The artist helping black teenage boys feel seen, heard and inspired

In our Offering Voice series, we meet three individuals who reveal young individuals of colour the power of self-expression– helping them to explore their heritage, give voice to their identity and tell their own story. Next up, artist Kay Rufai, who gives teens the possibility to speak about what it suggests to be young, black and male

The job has caught attention for its striking picture series of 13-year-old black kids, grinning versus a vibrant-coloured background, which has been on display in City Hall and at Brixton Village market. At exhibits, Rufai says he discovered that black young boys and males were particularly touched by the images, seeing themselves– or their younger selves– reflected. Mothers and mothers-to-be were likewise relocated to tears “for this variation of their kids or unborn black kids”, he says.

Its not frequently black kids are paid for a space to express their happiness. After all, media representations of black kids seldom wander off beyond wrongdoer or the victim of violence.

Its this in part that moved Kay Rufai, a British-Nigerian artist, photographer and author, to produce the Smile-ing Boys job, which deals with the mental health requirements of black kids while challenging their often-negative media representation.

He took a trip to nations that regularly rank among the worlds happiest, such as Bhutan and Denmark, to determine why life there is so good. He came away with 8 primary factors he deemed accountable for happiness, which consisted of a sense belonging and purpose, in addition to liberty, security and good health.

With financing from the Wellcome Trust– Rufais 39th effort to protect financing for this research, he keeps in mind– the very first step was rather enthusiastic: find out the secret to happiness.

But it is more than a creative endeavour. Smile-ing Boys was created as a direct action to the rise in youth knife crime between 2017 and 2018. While the government responded with harder criminalisation steps, Rufai wished to dive much deeper into the general public health method, and ask whether enhancing psychological health care for the group most impacted could have a positive impact.

Portraits of some of the teens who took part in the Smile-ing Boys job

Rufai found the kids reluctant to take part. “But after one session, word goes out that it is a safe space that enables them to be unapologetically authentic and be valued,” he discusses. “Soon enough, demands begin flying in. The boys say they feel seen, heard and inspired.”

That then led Rufai to the meat of the task: an eight-week arts based workshop program for a group of 20 13-year-old black young boys at a school in Brixton, south London.

The age group is intentional, he informs Positive News: “They are developed enough to understand complex themes around identity, but not formed enough in their own identity to resist originalities. It is an extremely pivotal stage, where they are at an important cusp in their cognitive advancement.”

The young boys say they feel seen, heard and inspired

Given that the pilot in Brixton, which began in 2018, he has delivered the program at schools in 3 more boroughs around London, and has funding to extend it to schools in another 2: Hackney and Newham. Each time, Rufai works with 20 black young boys for 8 weeks, assigning them weekly creative jobs such as photography or poetry, all based on the 8 pillars of happiness he recognized on his journeys. For one project, the young boys are given cameras to photo a person and an area they trusted and a location that they didnt, accompanied by a short poetry piece or caption.

Rufais experiences as a black British-Nigerian were an essential inspiration behind the task. Growing up without a father, he states, inspired him to deal with kids and young men in the criminal justice system, gangs and exemption units.

One theme that has come up again and again throughout the different groups is “the lack of flexibility that this demographic has and the pressure that they face, particularly navigating organizations like education and the criminal justice system”, he states.

Kay Rufai with the group featured in the exhibition

Within school, the boys have actually demonstrated that they are better able to handle their anger, and got fewer detentions. Beyond school, too, they have prevented what Rufai refers to as “violent outcomes” by utilizing conflict resolution abilities learned in the programme.

Seeing the jobs transformative influence on the boys lives has actually been “amazing”, Rufai states. Using the assessment design developed for the project, he has actually determined a 28 per cent increase in overall happiness amongst the participants, and a 22 per cent increase in aspiration and self-regard.

It hasnt been without challenges. Funding from bodies consisting of Arts Council England has enabled him to expand and maintain the programme into more schools, but for every grant he has received he approximates he has actually obtained 20 more. “Its succeeding, but thats in spite of not having the methodical push that is essential for it to continually reach the group,” he states. “Its a journey that very much still has obstacles in the way.”

Kay Rufai visualized in Finsbury Park, north London. Image: Danika Lawrence

More crucially, he hopes that individuals will question why these images stay so rare. As he puts it: “What function do I play in a world that makes it uncommon to see black boys smiling like this?”

The swell of the Black Lives Matter movement in May and June has fired up fresh interest in the program, he says. It has also produced some introspection from the young boys themselves, about what it means to be young black men: “Ive had myriad conversations with a few of them in the months since George Floyds death about how that has been impacting them here in London, from their direct experiences with the authorities,” he says.

One example in specific sticks in his mind. At the opening of the exhibition for the photography series, among the individuals was late. “I asked the others where he was and they gave him a call. They said he d been dropped in a couple of men with weapons from another location, on his method to the exhibition,” Rufai remembers. Instead of enter into a fight, the kid had actually turned over the cash he had– ₤ 10– and made it to the exhibition. For young males like those on his pilot program, Rufai discusses, leaving rather than intensifying the circumstance was a huge step.

For Rufai himself, the task has actually brought function. “Seeing the everyday impact on the boys increases my happiness levels and my strength to keep promoting more modification,” he says.

” I saw myself in all these young kids,” Rufai remembers. “I acknowledged that my saving grace was the arts. I developed a job that allowed me to supply the tools that I want I had as a 13-year-old black young boy, to instil a sense of value about my identity as a black kid.”

I saw myself in all these young kids. I recognised that my saving grace was the arts

” The fact that he did that and was able to come and talk about it was substantial,” he states. “That was proof of a young person understanding the power of effect, when previously his very first port of call would have been violence which would have led to the type of regurgitated story we hear about young black people all the time.”

But he remains positive. Eventually, he hopes to present it to every school in London, and from 2021, he intends to start checking out how to adapt the programme for black women as well. Ultimately, Rufai hopes that anybody who sees the portraits might “smile as an outcome of the kids smiles”.

Main image: Danika Lawrence

At exhibitions, Rufai says he saw that black kids and men were especially touched by the images, seeing themselves– or their more youthful selves– shown. Each time, Rufai works with 20 black young boys for 8 weeks, designating them weekly creative tasks such as photography or poetry, all based on the eight pillars of happiness he determined on his journeys.” I saw myself in all these young boys,” Rufai remembers. I created a job that enabled me to supply the tools that I wish I had as a 13-year-old black boy, to instil a sense of worth about my identity as a black kid.”

Ultimately, Rufai hopes that anybody who sees the pictures might “smile as a result of the young boys smiles”.

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