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Black History Month 2021: RCA Staff and Alumni on Black visibility in Art & Design

For Black History Month 2021, we’ve been looking at some RCA alumni and staff projects that contribute to and explore Black visibility from an Art & Design perspective. Celebrating the unique capability Art & Design practitioners have of bringing overlooked lives and experiences to the centre of our vision, and asking how we can move towards greater Black visibility in the sector and a more inclusive world.

Ackeem Ngwenya (MA/MSc Innovation Design Engineering, 2014)

Reframd composite with models wearing glasses
Reframd

With most glasses being designed with a high narrow nose profile in mind, our design graduate Ackeem Ngwenya recognised the potential for a design solution to a problem that was not being addressed by industry. His Berlin based start-up Reframd make glasses to fit Black nose profiles.

‘At some point, I realised the problem wasn’t with me or my face, it became clear that glasses weren’t made for people like me and I could do something to change that.’ Ackeem told us.

Reframd, who recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign, use face scanning technology via an app and 3D printing to produce glasses which can fit any nose profile, rather than an exclusive industry standard.

‘I think the most significant way Reframd addresses representation is by acknowledging and moving overlooked communities from the periphery to the centre of product development. And we go a step further; not only can we develop products for overlooked communities but for anyone else as well.’ 

By using new technology, Reframd manufacture glasses tailored to individual measurements. Ackeem’s work has been featured in Elle, Harper’s Baazar and Dezeen. And after the success of their Kickstarter campaign, Reframd glasses are now available to order.

On what the major problems for Black visibility in Art & Design are, Ackeem said: ‘Participation in design and product development – having a say in what, how and for whom products are developed, is crucial. And access to funding opportunities, mainly because venture capital funding for Black-led start-ups or businesses is disproportionately low.’

Melanie Issaka (MA Photography, 2021)

Black Skin, White Mask - Melanie Issaka
Black Skin, White Mask, Melanie Issaka 2021

‘I make images that I want to see. My art practice has always been a way for me to think through ideas, questions, and share life experiences with people. I am excited when I encounter people who see themselves and their experiences reflected through my work', Melanie Issaka told us.

What it means to be Black, British and Female is the main preoccupation of her work. And a playful approach to visibility and the duality of presence runs throughout her RCA2021 graduate portfolio which has been featured in both the Guardian and the British Journal of Photography

Her photo series ‘Blueprint: Black Skin, White Mask’ draws on the idea of the blueprints that structure our society, as well as

Melanie Issaka, Where am I
Where am I, Melanie Issaka
Frantz Fanon’s theory of hyper-visibility, in which Black subjects are both visible and invisible simultaneously. She plays with these ideas in a series of self-portraits in which she is both imprinted and hidden on blue fabric.

‘Black people are not a monolithic nor a fad as mass media would have us believe. We must continue to educate ourselves and make room for people to share their stories and diverse cultural practices all year round, not limited to one month in the year.’

Melanie’s work hones in on the mechanism of these perceptions in the form of the camera. Using photography to draw our attention to ‘the ways society teaches us to look at ourselves through the eyes of others, often leaving us feeling like a stranger in our own body.’ For example in ‘Locating the Personal’, Melanie uses her own body to create photograms, without the intervening gaze of others she is able to play with her own representation – ‘exposing myself on my own terms.’

Dr Thandi Loewenson (MA Architecture Tutor)

Race, Space and Architecture Visual Identity by Fred Swart
Race, Space and Architecture Visual Identity, Fred Swart
Race, Space and Architecture is an online platform that includes an open access curriculum asking how race and racial hierarchies are configured through space-making with architectural design practice at its centre. As the project creators write: ‘Buildings, highways, suburbs and townships are constitutive of how individuals become positioned in a vast spectre of racial segregation.'

Our MA Architecture Research Tutor, Dr Thandi Loewenson co-leads on the project alongside Huda Tayob from the University of Cape Town and Suzi Hall from the LSE. ‘My work more broadly and with Race, Space and Architecture engages towards contesting exclusions constructed through hegemonic and dominant ways of seeing the world' she told us. The project explores diverse locations, histories and topics including Grenfell Tower and apartheid South Africa.

There are three framing questions at its centre:

  • What are the spatial contours of capitalism that produce racial hierarchy and injustice? 
  • What are the inventive repertoires of refusal, resistance and re-making that are neither reduced to nor exhausted by racial capitalism, and how are they spatialised? 
  • How is ‘race’ configured differently across space, and how can a more expansive understanding of entangled world space broaden our imagination for teaching and learning?

As an open platform, Race, Space and Architecture embraces complexity and difference hosting spaces for soundings, constellations, engagements and frames. ‘None of our frames or lists are in any way definitive, complete or precise’ the project leads write on the site. These open spaces allow as Thandi explains for ‘developing new realms of thought and artistic practice in the process.’

The focus of the project is not only about furthering Black visibility but why racial hierarchies of invisibility have come to exist. As Thandi explains: ‘Black History Month often tends to focus on the visibility of Black subjects which is important work. Race, Space and Architecture certainly offers this, however it also goes beyond, opening up lines of inquiry as to why Black 'invisibility' exists in the first place. Huda Tayob and Suzi Hall's framing questions show 'invisibilities' to be rooted in conjoined, exclusionary acts of social and spatial construction.’

Find out about our Student Union's programme of events for Black History Month.