I’ve been super excited about this Culture Vulture artist interview for ages – another Instagram find through The Social Distance Art Project – artist Raphael Dada- @artbyadrafa on Instagram. I discovered Raphael’s work before George Floyd’s murder and the social justice and civil rights movement that followed and continues to the present (keep it going!). Raphael’s work explores the ‘black experience’, racial identity and his experience as a Nigerian-British diaspora artist growing up in the UK……
I loved Raphael’s work before, but now…well it’s like looking at it with a whole new lense and important reflective provocations exist in each piece of work. So please go and check it out.
This is a beaut interview – one of my faves for a while.
Hiyer, Raphael – for my fellow Culture Vultures and readers – can you tell me who you are and how would you describe your varied practice?
My name is Raphael Dada and I am a 20-year-old Nigerian- British, multidisciplinary artist. Over the years my practice has taken many forms, ranging from videography, screen print, spoken word, installations and many more. But the one consistent motif about my practice is that through my various means of expression, what I try to do is tell stories about the black cultural experience that mainstream media or the education system will not tell you.
Most of my work is based around my own personal experiences growing up as a young black British artist in the UK. Even though a lot of my work is very personal, there are numerous entrance points, so the viewer can relate and empathise, as I do appropriate and reference aspects of black popular culture frequently in my work.
Artist Raphael Dada
I really love you work – beautiful, interesting and very important. Tell me about your journey into the creative industries?
My journey into the creative industry was a weird one because when I was growing up, I never expected to enter the creative industry or make money off my art and collaborations with other artists. When I was young, I just knew I liked drawing and I liked colours, and when GCSEs came I was like: “Yeah, why not? It will be funny and it is one of the only subjects I actually like,” and I basically had the same reasoning when it came to A-Levels.
Then it came to applying to university and I almost didn’t choose art because there were so many different variations of the course, depending on where you wanted to go. I eventually decided on Fine Art at Leeds Arts, and even at Uni I wanted to get into the fashion industry, so I started my own clothing line in first year. As I started creating art work on subjects that I felt more passionate about, as well as working and networking with more artists, I decided the creative industry is where I belong. My clothing line is still active, and we have some new clothes dropping soon, but the creative industry will always have my heART.
You’ve just finished Leeds University – How was your experience studying at Leeds?
I can’t even lie and say my experience in Leeds was amazing, because if I’m being honest, it was tough most of the time. Having to adjust from living in such a diverse and multicultural town, then becoming the only black boy on the largest course at the university; it was very difficult. I experienced microaggressions on the daily and was racially abused a few times. Even got stopped by the receptionists a couple times because they didn’t believe I attended the Uni. It was tough.
But I didn’t let any of that get me down, I was able to channel all that anger and put it into my art, making art that was charged with emotion and passion. It worked for me almost like a coping mechanism, and it is because of this that my art is so important and personal to me. However, it wasn’t all bad; the Uni has really good facilities, allowing me to push my practice and continually experiment with new mediums. In my time at Leeds, I was able to meet some amazing people and like-minded creatives, and form relationships I can see myself having for life.
Thinking about the positives, do you have a favourite moment during your study you’d like to share?
My favourite moment in Leeds without a doubt would have to be our ACS ‘2020’ Exhibition in February of this year. As president of our university’s African Caribbean Society, I was given the opportunity to oversee the running of an exhibition which included the work over 30 different artists- all from various different cultural backgrounds. This was a big deal, as our Uni is a white dominated institution, so to be able to see the work of so many different ethnic artists on display was a beautiful occasion. We also got the chance to collaborate with the Student Union, and the event was even sponsored by a local brewery. While the show was on we had over 1000 members of the general public come view it, and it was just such a great experience that gave so many artists the coverage they deserve, something that they wouldn’t normally get in the conventional gallery setting.
That is truly brilliant – well done. How did it feel passing your course during lock down and not having a final year exhibition?
It was weird completing my degree during lockdown, because just like the rest of the world I never expected it. It took me and most third years nationwide by shock because our final module was a curation module, and you can’t really curate a show when the whole country is on lockdown.
