The Beautiful Lives of Black and Brown Trans people in the UK

The Beautiful Lives of Black and Brown Trans people in the UK

August 02, 2021

blkmoodyboi is a Non-binary trans self-taught illustrator that centers Black and Brown trans people in their art. Inspired by comics, anime, friends, and community, blkmoodyboi crafts their own unique style. Through their work, they aim to showcase love, tenderness, and softness as a form of radical resistance against white cis-het patriarchal capitalism. 

Their art aims to bring joy to QTIBIPOC, to celebrate them and archive them. Sharing body-positive representations and aligning their imaginings with the natural world, their work forms space to aid mental wellbeing and to remind us to be good to ourselves and others, to nourish one's self and community, and that trans Black and Brown people have always been here.

In April 2021, The Big Draw announced its first ever digital residencies. blkmoodyboi was one of the five artists selected with their brilliant proposal Blind Faith. Blind Faith is an illustrated anthology series featuring the stories of six Trans people of colour in the UK. This anthology will serve as an archive that platforms the voices of people of colour with a trans experience, their stories, thoughts and lives. To find out more about Blind Faith, click here.

It was wonderful to catch up with blkmoodyboi to talk about Blind Faith, and find out more about their heritage and inspiration. They also shared greater insight into their experience navigating their identity as a non-binary trans person of colour within the artistic world.

Interview: Eleanor Pender in conversation with blkmoodyboi.

Eleanor: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your artistic practice?

blkmoodyboi: Oh, that's a bit difficult. I think I've only very recently started thinking of what artistic practice even means for me. Because I didn't know what that was. I mean, I'm a self taught artist, I didn't go to art school. And I learned that that's something that they teach you. But I think that maybe that is my artistic practice. Something that I've just had to figure out communally with people. Because I feel like all my art is about the people I'm accountable to, and the community members that I'm accountable to, the communities that I'm a part of, and the identities that I have. Because I also understand that who I am is a legacy of many people. So I think that is maybe my artistic practice. I work to showcase and platform the stories of my community, the experiences. I would say it's political art. It brings a lot of things in; experiences of migration, of being racialized, of being from communities that continue to be erased. I'm originally from Colombia, my family's Colombian, I'm from the Caribbean, part of Colombia, and my family is mixed heritage. I identify as an afro indigenous descendant person. These are two communities, very much shaped by colonial experiences and survival. So I guess it also comes from a need in my art practice to archive things for myself and for other people. I just know that my artistic practice is one that is communal, it's not about just me.

Eleanor: You have a great awareness of your heritage in the countries that you're connected to. If you think about it as the past, there's also the communities that you have in the present, and that idea of what you're working towards to create this archive to preserve both that past and present for the future. What was it, maybe when you were younger, when you're growing up, that really made you connect to art, and to the idea of drawing as a way of being able to really capture all of that?

blkmoodyboi: My cousin is older than me and she draws a lot. We were inseparable. So it was just being with her, really. Now, she's a graphic designer. She's an artist, she does comics, she also writes horror stories, she has a very active imagination, and I think that really rubbed off on me. We grew up watching a lot of cartoons, I still watch a lot of cartoons, a lot of anime, comic books, as well. I grew up watching anime from a really young age because that's what was available at the time on television. And I actually found out that the reason why a lot of Latin Americans are so hardcore about anime is because of TV licenceing. It turns out that the US actually gave Latin America the leftover licensing deals they didn't want. Then we ended up with a very random anime that was dubbed into Spanish. So that's why it was approachable, because I didn't have to read subtitles or anything. I didn't learn until later that it was from Japan. This element of storytelling is something that I've adopted now, living here, because of that need of being, I guess, as someone that is now part of the Diaspora to maintain these stories, and to have this memory, to keep those stories alive. I don't know if that would have been the case if I was still there [in Colombia], because I've also received such a political education here, with my peers who are migrants, I guess the word is dissidents, that has made me really want to focus on that. I come from a very long line of trade union organisers, and I used to work in a trade union and I am still an active member in my union. I think it all just came together and culminated in that, and discovering that there's a whole art of proletariat art, accessible art that communicates a political opinion. But also, it seduces people to be critical of things and get organised. I think I had to go through those experiences to have this practice, I would say. 

