Aswan Rosa Marie

Unlocking the Power of Black Storytelling in Africa - A conversation with TJ Sawyerr

Be honest, either Accra or Lagos is on your mission list for this Christmas - and I’d be lying if it wasn’t on mine too. It feels like the flight demand for African destinations has increased significantly post-pandemic, and with every person that goes and comes back, they bring a subtle Africa flair with them. That, and their itching to mimic what they’ve just experienced but on home turf here in the city, means that African voices and influences are also amplified.


Earlier this year, multidisciplinary creative TJ Sawyerr travelled to Ghana to collaborate with some of its homegrown talents, in particular photographer Jude Lartey, for a photo series for Converse in collaboration with END. Clothing called Let The Black Star Shine. And before our British summer drew to a slow close, we got to see the result of that adventure. It’s a continuation of work that TJ has been working on for a few years now, and with age, education - though informal - and time, his work keeps getting better.


Those from Ghana, West Africa, or anywhere across the diaspora, know that if you’ve got even a little bit of GH in you, you’re one of our own. For Sawyerr, who himself is of Ghanaian descent, this has wholeheartedly been his experience, and more. “Fundamentally, it's somewhere that I feel my heart is connected to so there's always going to be a fondness,” he says of visiting Ghana. In his multiple visits, he’s been able to tap into the talent on the Gold Coast that are jumping out from the sand. 


For TJ, it’s all fresh, and though that could be dismissed due to his London homebase, he finds the beauty and glisten in the stories that are yet to unfold on his home turf, and more excitedly, how he can be a part of and platform them. “It's so raw. On any given day, you could see a couple of the most interesting people that you've ever seen on any street corner. That, first and foremost, just from a visual standpoint as an artist, let alone the deepest storytelling of each of those people stereotypically, is super interesting.”


The young storyteller is a natural conversationalist. He’s happy to lead but even more so willing to listen, and that has clearly translated into his work whether intentionally or not - it’s simply what his work is always going to do. He’s enamoured by “the way of life, the principles and the level of happiness and joy” that those native to the homeland are able to derive from “a life that's really quite bleak.” He admits that he’s “always found it interesting how somebody with so little could smile so much” and so he makes it a point - as naturally as possible - to explore that dynamic through his own inquisition - “because I don't think I've got a full understanding of why that is and that comes through conversation.” He’s true in slightly alluding to the fact that we’ve become (too) desensitised, to trauma, to struggle, to images of poverty that have become synonymous with Blackness. Thankfully, it’s outcomes beyond the images that TJ provides that allow us to linger on the power that storytelling has long had; community and so unity, then the unfolding of conversations and provision of resources. 


“Black storytelling is what I do,” he says. “As for my visual style and the depth of essence that underlies everything that I do, that’s most applicable to my people.” There’s been a lot of chatter since 2020 about what constitutes black storytelling and to what extent we can be heard. It almost feels like we’ve made it harder than it actually is. From an African perspective, he boldly proclaims that “African imagery is just images of African people,” and it truly can be as simple as that. Within his own storytelling, TJ has sought to reduce a lot of the unnecessary noise that has risen from the beautiful imagery that’s been born out of a flourishing generation of talented creatives across multiple disciplines, of which he sits. “Over the years, a lot of what I've been attempting to do is disprove the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding young black creators in this country,” he says. The stigmas consist of poverty, crime, economic struggle, political turmoil, trauma, pain - you get the gist. 


“For me, what's equally important is being able to place these black people through the same lens that white people have been placed for so long - and exclusively - which is this notion of mainstream excellence and uniformity,” he puts it bluntly. “It’s being able to present implicit black flair, but with the same level of polish and excellence that we've been disassociated from for such a long time.” Of this, he makes reference to some of the young Black creatives he’s been able to collaborate with while working in Ghana. 


TJ has only high praise for his West African peers. His admiration for them is infectious and constant. “I don't think they need to offer us anything,” he says matter of factly. It’s quite often easy to adopt the superior complex of assuming that what we have to offer them is better than what they can give us, building even further on the ‘us and them’ dynamic, but he makes it clear that it’s always a collaboration. “In terms of design values and practice - dude, these guys make the best out of nothing. Those guys really drive me onwards because they're making the best out of a very challenging situation.” 


One of ‘these guys’ is fine art photographer Derrick Ofosu Boateng “who has pioneered an entire visual style” called Hueism, has received cosigns from supermodel Naomi Campbell, designer and creative director Tremaine Emory, and the late Virgil Abloh. Rather passionately, TJ retells the story of when his friendship with Boateng first began; born out of enduring those tight Supreme queues and then to the Instagram DMs where the latter expressed an excited desire for an iPhone and now, the two are collaborating on campaigns for high-profile brands such as Converse and Derrick is one of Apple’s most celebrated photographers. It’s refreshing yet quite familiar how things have played out for these young pioneering creatives, both in London and Ghana. 


It’s not that we necessarily sell a dream here in London - most creatives know that the reality of being a creative comes with great sacrifice. However, there is a great deal of privilege that is given to us just by being exposed to the cultural capital that comes with being from the UK. “I think that a lot of people here make art in a more transactional way because you can make money and because it makes money. They do it to pay bills, and they work check to check. I don't think a lot of people really love what they do,” he says. “Over there, it's such an integral value to do so because to be able to pursue a career in image making based upon Afrocentric ideals, you have to be completely sold. A lot of these guys risk getting disowned by their families for deciding to take photos rather than go and become a lawyer.” But they make it happen: “And not just through a love of the art, obviously, but just also from grit and resilience.” And with that being the case, then certainly it’s us who has much more to learn. Africa doesn’t need to bear any more burden of being an epicentre of creative sorts when it’s already at the centre of global fashion and art - whether it gets its dues or not.

For TJ individually, it’s an incredible feat that he has been able to accomplish so much in less than half a decade - heck, it might even be scarier that there’s even more to come from him. But what is comforting is that his passion and purpose in this industry remains unwavering: “the overarching goal with everything that I'm doing, all the image making, everything is to try and get into a position where I can be able to affect things a little bit more, while actually working within a medium that doesn't completely go against my integrity.” This lies in continuing to work on charitable efforts in Ghana with his creative work, getting brands onboard to see how they can generate strong visual presence without exploiting those that feature in them, and authentically changing the landscape of and for African creatives. “I'm still telling black stories, I'm still actually doing what I want as an artist, while being unproblematic enough, I think, to be welcomed in with open arms, hopefully.” 


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