In case you missed it, last month we decided to roll up our collective sleeves to highlight nine incredible past and present creatives for #BlackHistoryMonthUK—not just because the achievements and contributions of Black designers haven’t been adequately recognised in the creative industry, but because we realised that we needed to do some research and learn more about Black history ourselves.
And what did we find? Loads of incredible designers, artists, filmmakers and copywriters that have helped shape the world of art and design into what it is today.
Many of the present-day UK creatives that we had the pleasure of interviewing for this project told us stories of having to forge their own paths without the help of creative Black role models to inspire them during their formative years. They told us they now do what they do in part because they want to change that for the next generation of Black creatives (hey guys! 👋) and well, we wanted to join them and help get the word out.
Illustrator | Painter | Educator
To kick things off we wanted to tell you all about this incredible painter and illustrator widely known for his murals and book and magazine cover illustrations during the Harlem Renaissance in America—the iconic Aaron Douglas!
Aaron got his start as a magazine illustrator, capturing Black culture in Harlem, especially the Black urban nightlife scene. He was also commissioned to create a series of murals for the New York Public Library, the world-renowned Sherman Hotel in Chicago, and Fisk University where he later became a lecturer and chairman of the Art Department.
Aaron’s iconic visual style helped define and promote Black history and Black American culture like no other. He may have come from humble beginnings, but his perseverance, optimism, and self-confidence are a huge inspiration!
“I first saw Aaron’s work in a film years ago while studying jazz history and the Harlem Renaissance which was all about giving a voice to the experiences of African Americans. The film was more focused on the music though and didn’t mention who the artist was, so it was really cool to make this connection!”
Filmmaker | Writer | DJ
Originally expected by his mother to be an accountant, Etienne chose film instead, first creating over 120 music videos in Scotland and around the world. Etienne has since founded Mile Away Films, known for creating “Scotland’s Memoir” in collaboration with the Scottish Government and children’s programme “Sho-time”.
How Etienne is Making History
Etienne is known for creating Scotland’s first Black superhero comic. Titled “Beats of War” the series is semi-autobiographical, based on Etienne’s experiences moving from DRC to Glasgow as a teenager. Many of the characters are based on his family and friends too!
If you have an idea, a story—doesn’t matter how stupid it sounds—just do it. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.
Follow Etienne on Instagram!
Graphic Designer | Business Owner | Educator
Working with the Citibank ATM design team in 1989, Sylvia created a new human-centric user interface for the bank’s ATMs which, for the first time ever, addressed customers with a human voice – “How may I help you?” Long before the digital age, Sylvia pioneered a new paradigm of design for interaction with computer systems.
After receiving her BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MFA in graphic design from Yale, Silvia launched design firm Two Twelve Associates, then Citizen Research and Design, which focused on large-scale public information systems for clients such as NYU, Columbia University, NewYork-Presbyterian, and the US Census Bureau.
Often referred to as the “Citizen Designer” Silvia Harris’ design work that impacted the lives of millions. Born in Richmond, Virginia, Silvia’s first-hand experience with the turmoil of desegregation in the 1960s fuelled her interest for design in social systems and harnessing the power of design for activism.
Writer | Presenter | Content Creator | Editor
Tomiwa has always had a talent and passion for journalism and creativity, initially writing for The Herald, The Young Women’s Movement, and many others while studying history at Edinburgh Uni. Tomiwa then won her first pitch at Black Ballad, a lifestyle platform that tells the human experience through the eyes of Black British women. She’s now their Regional Editor for Scotland, paying it forward by commissioning and promoting loads of other Scottish writers.
Beyond her writing, Tomiwa is also a talented speaker and presenter who’s worked with Glasgow Women’s Library, Edinburgh Book Festival, BBC Radio Scotland, and BBC’s The Social to name a few. Tomiwa is also the host of “Sunday Rituals” a podcast that explores the stories of her guests and the rituals that keep them going.
How Tomiwa is Making History
Whether she’s addressing her unique perspective as a Scottish creative or focusing on wider conversations around mental health or feminism, Tomiwa creates everything with purpose. Currently, Tomiwa is living in Brussels, working on her MA in Cultural Studies and plans to continue writing while travelling between Europe, Scotland, and Nigeria.
Growing up there weren’t really any Black women in positions like this to look up to. I could not name one Black Scottish woman…if I can be the person that someone, somewhere sees a bit of themselves in, and that makes them know they aren’t alone, then that is a good legacy to me.
Give Tomiwa a follow!
Artist | Sculptor | Printmaker
Elizabeth Catlett explored a wide range of themes related to race and feminism throughout her career. During the 1940s, Elizabeth travelled to Mexico where she was heavily influenced by the work of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. She then created several works highlighting the hardships endured by African-American women in the South, especially in “Sharecropper”—one of her most famous pieces.
Celebrated for her unique and thought-provoking prints, Elizabeth expressed her civic and social interests, particularly the Civil Rights movement, through every piece. Her lifestyle in both America and Mexico informed not only her politics but also her approach to printmaking.
Honestly, I had never seen Elizabeth’s work before researching for Black History Month. The first piece of artwork I found was a piece called ‘Sharecropper’, which instantly caught my eye in the midst of google images.
I thought it was a pencil drawing at first before realising it was linocut! After researching Elizabeth and her origins further I stumbled across her sculpture, then her prints. Elizabeth is truly an astonishing and multi-disciplinary creative!