The final degree show is what we were working towards for three years, and to have it all scrapped and turned into a digital submission was really strange and hard to get my head around. In protest I almost wasn’t going to submit, because I thought the whole idea was stupid, but looking back I am glad I did, and that the degree is over. Ideally, I would have wanted a degree show, but there are just some things you just do not have any control over, and hopefully we will have the opportunity to exhibit again soon.
Absolutely and I hope I get to see it! (Invite me!) You work across a lot of mediums – do you think you’ll hone in and settle into one or two – or (like me) do you refuse to be pinned down?
I don’t actually know because sometimes I go through phases when I will only use pen, or only use pencil, or only screen print. I think the medium that I use always depends on my mood, or which the one I believe will best get the job done and convey my message the most effectively. I like having options.
I’m a huge fan of your Dada Doodles –how do you select your subjects?
Ahh thank you! Dada Doodles is just a little thing I have had going for a while, they are just quick sketches I do in between major projects, or when I have taken a break from art for a bit, something light to get me back into drawing. They’re called Dada Doodles because when I was at Uni my friends used to say I was paying “9 grand to go doodle,” so I actually started doodling. But more times my subjects are kind of random and just things I like, ranging from music, TV shows and cartoons, or sometimes I can just see something and be like, “that looks like it would be fun to draw”, so I just draw it.
Africa and African culture features in some of your work – can you talk about the personal link and why it’s important to you?
African culture, more specifically Nigerian culture is something that will always feature in my work. I was born in Nigeria and moved here when I was 5, so to me I always have to pay homage to my roots; it’s the country that made me, and it plays such a big role in my identity. And I feel like this is something that every black person should do, they should make a conscious effort to get in touch with their cultural heritage and roots. In the words of Burna Boy’s mum “Every black person should please remember that you were Africans before you were anything else”.
Your practice and work is hooked into black cultural experience and identity…..what has your experience as a black artist been so far?
As mentioned earlier, entering into the creative industry as a black artist at first, was not easy at all. I was faced with numerous obstacles, and it was just hard getting started, because as a black artist, as much as we try and deny it, due to institutional bias, we will always be two steps behind our white counterparts, so we have to continuously prove ourselves by working twice as hard just to get noticed.
And I think I got to understand this quite early as my sixth form was quite white dominated in comparison to my secondary school, so once I understood how the game worked, I was able to use that to my advantage. In a way I kind of like the challenge as well; it is what keeps me going, because I know if I do eventually make it big, it would be a well-earned W for the culture.
In your about me section on your website you say “I also explore how language has been used both historically and in contemporary society in relation to the black experience and culturally the impact this has not just on me as a black British artist, but on my generation as a whole.” – can you talk me a little bit through that and what you mean?
As well as art, English Literature has always been one of my passions growing up, and till this day. I have always been fascinated by words and the use of language, and the power we give words when used in certain context. On their own words hold no weight nor power, but it is how we use them that determine their effect. For example when we see the word “blacks” it is not a racist word, the New Zealand rugby team are referred to as the All Blacks, simply due to the fact their kit is all black, but if we are to flip it and change the situation, let say a white lady says something like “all blacks are murderers”, then the word becomes racist, because it has been charged with animosity towards a racial group and its being used derogatorily to generalise and stereotype black people .
And this is something I find so interesting, especially when exploring racial matters, and how language has evolved over the year due to factors such as education, colloquialism and migration. No word is inherently offensive, it all depends on context. Even the word nigger (or nigga, however you want to spell it), it comes from the Amharic word Negus, which refers to Ethiopian royalty or emperor. But when colonialists come to Africa they didn’t like the idea of black royalty and excellence, so they took a word which was used to glorify black people to dehumanise a whole race, and due to centuries of subjugation and racism, the true meaning of the word has been lost. And I just find it crazy how a word that was twisted to subjugate a whole race, still holds so much weight and power over us today.