My childhood also inspires me in the colours I use - the Caribbean is very vibrant. It's very alive - and that's one of the things that I really miss. It could be any time of the day, and music will be playing outside and people just go to your house like your neighbours. It's all these things that I took for granted, I would say, that have now become so essential. All these things that annoyed me when I was a child, are now very important to me. Music, songs or a particular genre that I would never have found interesting back then, but now because I don't have them, I seek them out. 

Eleanor: You’ve talked about the things that you miss about the Caribbean and Colombia. What kinds of genres of music do you miss? Or do you keep around yourself specifically as a form of inspiration?

blkmoodyboi: Oh, definitely Caribbean specific music that is of Afro descendants. Like Salsa, Vallenato, which is very Colombian. Also, Cumbia, because cumbia is native to the Caribbean, of Colombia. And there's all these songs about resistance and resilience and survival of culture. I think those are very important to me. I find myself playing them when I'm cleaning or cooking. So I think those are very important to me. It's all a cycle. I see the people in my family do that. And now I find myself doing those exact same things without even thinking about it. 

Eleanor: You watched a lot of anime growing up, which is a really interesting point of reference to have given your kind of art style and your comics. You said that anime admittedly, you know, you described it as like the Caribbean and Colombia kind of getting like all the leftovers. But you can also potentially look at it, and do feel free to disagree with me, but anime as a Japanese art form and as a storytelling device, they do make a point of actually having more inclusive storylines and actually going to such subject areas and topics that American cartoons, especially in like the 90s and the noughties, would never have gone anywhere near. The whole idea even of having like, the Hunger Games movies, people were so shocked at the idea of actually having children kill children is the first thing and I was like, yeah, go and watch the Japanese film-

blkmoodyboi: Battle Royale 

Eleanor: Exactly. or just any Japanese film. It's very different, very brutal. So I suppose I was wondering if you felt that you're drawn to that type of storytelling because of the range and the breadth that it actually offers?

blkmoodyboi: Yeah. And I think also in talking about queerness and transness, definitely. Shows like Sailor Moon really helped me articulate things, and were like awakenings, because it was quite normal.

With historical things in the Caribbean that are normal, but then are criminalised because a process of colonisation, because of - what is it, like - Catholicism and different religions, because that means it's very conservative in many parts of the Caribbean, not just like in Colombia, and like many parts, due to this legacy of colonialism, extractivism and imposing a religion that was a not native to the place. And I mean, it's also evolved that it means many things for many people, but it's also a big impact on queerness, in what we deem acceptable, and also the punishing of otherness. I really think that watching a series Iike Sailor Moon made me understand... I always talk to a dear friend about this, in conversations with other trans people there is this idea of like, "When was the first time that you saw yourself?" because a lot of the time trans people see ourselves first in other people, and then that allows us to then see ourselves. I think TS Madison was talking about that as well. She's was like, "When was the first time that you saw you?" And I realised that it was with some of the characters in Sailor Moon. I was always attracted to it. I always knew I was queer, but I didn't have a big coming out moment or whatever. But I also knew what that meant within the context of where I'm from. 

Now that I'm an adult, and now that I can take care of myself, I can revisit these things and be like, “Oh, that's what that was.” I'm also seeing myself in my friends and people that have left us early and all these things and how they're all connected with that split moment, me as a child watching that series, thinking, “Aha, wait - that girl looks like a boy. She's seducing all these girls. What's going on?” Me being like huh, I'm gonna watch this. I'm not gonna tell anyone. And then finding myself drawing characters like that. I think it was a huge formative moment that I wouldn't have had otherwise if I wasn't exposed to that at all. Just talking to my friends, a lot of those instances have happened through anime, which is very interesting.

