It’s been two years since COVID-19 disrupted our routines, followed by a global race toll that turned a mirror of society. Three black Calgary creatives – Sydonne Warren, Badria Abubaker and Tomi Ajele – are working to elevate black voices and bring new perspectives to the city’s art scene.
Through the mediums of art, film, and writing, their work demonstrates a unique self-expression that references and refocuses Black experiences and influences.
To celebrate Black History Month, the three women reflect on Calgary’s changing art landscape and reimagine a new normal for black art.
Sydonne Warren, award-winning visual artist
Artist Sydonne Warren is driven by the goal of normalizing black faces in Calgary’s public spaces, transforming socially marginalized black identities into opportunities to be seen, heard and represented. She is known for her digital art, murals and large-scale expressive paintings, and she shares her art by hosting local paint nights at various venues in Calgary.
Ms Warren, 29, has had a creative mind since childhood. Her journey to becoming a visual artist began in 2013 when, inspired by local artists online, she learned to draw portraits while on maternity leave.
Later, she decided to enroll in the Alberta University of the Arts. Shortly after the pandemic lockdowns began in 2020, Ms Warren became a muralist, painting and sketching every night until she was finally commissioned by companies to create murals.
She describes her time in confinement as a time when she put paint on canvas in order to create meaning in the midst of chaos and disruption. “I was able to focus more on my practice because we were in lockdown,” she says. “It was like having an artist residency at home.”
In order to understand and experience her world, Ms. Warren consciously centers black beauty in her work. Born in Jamaica, she moved to the Calgary area when she was 3 years old. She combined the study of her Jamaican culture with her own experience as a black woman in Canada to conceptualize her voice through her art.
“Growing up, I felt pressure not to fall into negative stereotypes about black women,” she says. “I learned to use my experiences with misogyny, ageism, racism as well as my perseverance and acceptance as keys to success in telling my story.”
Since the racial justice protests that erupted in 2020, Ms. Warren has hoped that black art will be established as part of a new normal in Calgary, with greater representation and freedom for black artists.
“There are a lot of emerging black artists who don’t know the industry,” she says. “I would like to see a show dedicated to emerging black artists to encourage networking, mentorship and sales.”
She remains inspired by something her partner told her earlier in her career when she felt uncertain as a freelancer. “He said, ‘You’re an artist. Be an artist. These words kept me focused on my passion and I still use these words to remind myself of what my purpose is.
Badria Abubaker, journalist, director and producer
In 2018, Badria Abubaker released Dark hair, a short documentary that explores racial stereotypes and controversies surrounding Afro-textured hair. The intention of the film was to spark a dialogue about the experiences of people with natural black hair in society. For Abubaker, it was a personal passion project that combined art, darkness and media with visionary roots planted many years before.
“I picked up my first camera in eighth grade and immediately saw its endless creative potential,” she says. “Although I was young, that moment sparked my love for cinema, giving me confidence.”
Born in Kenya, she moved to Alberta when she was 2 years old. Growing up, Ms. Abubaker naturally turned to influences drawn from the imagination to tell unique stories. She cites the careers of prominent black female artists like Issa Rae who played a pivotal role in shaping his personal image-making style.
“Issa Rae taught me to do work regardless of what people might say, because my creativity is unique and not everyone needs to understand that,” she says.
Growing more comfortable in his craft, the 27-year-old artist resisted the pressure to conform and instead found his voice focusing on expanding narratives about Blackness. “I’d like to see the Calgary art scene promote black artists skillfully and in a way that doesn’t tie black content to uniquely align with the unique narrative of ‘Black Struggle,'” she says.
Initially, Ms. Abubaker felt helpless during the pandemic, but she eventually landed on gratitude as the way forward for her career. “I became grateful because it allowed me to take a step back, learn the importance of patience and implement it in everything I do, especially in my artwork,” says -she.
For Ms. Abubaker, her future hopes for black art representation lie in shifting perspective. “I hope to see black artwork recognized for their talents, not fill a ‘black quota,'” she says. “I hope people separate out black people as a collective and start seeing black people on an individual level. We’re creative and black — not creative because we’re black.
Tomi Ajele, writer and editor of Afros In Tha City
As the editor of Afros In Tha City, a media collective dedicated to highlighting black narratives, Tomi Ajele wants her writing to be a bridge for storytelling. “I wanted to create a platform where people can see themselves through stories, be themselves through community, and understand how they fit in and where they belong,” she says.
Originally born in Nova Scotia, Ms. Ajele moved to the Calgary area when she was 3 years old. She never planned on a career in writing, but she studied communications in college. “I loved writing as a kid and was told I was atrocious (in my sister’s defense I was), but that didn’t stop me,” she says. During her undergraduate studies, Ms. Ajele used the versatility of her communications degree to dabble in technical and creative writing, and she recalls “writing poem after poem as my way of talking about life. in reality”.
Her first personal essay, “The Outsider’s Insight,” published in Shameless magazine in 2015, was the first time she told the story of her childhood as a black girl on the prairies. “I was raised in and around Calgary, but it was never a place where I felt like I belonged,” she says.
Black influences such as James Baldwin, Michele Pearson Clarke and Cadence Weapon all left a deep mark on Ms Ajele and guided her creative journey. “These artists helped give voice to the nuanced experience of being Black and in Canada, or being Black and Canadian,” she says.
Now 27, with the goal of continuing to support the future of black people, Ms Ajele seeks to merge justice with opportunity. “I want some of those barriers to go away. It’s crazy what a lot of black artists have to go through to ‘get there,’” she says. “In order to build a successful career, black artists often have to deal with racism and sexism but aren’t able to speak out because we don’t want to cut ties in a world where connections are everything,” she says. .
Ultimately, Ms. Ajele wants to advance the work of other young racialized writers, speakers and critical thinkers. “I want to see a time when black people no longer have to choose between their careers and their sense of humanity,” she says.
His biggest advice for promising black creatives remains the same: Know your worth and put a price on your creative process, because your work is inherently important and necessary.
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