Creative, But Never Struggling: How Black Northern Artists Are Staying Afloat

This article was written for Black Ballad, for the full article please click here.

The myth of the struggling artist is a prevailing one.

But black Northern artists are ready to dispel the myth that you must suffer for your art.

As a black female artist and freelancer in the North West, I’m in a rare line of work for women in our community. Recent reports from Black Ballad’s Great Black British Women's Survey revealed that only 6% of respondents reported working as freelancers or independent contractors. For those of us in the creative industry, we seem to be an even smaller minority; only 4% of respondents reported working in this type of field.

Being based in Manchester, I’m aware of the series of blockades that prevent myself and other black women from accessing these types of jobs. Firstly, London is the major hotspot for creative jobs with an estimated 25% of them being based in the capital. Though the creative scene in the North West has come a long way, there’s still steps to be taken to create something on par with the investment, funding and development seen in the South. Furthermore, the creative sector contains dire representation for black women. Only 5% of creative industry roles are thought to be held by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) candidates.

Despite this, I believe that black independent creatives should be encouraged into, rather than scared away from the creative industry. There’s a widely held belief that artistic careers are unstable and a perpetuated idea of the creative’s journey as one of struggle. “When I was younger, I was pushed to make conventional career choices that were supposedly viewed as stable and safe,” says Simi Abidakun who is based in Manchester and has a background in Architecture. I similarly entered the field not wanting to freelance, gripped with fear of difficulty and lack of awareness of being able to make money from my artwork. But as a community, independent entrepreneurial businesses have long been used as a way for black women to monetise skills in hair, fashion, beauty and many other areas that require creativity. Like these other freelancers, there’s material ways myself and other black female artists in the region have gotten a head-start as independent creatives, proof that we can make the industry work for us.

Create With Luna Sip and Paint event

Firstly, as an artist and creative you always have to be on the lookout for opportunities – more often than not, they won’t just appear to you. Working as a freelancer and in practice as an architectural assistant, I’ve had to be ready to network, build relationships and make connections to the local scene. Though I’m outside of London, Manchester has been a great place to allow my art to grow and my first exhibition in the city was one curated by black people for black artists. Glenda Gaspard, a 21-year old cultural curator in Liverpool similarly shares how she used her experience as a student in the city to help build her career foundation. “I used university as a springboard into engaging with the local art community, and this really helped me to network with creatives already making significant impact.” There’s also ways to make your work have further appeal than your local settings as the internet is a great place to build a following. Consistently sharing work through platforms such as Instagram, a website or online portfolio are great ways of introducing art to new audiences. “Don’t be afraid to sell yourself and tell people about what you do,” advises Jummie Adebiyi, a 19-year-old freelance artist from Manchester.

Jummie Adebiyi @m.ad_art

The financial side of working in the arts can be similarly daunting, but there’s ways we as creators can stay afloat. It’s important to make the freelance lifestyle work for you, and not to let it intimidate you. Starting out, I didn’t approach with a money mindset and rather looked at my art as an investment to myself, putting small savings from part-time jobs into buying equipment, frames and printing services. Initially working alongside being a student, any profit I made from my art went towards savings or investing in my platform, whether it was through buying a better website service or business cards and flyers. But it’s important not to overwhelm yourself with incomings and outgoings – staying on top of the business aspect of things may seem mundane, but once you have a firm grasp it provides breathing space to explore your creativity. With freelancing, it’s important to take initial steps as a form of practice and celebrate even the smallest measures of progress in engagement, interest and sales. “We’re just on a journey of problem solving until we reach the next problem,” says Glenda, “so for that reason it’s so important to celebrate the smallest of wins and take full advantage of the highs.” In a field that’s very visual, it’s easy to compare yourself with others and feel pressure to be instantly successful. But concentrate on elevating your craft rather than pulling in big money, or as Jummie puts it, to “constantly work on bettering your art.”

Glenda Gaspard Founder of The Blk Experience

It’s important black female creatives connect, find community with fellow artists and remember we’re not alone. In response to the dearth of black artists in the creative industry, fellow creators are stepping up to help fill the gap. Simi is a cofounder of Manchester arts organisation Create with Luna alongside fellow artists Victoria Adegoke and Iara Silva, an organisation committed to increasing diversity and promoting inclusion within the arts and design industries. “Our expertise is to create opportunities to encourage those who traditionally aren’t represented by offering them a network to connect and showcase their unique work and skills” says Victoria. And besides these initiatives, there are more subtle ways black women are to make the arts a more inclusive space and support others. Artists like Jummie and I make the conscious decision to only portray black women in our pieces, and often use our art to highlight injustices going on in the world. “Black women aren’t represented enough in art,” Jummie says. “Through my artwork I can show a reflection of myself, and someone else can see that and be inspired by it.”

The reality is, whilst being in the creative industry is hard, being a black woman in the industry can seem even harder. But through my artwork and career, I understand the ripple effect that can be created by my contributions to the art world. In the aim of inspiring future creative black women like myself, we need to dispel the idea that creatives need to be struggling. Instead we must acknowledge that there’s a place for us in the industry, ready and waiting to be carved out.