Eleanor: Talking about the moment where you first see yourself, what have you found to be the most challenging as well as the most rewarding for yourself as a, someone who's trying to navigate their identity as an illustrator as an artist as well as being a non-binary trans person of colour within the artistic world?

blkmoodyboi: I think what I found most rewarding was that people feel validated by the things that I make. I think that's the most important thing for me to be honest. It was quite shocking that I was able to work with institutions and that I was able to do different things. But that was never my plan. I thought, oh, I have this hobby, and my friends like that I do this, and I like to do it. And then it all literally happened because my friends and peers saw something in me. And honestly, I wouldn't have anything without the trust of those people because I actually started drawing digitally. My ex housemate had a tablet and they said, "Oh, I'm not gonna make any money with it, do you want it?" And I literally started from there. It was like an old Nexus, and then they were the ones who were like, “Oh, you should make an Instagram, and you should call it this.” I got advice and encouragement from a lot of people, a lot of people just talking about it and talking about me, inviting me to fairs, inviting me to do work, commissioning me to do things. For me, the most rewarding thing is that the people resonate with it, and that it matters to people. I really struggle with whether I'm an artistic person. Some days, I don't know in myself, but I think it's because I don't reflect on my art, "Oh, this means something deeper." That's fine if people are like that, but I don't think I'm like that. For me, the most rewarding thing that never ceases to amaze me is that it means something to people, something bigger and more than what I intended. And that's the most important thing for me, that my peers like it, and feel seen, and that they enjoy it. 

My art is not just for myself, I intentionally make art not just about myself. And if I have the opportunity to raise money with my drawings, I'm gonna do it. If someone needs a fundraiser, or to print something, I'm gonna design it. If I get approached, and I don't need the money, I can do it and then donate the money to someone. Because I understand that I would have nothing if it wasn't for my fellow trans people of colour, and I also feel like an accountability and obligation to them. Because again, it's not just me, I'm talking about such a big group of people.

Eleanor: So you've said, this is your first artistic residency. What led you to apply to The Big Draw for a residency?

blkmoodyboi: I was in this workshop that was being facilitated by a friend who was an incredible artist. It was such a beautiful space where black trans artists could share some of their work and have feedback all together. I was going to talk about something and then, all of a sudden, after listening to all of them, I said, “I want to do a comic, I want to do a comic about trans people.” And they were so enthusiastic, “Oh, my God, that will be amazing.” “I've never seen that.” I was talking about some of the topics that I wanted to talk about and then a friend called Lee said, “Oh, you should call it 'Blind Faith'.” Then, a few friends - and again, these are all the friends looking out for me constantly or sending me stuff on Instagram or tagging me and stuff - a few friends sent me The Big Draw residency post. I thought okay, but I don't know what to do. Then I remembered that I have this project. I was like, “No, I'm just gonna do it. I'm just gonna do it” and I just wrote it in such a short amount of time. I was just gonna do it. And if they like it, they like it. I also think because it's virtual, and the theme that The Big Draw was covering this year, I really thought, "Oh, just let me have a go and see." And if not, I’ll try some other place. 

When I got it, I thought, “oh, wow, now, I have to make a plan. Now I have to do it.” But I was so excited. When I told the people that were in that workshop, they were very excited. They said, you know, it’s the ancestors, listening, saying it’s our time to make things. Given the climate that we're in and all the things that are happening, I think it was just meant to be. And also I got brave, because I recently did the Tate Beyond Boundaries exhibition, so I was like, “I've done that. Maybe, maybe now. Maybe now I am an artist, maybe now I can apply to residencies.” But I don't think I would have had the courage a few years ago, I think it's this pandemic that's allowed me - even though it's been very difficult, and I've lost many people, so many people have - it's allowed me that space to seriously consider being a full time artist, and that's what I'm doing now.

Eleanor: Can you tell us a bit more about Blind Faith?

blkmoodyboi: Yes, so Blind Faith is an anthology of different stories of Black and Brown Trans people living in the UK, being told by people that experience dabbling in different topics that pertain to our lives and our experiences. But it really is for Black and Brown Trans people. But of course, with the goal that other people are going to read it and are going to think critically about different things. But it's not an educational piece, I would say. It's literally just people talking from their experience of their truth, and the way that they want to say it about different things. And the beauty, but also the difficulties or what it is to live in your absolute truth. And sometimes I guess the price that we have to pay because we live in a violent world. I think that would be the most brief summary, but it's a book about different stories that cover very complex topics. And it also doesn't shy away from trauma and from lived experience. But it also celebrates that we're here, despite what everyone says, despite the loss that we, through the generations, have experienced, we still find ways to create beautiful things and to have beautiful lives. And I guess it's also an effort to take space that we've been denied for so many years. To take space on our own terms, I would say in an effort to archive us now. Because I think that's one of the most painful things that we always archive in the lens of violent gender binary, and also when our lives come to an end. But I think it's also important to talk about when we are here, because we are here, right? So living within all these juxtaposed conditions. And it's also a prayer, one for other babies to read and see themselves. A lot of us in the community are going to become adults and we're going to grow older. We're going to be the elders that we were denied.

