Oh a renaissance! The state of the creative industry from a Black perspective
We explore how the creative industry has and hasn’t changed since the institutional responses to Black Lives Matter in 2020, through candid interviews and artistic responses.
In Isaac Julien’s seminal film Looking for Langston, the artist-filmmaker traces the private lives and work of key figures in the Harlem Renaissance. A pivotal movement of the 1920s, institutions have long looked back to the period to find the beginning of what many consider the first Black creative movement. Throughout the film, black-and-white dreamlike sequences, archival footage and the echoes of words by Black queer writers – Langston Hughes, Brian Nugent, James Baldwin and Essex Hemphill – are combined to tell the personal stories of some of its most prominent artists and the movement at large. But amidst the musings and odes, one Langston Hughes quote rings ever so loud: “*By the end of the 20s Black people were no longer in vogue, patrons found other uses for their money.”
There is no denying that we are living in a Black renaissance. With a constant stream of new projects throughout the industry heralding Black people, cultures and history, from the outside looking in, it would seem as though Black creatives have arrived. With a rise in art institutions programming exhibitions of emerging artists, and retrospectives alike, and the film and television industry producing an increasing number of shows and films with Black contemporary and historical narratives – that can be neatly curated into ‘Black Lives Matter’ collections across streaming platforms – it is not a question of whether or not Black creativity is being showcased in the mainstream. Rather, it’s if the industry has created a space for these creatives that is both sustainable and progressive.
In order to explore the current impact on Black creatives, we speak to Seth Scafe-Smith of Resolve Collective, Bumpkin Files founder and photographer Karis Beaumont, and Galerie Gomis (formerly Galerie Number 8) founder Marie Gomis-Trezise, alongside three artists and illustrators who have visually responded to the topic for this article.
"We don’t only require continuous opportunities, but infrastructure. And sometimes, that infrastructure challenges the way that institutions have been operating since the day they started out."Seth Scafe-Smith
Resolve is an interdisciplinary collective made up of brothers Akil and Seth Scafe-Smith, their co-director Melissa Haniff, Jana Dardouk, Nina Jang and Lauren-Lois Duah. Working across art, design, engineering, technology and architecture, their work is best described as socially transformative, both for the marginalised communities they centre and the spaces it inhabits. Often building structures – from recycled materials – such as pavilions for local communities and gallery installations, what they produce may stand for only a time, but its impact is far from transient.
The collective, founded in 2016, made their mark with their first couple of projects in Brixton, South London. Considering the area’s history as a home for Caribbean migrants, civil rights groups and much of the Black cultural production throughout the city, Seth sees their early work in a Black British as “impossible to get away from”. Their first project encompassed the permeable eight-day-standing Rebel Space, made out of recyclable materials found in the area as a part of Brixton Design Trail, which acted as a site for celebration of the African Diaspora, women and the area’s history. “Our mother was even involved in that project and it has shaped her practice as well as ours. When I think about it, I think Akil and I have had this passed down to us, even if indirectly,” he adds.
“We haven’t really had the time to stop and think about 2020,” Seth tells us. A difficult time for the trio, with the overwhelming climate full of statements of solidarity, Seth adds that he “found it so very overwhelming, we turned down a lot of opportunities”. Three years later, in what is their biggest institutional feat to date, in April the collective opened an exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London titled them’s the breaks – which proved to be a bold continuation of their communal approach, having featured a library, a stage built with recycled materials and a series of workshops. A month before its scheduled close, people across Instagram, the architecture world, and Black and PoC communities were left to sit with yet another example of the institutional failings for Black creatives, after the collective announced that they’d be pulling the show due to “hostility towards close family and friends; heavy-handed and overly-suspicious treatment when entering our exhibition with a group of other Black and Brown artists [...] and anti-Palestinian censorship,” (in a statement published in Fumbalist Magazine).