Can you tell me about one of your recent projects?
Since I finished Uni I have not really taken on any large projects, I have just been chilling to be honest- it just been a lot of small commissions here and there, nothing big. But as mentioned earlier, I have been working on some new items for my clothing line, which are set to drop middle of July, fingers crossed.
Same for me…I keep reminding myself that it’s ok to not start a new project right now as….well…there’s a global pandemic and all! I know you take commissions – what type of commissions do you tend to take? How do people engage you for a commission?
All my commissions are all different if I am being honest, I have never received any two similar commissions; they are all personal and catered to the individual. And the thing is about being disciplined in most mediums, I don’t limit myself in the type of commissions I take in, if you can describe it, more times I will be able to draw it. I take most of my commissions through Instagram, if someone wants anything they can just drop me a DM (@artbyadrafa on Instagram), or through my phone number, which is on my website.
You often collaborate with other creatives and artists – how do you choose who you collaborate with or how do you connect with collaborators? Can you tell me about some of your recent collaborations?
I can’t give you a straight-forward answer to that because all my collaborations have all come around so differently; sometimes people approach me, or I could be scrolling through Instagram and see someone’s work I like and be like “Yeahhhh I wanna work with you, your work is dope.” Or I could have an idea or project in mind that I want to execute, but the work load is just too much, or physically don’t have the ability to do it, so I create a meticulous plan for the project, and what I want to do, then message people who I believe could be best fitted in helping me actualise this idea.
For example, before lockdown, a project I was working on was a photography series called ‘Black Baroque’, where I was recreating Baroque paintings but replacing the white aristocrats in the paintings with black models. But even before I started I knew this was going to be a big task at hand, because I would need help with photography, set design, costume and much more, all which are alien to me, so I pitched the idea with a couple of my friends who studied fashion photography and they were all aboard and agreed to work with me.
Can you share with me three black artists that I MUST check out immediately and why?
If we are talking black artists, I am going to have to plug the work of some of my friends because these guys talented for real. They are all black creatives I met in Leeds and have had the honour of working with at some point.
Zhama Jumbo is all round talented guy- name it he can do it. Animation, illustration, graphics; anything, that’s my guy. He has such a distinct art style that no matter what he does or what medium he takes on, you will always be able to tell it was him, and I have had the pleasure of working with him a couple times. We have a collab we are working on soon, so make sure you follow his page so you don’t miss the drop.
Benny is a freelance photographer and stylist based in Leeds and Derby. She has worked and collaborated with clothing brands, make-up artists and social media influencers, she has a lot of experience under her belt with a rapidly growing following on Instagram. She has also just started a styling page as well @Stylehauss, so please follow that as well.
A Leeds and Bristol based documentarian. Out of everyone I would say I have worked with Gully the most- she has such a distinct way of capturing life and moments, nothing like I have ever seen before, and what makes her so different in comparison to other documentarians I know, I have only ever seen her shoot in 35mm, and she has an aesthetic I don’t think anyone else could imitate if they tried.
Three amazing creatives right there to follow and each very different. Back to your work…can you tell about something you’ve got planned for 2020? A future project?
I had a few events and exhibitions that I was meant to be debuting some prints at, but because of corona, I don’t know when these will be happening. For the mean time, I am just chilling with no major projects on its way, mainly focusing on my clothing for a bit (make sure you give us a follow, Instagram @rddesigns99
Anything else you’d like to tell me about?
I think I have gone on for ages, so I don’t really have anything left to say but I will leave on this note: Black Lives STILL Matter. This is a movement not a moment, and we will keep going until we put an end to centuries of institutional bias and racism, not just in the UK but globally.
Absolutely agreed and thank you Raphael Dada and for being so honest!
Please check out his work. He’s going to be massive – I just know it!
And as Raphael reminds us – we (and I say that in relation to white people as a whole – myself included) need to keep doing the anti-racist work needed, challenging and questioning everything especially as the world begins to reopen and spin again – it must not go back to “normal”.
All my love The Culture Vulture. xxx