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

The project has captured attention for its striking portrait series of 13-year-old black boys, grinning versus a vibrant-coloured backdrop, which has been on display screen in City Hall and at Brixton Village market. At exhibitions, Rufai states he discovered that black kids and guys were especially touched by the images, seeing themselves– or their more youthful selves– reflected. Mothers and mothers-to-be were also transferred to tears “for this version of their children or unborn black kids”, he says.

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

Its not often black kids are paid for a space to reveal their happiness. Media representations of black young boys rarely wander off beyond perpetrator or the victim of violence.

In our Providing Voice series, we meet 3 individuals who reveal young people of colour the power of self-expression– helping them to explore their heritage, offer voice to their identity and inform their own story. Next up, artist Kay Rufai, who offers teens the chance to discuss what it means to be young, male and black

With funding from the Wellcome Trust– Rufais 39th effort to secure funding for this research, he notes– the very first step was rather enthusiastic: find out the key to happiness.

It is more than an artistic endeavour. Smile-ing Boys was developed as a direct action to the increase in youth knife criminal activity between 2017 and 2018. While the federal government reacted with tougher criminalisation procedures, Rufai wished to dive deeper into the general public health technique, and ask whether improving psychological healthcare for the market most affected could have a positive effect.

He travelled to nations that regularly rank among the worlds happiest, such as Bhutan and Denmark, to determine why life there is so great. He came away with 8 main factors he deemed responsible for happiness, which included a sense belonging and function, as well as flexibility, security and health.

Pictures of a few of the teens who participated in the Smile-ing Boys task

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

Rufai found the young boys hesitant to take part. The young boys state they feel seen, heard and inspired.”

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

The young boys state they feel seen, heard and motivated

Since the pilot in Brixton, which began in 2018, he has delivered the programme 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 deals with 20 black young boys for 8 weeks, appointing them weekly imaginative jobs such as photography or poetry, all based on the eight pillars of joy he recognized on his journeys. For one task, the young boys are given video cameras to photograph an area and an individual they relied on and a location that they didnt, accompanied by a short poetry piece or caption.

Rufais experiences as a black British-Nigerian were a key inspiration behind the job. Maturing without a daddy, he says, inspired him to work with young boys and young guys in the criminal justice system, gangs and exemption units.

One theme that has turned up once again and once again throughout the various groups is “the absence of liberty that this market has and the pressure that they deal with, especially browsing organizations like education and the criminal justice system”, he states.

Kay Rufai with the group featured in the exhibit

The swell of the Black Lives Matter motion in May and June has sparked fresh interest in the program, he says. It has also brought about some introspection from the young boys themselves, about what it means to be young black guys: “Ive had myriad discussions with a few of them in the months considering that George Floyds death about how that has been impacting them here in London, from their direct experiences with the cops,” he says.

” I saw myself in all these young boys,” Rufai remembers. “I recognised that my saving grace was the arts. So I produced a task that enabled me to provide the tools that I wish I had as a 13-year-old black kid, to instil a sense of worth about my identity as a black kid.”

Seeing the jobs transformative effect on the young boys lives has actually been “extraordinary”, Rufai states. Using the assessment model devised for the job, he has actually measured a 28 per cent boost in overall happiness amongst the participants, and a 22 percent boost in aspiration and self-worth.

For Rufai himself, the task has actually brought purpose. “Seeing the day-to-day impact on the boys increases my joy levels and my resilience to keep pushing for more modification,” he states.

” The fact that he did that and was able to talk and come about it was huge,” he says. “That was proof of a young adult comprehending the power of repercussion, when formerly his very first port of call would have been violence and that would have led to the sort of regurgitated story we become aware of young black people all the time.”

Funding from bodies consisting of Arts Council England has allowed him to expand and preserve the programme into more schools, but for every grant he has actually gotten he approximates he has applied for 20 more. “Its doing well, however thats in spite of not having the methodical push that is needed for it to continuously reach the demographic,” he says.

I saw myself in all these young boys. I identified that my saving grace was the arts

However he stays positive. Eventually, he hopes to introduce it to every school in London, and from 2021, he intends to start looking into how to adapt the programme for black women. Ultimately, Rufai hopes that anybody who sees the portraits might “smile as a result of the boys smiles”.

Within school, the boys have shown that they are better able to handle their anger, and got less detentions. Beyond school, too, they have prevented what Rufai explains as “violent outcomes” by utilizing conflict resolution skills learned in the program.

They said he d been stopped by a couple of men with weapons from another location, on his way to the exhibit,” Rufai remembers. Rather than get into a battle, the boy had actually handed over the money he had– ₤ 10– and made it to the exhibit. For young guys like those on his pilot programme, Rufai describes, strolling away rather than intensifying the scenario was a huge action.

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

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

Main image: Danika Lawrence

Ultimately, Rufai hopes that anyone who sees the portraits may “smile as an outcome of the boys smiles”.

At exhibitions, Rufai says he noticed that black kids and men were particularly touched by the images, seeing themselves– or their more youthful selves– shown. Each time, Rufai works with 20 black boys for eight weeks, assigning them weekly imaginative jobs such as photography or poetry, all based on the eight pillars of joy he identified on his journeys.” I saw myself in all these young kids,” Rufai recalls. I produced a job that allowed me to provide the tools that I want I had as a 13-year-old black kid, to instil a sense of worth about my identity as a black child.”

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