Seth recounts the exhibition as “obviously not ending the way we wanted it to”. But, he also speaks to a wider issue throughout the industry, where the sheer grandeur of the institution sometimes creates an illusion of progress. “We had what was seen as a huge opportunity, but we’re still continually facing potential eviction from our studio,” Seth tells us. Being a combination of inconsistent funding, “changes in the area” and the cost of living crisis, Seth questions the legitimacy of institutional support, if marginalised creatives are still facing these problems. “What is required is not just continuous opportunities, it’s infrastructure. And sometimes, that infrastructure challenges the way that institutions have been operating since the day they started out.”
“Renaissances can be beautiful, but fleeting. So, established creatives should consider their impermanence, and make a plan to save themselves while helping the next generation.”Seth Scafe-Smith
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Resolve Collective: Ships At A Distance (Becky Payne Photography, 2022)
With similar sentiments toward the realm of architecture, the members – who all started their careers working directly in the field – are now focused on opening up opportunities for creatives from marginalised backgrounds to be included in the changes occurring in their surrounding built environments. (A recent report published by the Architectural Registration Board in April found that Black British people only account for 1% of chartered architects, despite making up 4% of the country’s population.)
“It’s all smoke and mirrors in architecture a lot of the time. When we really start to unpack design education, from the standpoint of your relationship to your local area, there are many offerings that everyone can give.” He adds: “Among racism we also need to address elitism and classism. Some people have aspirations to get more people from the ends into architecture. My aspiration would be to even challenge whether or not you need to do a three, four, five or six year degree to be able to operate in that space, or if it can be complemented by other forms of learning.”
As we speak to Seth, the collective are still on a high from the first run of their Nurturing Ecologies residency held in mid-August 2023. Hosted and delivered in Sheffield, the week-long experience brought together Black and marginalised people across a range of practices. Born out of the idea to offer respite, and an opportunity for them to share practices that may have initially seemed disparate, Seth believes these circular projects should factor significantly into future ways of working. With this in mind, he goes on to mention the collective’s desire to change their roles from central creators to facilitators, helping others to break new ground. “A renaissance can be beautiful, but it’s usually fleeting. So, established creatives should reckon with their own impermanence within the movement, and see how they can save themselves, while also fostering the next generation.”
When we asked Zoë Pulley to visually represent her experience as a Black creative today, she was adamant in focusing on her everyday experiences of joy in the world, as opposed to responding to an industry-ordained position. The US-based designer founded Black Joy Archive after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of the police. And, she has since been developing handmade Risograph printed archive books as a continuing safe space that centres authentic notions of Black joy within the community. “Amidst a worldwide pandemic Black people were forced to cope, reckon and process trauma time and time again. The archive is there with the intention to serve individuals as an ongoing practice in self-preservation and self-esteem,” she tells us.
In both volumes Zoë opens up the floor to a range of contributors to share their family photos and personal histories, but is determined that no two be the same. “It can’t be, because we aren’t monolithic.” Since starting, Zoë says that she has seen major changes and a growth in corporate entities co-opting terms such as Black Joy, and on a wider level Black Lives Matter. “Various institutions very publicly cosigned their solidarity to various D&I initiatives, and are once again, quiet,” she says. “It’s imperative that this work is a snapshot of the current moment of Black joy as a self-defined designation, instead of flailing with mainstream expectations of what and when it should exist.”
“My work continues to be a snapshot of the current moment of Black joy [...] instead of flailing with mainstream expectations of what, and when it should exist.”Zoë Pulley
The practice of Hertfordshire born and bred photographer and archivist Karis Beaumont is in constant flux. Her work moves between institution and community, commercial and personal, past and present, and London and beyond the M25, engaging viewers in a panoramic view of Black British life.
Karis’ journey into photography came through a desire to share all that was in her surroundings. “Black friends, Black culture and Black people,” she tells us. But, it wasn’t until she started working for the Black-owned magazine Guap, that she realised the potential of her practice. “I started out working on their social media, and one day they asked me if I wanted to do some photography.” Over the next few years, the photographer would see few opportunities but still tended to her craft through personal projects heralding Black life outside of London. Coming close to quitting, she negotiated with herself and her parents just one more year of photography, before 2020 arrived. “Everything changed, and I started to get booked. I guess brands had time to (umm) look around.”
