October is Black History month in the UK, which also coincides with #blacktober, a month-long event that celebrates and promotes Black and Mixed Black representation and creators’ works. For Agora, this means digital artworks.
Francesca Miller | Ed. Peter Traynor | 7 October 2021
Over the summer, Agora Digital Art reached out and spoke to some of these black female digital artists to reflect on what it is like to create black art. They talked about how they are carving out a space for themselves in the art world and how they work to change mentalities when it comes to the stereotyped black representation. Throughout this special month, we will share their works and their artistic journeys.
Recreation from Howl’s Moving Castle by #blacktober by co-founder Celi Godfried, © Courtesy of the artist.
#blacktober was co-created in 2020 by digital art illustrators US-based Cel Cottrell and Denmark based Céli Godfried. The hashtag then turned into a movement when a few thousand other digital artists joined to create and celebrate blackness in their art. These women, like so many others, were born in the 1990s and are either webcomic artists, digital illustrators, brand or character designers.
#blacktober is about driving black representation in digital artworks as well as mainstream popular arts, which tend to mostly be non-black spaces. For many black people born and growing up in the 90s or earlier, seeing ourselves represented in mainstream pop culture, including in books, films, comics, anime, illustrations and video games, was a rare thing. Likewise there was a lack of representation in the respective fandoms of these arts.
Link (Princess Zelda game series), by Serena aka Chiber_san, © Courtesy of the artist.
Think back to the most iconic characters, heroes and fictional worlds. Think about characters from Disney. Think about Sailor Moon, one of the most popular anime series of all time, or Harry Potter, Star Wars, the Mario Bros video game franchise, Lara Croft, Minecraft, Resident Evil. The list goes on. Ever noticed what they all had in common?
Although these stories have a global reach and evolve in wide universes, they surprisingly hardly featured a black hero(in). You may find a couple of black characters, who usually hold a supporting role, which, when it does happen, is usually a sidekick of a non-black lead. Moreover, the fandoms, including cosplays, forums, fan arts or social groups, are primarily non-black. Being a black fan in these fandoms means getting excited for extras, side characters or someone who doesn’t look at all like you and that you could, therefore, never aspire to become.
So, #blacktober allows these digital artists, as well as black people, to recreate these artworks, i.e. a video game, an anime, a film or story to see themselves as the stars of these great stories. Any black person, young or old, can imagine themselves or even dream of becoming a star in a major story or even their own story.
Beyond recreating these worlds and fandoms with black leads, these black female digital artists have also created original black webcomic heroes and heroines. Some of these characters even have their own fan bases and have evolved their own memorabilia. One of the web series by webtoon artist Kay, aka refrigerator_art21, is based on black anime characters and is called Blerdy Girls. This series is about black girls who are avid gamers and anime fans. The characters of this series are so popular that it has spawned a wide range of popular memorabilia.
Blerdy Girls by Kay aka refrigerator_art21, © Courtesy of the artist.
What also sets #blacktober apart is that it is also about promoting different storylines and narratives for black characters. For example, Blerdy Girls is about black girls gaming. #blacktober advocates for black representation in popular artworks that aren’t about race or identity.
What these artists advocate and create, with these new black superheroes and heroines, are everyday stories like any other, rather than stories with a hero(in) on a mission to combat racism. For many black people, this is very refreshing and this is what makes these digital artworks so popular.
Character designs by Dominique Davis aka petalromance, © Courtesy of the artist.
Social media has provided these digital artists a validation that has emboldened them to push forward and gain the confidence to create digital artworks steeped in blackness and black experience. They have a strong online presence and following, particularly on platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Twitch. They get instant feedback and continuous engagement with the content created and posted, from viewers who rejoice at finally seeing themselves in mainstream platforms without stereotyped character designs or storylines.
Florida based webtoon artist Mia created webcomic series There’s Not Enough Black Girls in Anime, where she has created black anime girls in different mainstream art styles. Speaking to Agora Art she said,“the responses from kids online really warmed my heart. Stuff like ‘I never thought I’d see an anime character that looks like me’”.