundry Vocal Type, is on the same wavelength. Last year, as social-justice movements swept America, type was suddenly centre stage and louder than ever. “Protests, signs, and fonts are all tools for change,” Tré explains. “So, my reasoning for doing what I do is very utilitarian. When I look back on my life, starting a foundry just kind of made sense, especially because of my love of history.” Like Joshua and Shan, Tré believes an industry that’s 85-per-cent white can only tell a single story.
Since George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, Tré’s Martin, Bayard and Marsha fonts have been used in Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the form of signs, murals and exhibitions. “The Black Lives Matter movement reinforces this idea that typography needs humanity to tell stories,” Tré says. His hopes are that society looks below the surface of type to understand the history behind it. His own creative process is an educational and cathartic one. Before he gets to work on a font, he begins by choosing a progressive movement – for instance, the Civil Rights movement – researching impactful moments from that time. He then bases a new typeface on that pivotal moment in history. This is the designer’s way of making sure there are diversity and meaning in the words we find surrounding us – from shop signs to protest murals.
Over in Baltimore, Shan describes her artistic calling as one that was sparked by the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida. “The urge manifested into a knowing of my power and how I could use photography as a tool,” she says. “I had to figure out how to be of service by thinking creatively and critically about the type of work I wanted to make.” Three years later, Baltimore had an uprising after Freddie Gray was murdered by police, leading Shan to launch a project entitled For Us By Us whereby several black-and-white images of the Black community were plastered across vacant buildings and walls. From a father feeding his child from a milk bottle to protestors marching through the street, these stories became available for everyone to see. At the time, Shan told Baltimore Magazine: “You don’t always have to give back by protesting. People have to be effective in any way they can. This is my way.”
Away from their creative output, artists like Joshua are uplifting other creative ambitions through initiatives like See in Black, a collective he set up along with photographer Micaiah Carter to give Black artists more visibility, whilst raising funds for organisations that are looking to dismantle systematic race-based oppression. He ends our conversation with an honest and heartfelt wish for the future: “With See in Black, we want to stand as an indicator of what is possible when our stories are at the forefront. We’re hoping to use what we know to take back the power and create an equal playing field.”
Throughout February, as part of New World, we’ll be hosting live virtual sessions with each of these creatives, exploring many of the issues we’ve covered here. You can read more about those sessions and sign up for free using the boxes below. We look forward to seeing you in February.
About the Author
Siham Ali is a freelance culture writer and commentator. She frequently works with Creative Lives in Progress and is the deputy editor of the annual print and digital magazine, Roundtable Journal. She's written for the likes of Vice, Gal-dem, New Statesman, Between Borders Magazine, ART UK, plus many more.