Since working more commercially, Karis has become aware of the industry’s tendency to put Black photographers in a box and the impact that photographers have on the perception of Black life. “I prioritise Black models and Black people in my work, but I’m not limited to that. I won’t be boxed in,” she tells us. In the last two years, among her most popular work is documentations of artists such as Stormzy, Little Simz, and her long-time collaborator and best friend Shae Universe. For Karis, approaching each and every shoot with an understanding of the subject’s humanity, as opposed to public image, makes for more honest depictions of Blackness that don’t rely on stereotypes or reactionary depictions that seek to combat them. “I definitely see a difference in how our humanity and essence is captured when it’s by us.”
“Helping Black creatives is sharing resources and learnings that can’t be found on Google. Real advice like licensing procedures.”Karis Beaumont
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Karis Beaumont: Dylan & Leo, Bumpkin Files (Copyright © Karis Beaumont, 2021)
When considering the sustainability of her career, Karis is galvanised by the material and community surrounding her archive Bumpkin Files. “It’s just so much bigger than me. I can see it being featured in exhibitions, history books, and recognised as a core portion of history.” A trip to its Instagram page presents a myriad of representations – from family photographs and album covers by Black British bands, to documentary shots of protest and ceremony of the past and present – all from outside the London epicentre. But, in her eyes, there are very real actions that the industry could take to ensure that her archive isn’t just a place full of amazing photographs, leaving newcomers awe-struck at the vastness of Blackness outside of the capital. “OK, the conversation [around Black British life outside of London] has started, but it needs to translate to the creative industry in terms of hiring and inclusion,” she tells us.
Karis also believes that many Black photographers can be set up to fail before they even start out, with the prevalent hoarding of information throughout the industry. “Helping Black creatives is sharing resources and learnings that can't be easily found on Google,” she tells us. “Real tangible things like licensing procedures.” Announcing her addition to Kintzing’s licensing roster earlier this year, she reflects on the real monetary value that it can have for Black creatives who are susceptible to the industry’s temperamental support. “I’ve seen a lot of Black creatives get their work stolen; licensing combats that. I didn’t book a job for the entirety of this year’s first quarter (I think the industry is hiring less of us again), and if I had licensing then, that would’ve helped. It’s how a lot of photographers and creatives in general sustain themselves. I want to share it as far and wide as possible, and help others. It’s all about the collective,” she adds.
“Always connect to your own voice, just be prepared for unsolicited criticism from people who would rather you keep your perspective to yourself.”Olana Janfa
In another visual response, Olana Janfa rather connects to his experiences of brands and individuals “wanting to associate with or have Black talent in their feeds,” he tells us. In a time where he feels that there is more opportunity for Black creatives and a growing number of eyes on the creativity that is flowing from the culture, the Ethiopian-Norweigan artist wanted to call out the ‘good content’ response that lacks sincerity. Living and working in Australia, Olana saw the awareness of racism beginning to rise in 2020, before quickly halting along with the emergence of the next social media trend. At the time, the artist created a painting titled Black Lives No Matter No More in direct response to the issue, which saw his foray into a new style of work as he “never intended to create work that is political”.
“When you connect to your authenticity through your creative outlet, people feel it,” Olana says. Although the industry may not be as accommodating and still struggling to part ways with the white, top-tier educated middle-class art and design school graduates, he believes that among audiences (and even the brands), there will always be a craving for different perspectives and cultural influences. “So, always connect to your own voice, just be prepared for unsolicited criticism from people who would rather you keep your perspective to yourself, or go back to being a grateful immigrant.”
Marie Gomis-Trezise took the industry by storm with her platform Galerie Number 8 (now called Galerie Gomis) in 2016. Having no previous experience in the art world, but a continued irritation at the industry’s sidelining of Black artists, she set out to platform a range of photographers throughout the African diaspora and on the continent. In its beginnings, the platform provided an invaluable space and threshold for Black artists to create and showcase their work authentically. Among them are fashion editor, stylist and current Dazed editor, Ib Kamara – who Marie helped to put in the conversation as an equally talented photographer – and the London-based filmmaker and photographer Campbell Addy. Now, we speak to her at what is one of the proudest moments of her career, on the second day of her physical gallery’s opening with a Kyle Weeks exhibition. “It’s a responsibility and I have to be very careful with it,” she tells us.
