Me and Black History by Kay Rufai

As the final days of September wind down, and the endless approaches from corporates and organisations regarding my availability in October sufficiently serve the purpose of boosting my ego as an ‘in-demand’ artist, it suddenly dawns on me that Black History month is upon us. This shouldn’t be a surprise as it’s a well-known phenomenon that myself and many black artists are all too familiar with – the unresponsive gatekeepers who barely acknowledge the value of our work all year round, only to bombard us in September with incessant messages on multiple social media platforms heralding us as the greatest thing since *insert latest viral craze*. Yet it still always surprises me. I naively harbour the hope every year that ‘this time, we would be seen as an integral part of the regular programming you offer your audience/customers all year round’, but alas, this is few and far between.

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‘You should be grateful’, whispers the miniature sized starving artist that permanently squats on my right shoulder, but for some reason, this month, this year, this time we are in… COVID, BLM, 2020, I feel none of that emotion. Instead, I am reminded of how incredibly valuable mine, and other black artist’s works are – not just in October but 365 days a year and we should stand unapologetically tall about that. It’s always reassuring to see that some established partnerships rise above this tokenistic trope, and traversing down the Nine Elms area, greeted with the S.M.I.L.E-ing boys faces staring back at me through the exhibited images on the noticeboards affirms this fruitful relationship with Wandsworth Council.

As I look around, I realise the richness of black History in the thread that weaves together all the subconscious inspirations I embody; from murals of quotes against walls that spark my imaginations and re-imaginations, to events once upon a time that excavate deep sadness and pains serving as the fuel needed to propel my locomotive engine towards a path filled with purpose and vision. The very knowledge that the legacy of the footprints I walk in were not those of hapless scoundrels begging for scraps to eat, nor was it beginning with legs in chains and fingers picking cotton, but instead, valiant, graceful innovators who shaped their imaginations into tangible monuments that, only now can I recognise the value of. The very knowledge of this sparks into existence the pride that emboldens me when I think of my calling as a socially engaged artist, who’s role is to create art as a solution to society’s ills.

The daunting thought of adding a few lines into what is soon to become the history books, cripples me with inferiority complex, and I wonder, what is it that I have to say that could sit confidently alongside the Baldwins, the Dubois and the Blackmans of my time – and the answer unearths itself in the S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys. I look at these beautiful black boys and see the documentation of the present as the conservation of the future. I see that radical act of empowering one to re-imagine self in ways unbeknownst to one, only to discover newness that dispels myths and stereotypes, newness that unshackles and enlivens, newness that demands you see the humanity in them, newness that holds a mirror up to the society saying, ‘look at yourself, what do you see?’.

This potential contribution to the histories of tomorrow inspires me to imagine the black futures NOW, not tomorrow, not the day after, but N-O-W.

S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys is NOW.

This eight-week process of creating a strong dynamic based on trust and positive belonging with 20 black boys from St John Bosco school, is built upon eight pillars of happiness. This stems from my Wellcome Trust funded, six-month-long ethnographic research trip to the top five happiest countries in the world in 2018, then using my findings to design workshops steeped in creative mediums such as photography, poetry, film and discussions. For me to uncover the version of these young black boys that the Nine Elms passer-by’s now marvel at in all their armour-less vulnerability, the process is even more enthralling than the output seen on the noticeboards. Building trust is a core pillar of any relationship, not least one between boys (yes, myself included lol). The cloaks of stoicism are ripped off as we step into a space created to foster honesty and vulnerability. We collaboratively create ‘expectations’ not ‘rules’, of which we are all to abide by (including me). We establish a non-hierarchical knowledge and power structure, much to their surprise and I ensure this is fostered all the way through till the eighth week.

We peel away layer after layer, themes from the eight pillars of happiness: Trust, Togetherness & Belonging, Money, Freedom, Purpose, Health (Mental & Physical), Democracy & Balance. I empower them to get into the habit of sharing their emotions, and if you know anything about boys and the ways in which we are socialised (again, ‘we’ – I’m not letting my youth go…lol), you’ll know that getting more words than ‘calm, cool, chill, drippy, safe’ is nothing short of a miracle, thanks to patriarchy. I introduce a ‘Mood Box’ which simply serves as an emotion dump where they are encouraged to genuinely write how they feel anonymously (if they wish), without ever being questioned or interrogated about it. I let them know I would only look at the contents of the box at the very end of the eighth week, and this slowly gets them to open up daily with elaborate – dare I say – sentences, in a bid to improve their emotional literacy.

We debate, we challenge, and I empower them with cameras to go into their neighbourhoods to photograph places and people they trust and don’t trust, who they spend their time with, and where they feel free and not free. They bring this back into the classroom and we listen as each of them contextualises their images, and in some cases poetically annotate.

The penultimate week is the week they all look forward to, not because they get to leave school on an educational trip-NO, it’s the Nandos, of course it’s the Nandos. I harness this excitement all day as I attempt to – like a music conductor – channel the perfect harmony of vulnerability and authenticity as I ask them to select the colourful background that best characterises who they really are, on the colourful painted stairs of the Tate Britain building.

We debrief about their experience at the art institution as black boys and get them to explore what that felt like for them, all the while counting down how many wings they are about to order in Nandos.

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This process is sacred and points to the reason why the final images seen on the Nine Elms noticeboards and across Brixton Village seem to strike the chords in the hearts and souls of the viewers as it does.

They are the Black future.

The black history is NOW.

Kay Rufai is a photographer, poet, filmmaker, author, creative facilitator and mental health researcher. He has spent the past three years exploring the intersection between culture, identity, masculinity, racial emancipation, mental health and community cohesion.

His award-winning S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys project, a public health researched photo-documentary project that explores the impact of smiling on improving wellbeing for black boys, violence reduction and as a tool to challenge negative stereotypes of this demographic in the society, has been featured in the Guardian, The Voice, and by the BBC.