Elizabeth has been lauded as being ahead of her time. Having moved between cultures, she developed and refined a visual language that spoke for those who had been otherwise underrepresented. Celebrated by generations of African American artists, her work reflects her concern for the past and future of all humanity.
I have always wanted my art to service my people—to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential
Illustrator | Painter
Jacqueline has been passionate about illustration for as far back as she can remember. Originally from Inverness, Jacqueline majored in illustration at Duncan of Jordanstone. One project, ‘Beauty Around the World’ is an eye-catching and unique mixed media book that explores traditional dress from tribes around the world and their unique interpretations of beauty. Two other striking standalone illustrations include ‘Mandala Woman’ and ‘Masai Warrior’.
Jacqueline uses a bold mixture of traditional watercolour and digital techniques in her painting to express her own Papua New Guinean and Scottish heritage to explore the experiences of people and cultures from around the world. Jacqueline has recently painted a mural in her home town of Inverness and is now taking commissions from local businesses.
“I first came across Jacqueline’s work when looking into the BLM Mural Trail in Scotland, curated by Wezi Mhura. Her amazing mural and timelapse painting video was captivating to watch. I thought she was particularly brave to put herself out there in a more rural place like Inverness, where it might be even more isolating to grow up mixed than in a city.
Looking at all of her work, it’s easy to see how talented an artist she is. Her illustrations span many styles but are all beautiful and you can tell they’ve been created with love for what she does.”
How Jacqueline is Making History
Jacqueline is carving out a creative space in the Highlands of Scotland. Recently completing an indoor mural as part of Eden Court’s Black Lives Matter display, Jacqueline also created an Oor Wullie statue last year which raised £6,000 for the Archie Foundation. Jacqueline’s talents are multi-disciplinary and often overlap to create a manifold of expressive outputs that are both impressive and inspirational.
What would you say to any young Black creatives out there?
That they’re not alone. That part of them that makes them unique is really good and positive, so they should explore and learn more about that side of themselves!
Check out Jacqueline’s Instagram!
Graphic Designer | Art Director
Georg was the first African-American to design a postage stamp for the USPS. He also designed the iconic Clio Awards statue and went on to win seven of them throughout his career. Georg also won awards from the Art Directors Club of New York and AIGA. It’s also widely believed that Georg heavily influenced the iconic CBS logo.
Georg got his start in television at CBS as part of their brand new “television division”. The first African American to hold an executive position at the network, Georg eventually headed a staff of 14 in charge of 60 weekly shows, including “I Love Lucy”, “Lassie”, “Gunsmoke”, and “The Late Show”. Georg later won first prize in the Cannes Film Festival in 1967.
Once considered to be one of the top designers in the US, Georg was a giant in the advertising industry who helped pioneer a distinct style of television graphics which was emulated for decades.
Director | Filmmaker | Designer
Stewart started his career in the creative industry as a UX designer, creating work for brands such as Magners, Lloyds Bank, Clydesdale Bank, and Arnold Clark. The skills Stewart picked up over the years as a designer in an agency setting, such as pitching, prototyping and building personas, later helped him to embark on a new career path in storytelling and filmmaking.
Driven by an innate passion for storytelling, particularly stories untold, Stewart got his start in 2018 filming documentaries and music videos. Today he runs his own Film & TV agency, Create Anything, whose most recent documentary film “Bash the Entertainer: Behind the Smile” can be found on BBC. Stewart also created “Black & Scottish” a BAFTA-nominated BBC documentary featuring prominent Black Scots from all generations, gathering their perspectives on what it’s like to be Black and Scottish. A sister film “Black & Northern Irish” is to be released soon.
How Stewart is Making History
Stewart has forged a new career path in the film industry highlighting the largely untold stories of prominent Black and mixed-race people, not only for the benefit of his four children but for an entire generation of young Black people. Speaking at the historic Black Lives Matter protest in Glasgow this year, Stewart echoed the belief that you can, and should, be proud to be Black & Scottish.
I don’t want my kids to be in a position where I’m having the same conversations my mom had with me, like ‘You have to work harder than white people’. I don’t want them to feel like they’re not good enough, so I’m trying to change that.
Follow Stewart’s Instagram here!
Designer | Agency Owner | Artist
Some of Emmett’s notable early design work included artwork for the launch of the Ford Mustang and the 1958 Playboy Jazz All-Stars album art which was named Billboard’s “Album Cover of the Week”. Emmett later co-founded ad agency Burrell-McBain working with clients such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, eventually becoming the largest Black-owned ad agency in the US. He is also well-known for reinventing the iconic Marlboro man for African American smokers, replacing the over-idealised version of a white cowboy in the American West for more relatable people in their everyday surroundings.
Emmett sought to uplift the Black community throughout his career, eventually leaving his agency to open “The Black Eye” an art gallery and consultancy which helped agencies to connect with African Americans in an authentic and respectful way. He was also well-known for offering his services to nonprofit initiatives and publishers.
Emmett’s design work had a remarkable impact on the representation of African Americans in advertising. “Black is beautiful” an ad which Emmett created for Vince Cullers Advertising, was a culmination of Emmett’s ideals which consistently came through both in his professional work and the work he did for the good of the wider Black community. Emmett is also credited with developing the concept of “positive realism” which in advertising is all about understanding who your consumers are, who they aspire to be, and honouring their culture and values.