As a clear decipherer of talent within the creative industries, Marie is certain that there is no shortage of Black photographers and artists, but a rising air of same-old documentations of Blackness. “A lot of the work I am seeing is very diluted. I don’t know if it’s imitation or because of a lot of work is coming through online, but it feels like authenticity is being lost,” she tells us. Amidst any movement, there are bound to be visual trends that contribute to the defining of an era, but when the only vehicle for showcasing these works is online – chiefly through social media – there seems to be an increasingly algorithmic approach to creating. The gallerist and collector put a lot of this down to a wave of responses throughout 2020, both to tragedy and photographers taking up the task of counteracting tragic imagery. “2020 brought great interest in us, from the art world. And, a lot of photographers are still creating from that place. Some try to find a taste that will please everyone. Some I’m into, others not so much. But, I will never blame Black photographers for trying to make money,” she adds.
“2020 brought great interest in us, from the art world. And, a lot of photographers are still creating from that place.”Marie Gomis-Trezise
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Kyle Weeks: Joshua (Copyright © Kyle Weeks and courtesy of Galerie Gomis, 2021)
In the last few years, the sales of artworks by Black artists across the world have seen much attention in the media, typically alluding to a “first (or second) Black” or African narrative. Kerry James Marshall’s sale of his painting Past Times was quickly taglined as the ‘second highest sale of a painting by a living African-American artist’ and the value of African art is constantly being measured through the lens of Western commercial galleries’ purchasing. “Everything has been about the huge artists, but what about Black collectors, where is the support for Black collectors?” Marie says.
Adamant that real change comes with the support of smaller entities, as opposed to the hype surrounding big names and six- and seven-figure sales, Marie is not shocked by it as a core characteristic of capitalism, and intends to lean on the community she’s built to get her through. “I grew up in Marseille to a Senegalese family, and I never really found my place. I moved to Paris, it was the same thing, I lived in London, it was the same thing. But, this time in Brussels I looked around and said: There are Black artists here and everywhere, we will make it work. And now, I have a lot of hope.”
Renaissances have always seemed to be bittersweet, as a rise is often followed by a mighty fall; a few years of institutional success before the majority go on to face even more years of obscurity. In an act of preservation, Seth (and the other members of Resolve), Karis and Marie have embedded a communal structure as a core tenant of their practices. Karis shows us this not only through her archive, but advocacy for non-singular representations of Black life in Britain. “A lot of brands or institutions don’t care to focus on Black British people outside of London or in Europe, and when you only centre one narrative, you further marginalise Black creatives and culture as a whole,” she says.
In the true spirit of its name, Resolve understand that institutions will never bear the required infrastructure and work to bridge the gap between marginalised people and the creative industries. “What we’re seeing now with a lot of Black and marginalised creatives is an inclination to look back to and work with their community,” he tells us. “We have always and will always be creative, we just have to learn from previous generations in order to help the next.” And for Marie, she builds a physical space in order to allow authentic creativity to thrive.
As we reflect on the changes since 2020, the approach to their practices has changed tenfold – some more intentionally joyous and others more political. They are all unified in demonstrating the importance of crafting practices that aren't determined by outside validation and images of success from decades past. And they are all strong in their advocacy for Black creatives being more than temporary tokens for brands and institutions that wish to put a plaster on the racism of today and yesteryear. Because although a renaissance can be a beautiful time, later marked in history for its fresh thinking and cultural impact, what is needed is sustained, permanent support for its creators so their ideas can continue to flourish.
*This quote has been altered for sensitivity reasons
(Copyright © Terrell Villiers, 2023)
About the Author
Yaya (they/them) is a staff writer at It's Nice That, with a particular interest in Black visual culture. They have previously written for publications such as WePresent, and worked as researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.