Eleanor: There's a lot going on in Blind Faith, and it's there for so many different reasons. What do you hope that The Big Draw audience will take away from the stories that you're sharing?

blkmoodyboi: I think several things. One of the things is to think of art as something that's accessible to tell different stories. And that it can be a tool that is communal. It doesn’t have to centre just one person, but so many different people. And that it's a very powerful tool to talk about different topics, I think. Also, I guess, to not shy away from the realities of the UK. Because I think we are very privileged to be in the UK and to live in the global north. And what that means, the accumulation of wealth, all these different things, like access to health care, but the thing is, not everyone has access to that. So I think it's also important to still hold space to question that. 

I'd also like to invite people to challenge things, like when violent things happen, when transphobic things happen. To really question and… I mean, I don't know if it will have the power to transform people who are transphobic, right? That's a huge ask, but to just see the humanity in people. Maybe you're not necessarily engaging in violent behaviour, but you're seeing it, and you're not having a critical thought about it. Maybe this can help people see us as human. A lot of times when we go to marches people will chant 'Trans rights are human rights' and sometimes I have a problem with that, because I'm like, "Of course we are, what do you mean?" We want labour rights, we want health care, right? We want very specific things. We want housing rights. So maybe it's a step towards that, pushing for more. 

Eleanor: Tell us a bit more about the stories in Blind Faith.

blkmoodyboi: It's a range of different stories, it will be four stories of different Black and Brown Trans people living in the UK. Each story has a different theme, and so many different topics and issues because we're not just defined by this one aspect of our lives, we're touched by so many different things that shape us. But I really, and we all really wanted to ensure that we showed different experiences. And again, from my point of understanding that we're not a monolith, and many of us will experience certain things that others won't at all. So that was an effort. It was an effort to encompass many different stories, but also being honest with the fact that in the first round, we can't have every single person. But it's a first step to start giving space for people that have historically been denied space. So there's stories about the invisible and what that means, and that visibility doesn't always equate with safety. And then what does that mean when we are in a society that we're told all the time 'We need to be proud.' So then what happens to the people that are unsafe in their visibility, but also know that the only way that they can live is by being who they are? Because the alternative is suffering. So what do you do? So that's one of the stories that is tackled in the anthology. 

There's another very beautiful story about parenting. And that's something that I think, in the trans community, but also the queer community in general in the UK, we don't really hold much space for. What does that mean then when you are being socialised as one parent, and then you're being socialised as another parent? Also that compiled with class, with being racialized, with disability, where does that leave you within a state that is ableist and has been cutting off services for around 10 years now. 

There's a story about healthcare that makes comparisons about accessing health care, and how it is a process of coming to yourself and coming home. How sometimes that is not safe, because of the services available. And currently in the UK, trans people are having to wait for five years to even access basic health care. And there are people who want surgery, and they're left waiting indefinitely to have a follow-up surgery. I can't even imagine that, it's such a violent thing. And we would never expect anyone to have to experience that. But somehow it is absolutely normal for trans people to experience it. 

There's another story about reconciliation. I think a lot of the time we instill such shame, we're constantly told by so many people that we're being selfish for wanting to live our truth. But there's no space to talk about the trauma, and how we sometimes reconcile our present with our past selves. So there's a very beautiful story about a person meeting their younger self, and their younger self is not scared of them, they see them, they recognise them, and they love them. And they actually want to play with them. So I think it shows many things about someone's gender journey, but also shows how wonderful children are. So it's also a question of why we are afraid to have these conversations with children, when we are absolutely fine with telling children to have babies for example, that's very wild, but that's just my opinion. 

