Since my gift guide featuring black-owned businesses had such a great response, I really wanted to delve deeper and explore the complexities of running a creative hustle when you’re in a minority. I first became curious after going to a few London designer-maker events and noticing a lack of diversity in those exhibiting. What are the situations that lead to this happening? The answer isn’t necessarily clear cut, but I really wanted to meet up with Dorcas Magbadelo, whose intricate illustrations celebrate the diversity of black women. I could relate to her on so many levels, such as class differences at Uni, being the only black girl on your course and worrying what your Afro is going to do in the rain. Dorcas lives in South London with her family and works from her bedroom.
Like a lot of 28-year-olds, my life hasn’t gone the way I thought it was going to. Now I’m sticking to a path of non-conformity. I started drawing as a creative outlet and didn’t expect to have a career in illustration, especially since my fashion degree didn’t work out. It was tough, I was doing the thing I’d always wanted but it didn’t feel right. I switched to finance to keep my parents happy but when I left in 2011, I knew I didn’t want to go down this route. I just needed to build some kind of career. I started applying for whatever was available, got a job doing data administration in a school but never stopped being creative behind-the-scenes.
Tumblr used to be my main source of inspiration, I’d draw fashion editorials, facial features I liked and was just sketching everything and everyone. I was following lots of other illustrators and started to notice that people who looked like me were getting left out. I felt like I was upholding the default standard of beauty above my own and it was weird coming to terms with that. I had to really question whether I was thinking a certain way because it was what I’d been conditioned to think and I felt disingenuous. It was a real turning point and I then started to focus on drawing my own experience and the experiences of people who look like me.
I opened my Etsy store in October 2015 and it’s been great seeing the responses to my work. It’s always nice when people see themselves, their sisters or their cousins within my illustrations. I have had a few tone deaf comments though. One woman asked me to change one of the quotes to ‘I pledge to love my whiteness.’ I was polite in my answer but I was so angry that day. She’d completely missed the point of what my illustrations are about. When you’re seen every single day on the TV, in magazines and films, you are validated as the standard of beauty. You’re never told to hate yourself on the level that black women are.
My experience at fairs has been mixed. I started off doing black-focused events like Africa at Spitalfields and always got great feedback. I exhibited at my first Crafty Fox Market last year and even though I had a good day, it was a bit weird being in a place like Brixton and one of the only people of colour selling. I think I must have sold to every black person who came to my stand and some white people with mixed-race daughters. I guess there’s that barrier because people want to buy things that are either neutral or look like them. A lot of people who attend are white and they may look, smile and walk away. I’m in two minds as yes, it’s not necessarily for you but at the same time you can appreciate or support it. There’s no reason why your white daughter couldn’t have one of my illustrations in her room.
It’s a long conversation. At this point it’s not about pretending we’re not different but celebrating the differences we have until we get to the point where we have complete acceptance of everyone. I don’t want to separate myself because I think people should get used to seeing different types of things but at the same time, I don’t know how long I’d be able to keep going to these events. I don’t want to be the spokesperson. Not all black creatives are necessarily making Africa or black-specific products but a lot of the illustrators I know are just reflecting their own experience.
I usually work from my room. The difficulty is that my parents think I’m not doing anything even though I’m actually working. We’re Nigerian and they were worried initially as I’ve always tried lots of different things on the side. I think they’re still waiting for someone like Beyonce to be seen with my stuff! In terms of money I’ve never felt poor but never felt completely rich either. It was a challenge when I started because I didn’t want to ask my parents for help or throw a lot of money into something and not have it work out. It’s not always feasible to spend £200 on a printer straight away. I had to work part time at first which made it hard to fit everything in and I’ve made a few mistakes. When I first started making prints, I ordered 200 copies from a printers and still have the majority left now. They just didn’t sell and it took time to figure things out.
I’m trying to create a set schedule. I usually get up around 9am, so I check to see if I’ve got any orders during the night, then I print those out and start the packing. I try to get to the post office before midday, as I hate being the person keeping everyone waiting. After that, my schedule depends on whether I’m doing commissions but now I find that it’s difficult to have any time to just draw for myself. When I started I wasn’t drawing for anything specific whereas now I have to think of product lines and whether things will look good on a tote bag. It’s good as it forces me to think commercially but at the same time I’m losing a little bit of the creativity that started everything in the first place. I’m trying to carve out specific days of the week so I can experiment with linoprinting or ceramics. I might even do a course at some point, just for the fun of it.
A real highlight has been meeting other black women, especially those I look up to and see doing great things. I’m now part of this world of up-and-coming black creatives. It’s weird, as I’ve never been cool and I’m used to being on the fringes. I still feel like an outsider sometimes. People always seem to be doing amazing things and I’m just sat watching Netflix at home. Social media makes things tricky, you feel like you have to keep up with everyone, like those starting work at 5am and acting like everything is amazing. I just need to make sure I’m focusing on my own journey and being honest. All of my challenges have been personal and just about getting out of my own head. I’ve really had to come out of my comfort zone.
I want to still be doing some version of this in ten, twenty years time and I don’t just want this just to be a flash in the pan. Giving back is important too, I did a talk about my own experiences at Graduate Futures Week for Diversity Matters and people found it really helpful. I’d love to do more things like that, especially since I’ve worked in schools and seen that black girls get left behind and put into one little box. They have so much to offer but don’t often have the opportunity to do it. I’d want to work with 16-18 years olds and just let them see that there’s so many different avenues to life. Everyone is different, everyone’s voice is different but that doesn’t mean that it’s no less important. They just all need to be heard.