So that is the bulk of the stories that are going to be in the anthology. And each story has a peculiar style. And this was also discussed with the people that contributed to the anthology. So it's important to say that I myself drew the whole anthology. But all those stories being shared are from actual Black and Brown Trans people who wanted to share their stories and trust the project, trust the residency and The Big Draw, to have them materialised in this Anthology. It's a group effort, this entire thing.

Eleanor: You said the community's been really supportive of the whole project. And it was even shared by, was it London Pride?

blkmoodyboi: Yeah, it was shared by so many people. It was shared by Lady Phyll who's one of the founders of UK Black Pride, and other organisations like We Exist, and different people doing activism and creating infrastructures in our communities. I saw it everywhere. I actually have a whole list now of people that I'm going to contact further for another instalment, I'm thinking about what that's gonna look like.

Eleanor: That, if anything, shows that there is not only a space for this kind of work in this kind of project, but there's a real thirst for that sharing of stories and contributing to the archive that you put at the heart of the project. How did that make you feel to have that kind of response, but also to know that, even before you've really finished this first stage, you're probably going to be looking to see if you can actually continue it afterwards?

blkmoodyboi: I just felt very humbled and honoured, I think. And that's why I really took my time to respond to every single person and explain what the project was, explain that if they weren't going to be in it just yet, that doesn't mean that they're not going to be in it in the future. Because that's someone's story. You know, that's not just an anecdote, that's someone that prepared to talk about themselves in a public way. And that's no small thing. 

People believing in my drawings, in my work, really touched me in so many ways that I don't think I was able to even convey.  I just put some stories on my Instagram, because that's where the call out was, thanking everyone, but that really touched me and it really reaffirmed the need to continue to do art, for whatever reason, not just for a specific project, but in general. That it is important to have these narratives. And I guess now I have a platform because of the trust of the people, the very people that I'm talking about. So it is important that I continue and that we continue to make use of it. 

Eleanor: As someone who is a self-taught illustrator, we've talked about carving out space for yourself as an artist, and maybe beginning to possibly recognise yourself as an artist. What would your advice be to a young trans person of colour who is looking for a similar kind of creative outlet and hadn't necessarily considered drawing before? What kind of advice would you give to get them started?

blkmoodyboi: I think I would just say, which is very cliche, to just go for it. Because someone's gonna like it. I've made myself post things, even when I'm thinking, “Oh, I'm not really sure about this.” Just to do it, to make sure that I'm doing it and that I am taking space. Now, my art has also become a very fast response to things that are happening in the world. I feel like I have to share what I think. I have to say what I think or show solidarity or make space for what is happening. Sometimes, I look at it and think, this is not a masterpiece, but I'm gonna put it up because it's a new thing for me, to release the feelings that I have about a topic. I think I really would encourage people to just do it. Just go for it and show people. You don't have to show your face and you don't have to tell people what your name is. I put it somewhere because someone's gonna find it, someone's gonna like it and just keep on practising. I definitely look at a lot of references to make sure things look human and accurate, but I think I'm quite moved by the resilience and resistance of different communities around the world, not just trans communities but all communities around the world who are organising against oppression. I'm doing solidarity work to document things because I think very wild things happen all the time, and it's normalised. Even with this pandemic and all these things and how much it has cost us in human lives.

I think for me, it's also for my own sanity to document these things. To someone else I would say, find the things that you're interested in and just go for it. Just go for it and watch YouTube videos. I mean, I definitely watch a lot of content as well as inspiration. If I don't feel inspired, I'll go watch anime or read something, or watch an animation and that's really helped. But more than anything, sharing it with friends and people that you care about, and whose opinion matters to you, I think.

Thank you, blkmoodyboi!

If you were inspired by this interview with blkmoodyboi and would like to find out more about them and their work, head to their website here. You can also follow blkmoodyboi on Instagram.

To find out more about Blind Faith, click here. To find out more about The Big Draw Digital Residencies in general, click here.

Registrations are open for The Big Draw Festival 2021: Make the Change! Find out more about the benefits of becoming an organiser here and other ways to support The Big Draw's mission here.