The multi-disciplinary collective taps the women and non-binary leaders changing the creative landscape, as part of our Levi’s 501 skinny seriesLevi’s: Introducing the new 501 Skinny
gal-dem have made their name remastering your ideas of what’s classic. A reaction to not seeing their PoC experiences expressed in mainstream media, these women of colour banded together to create their own platform – for them, by them. But also, crucially, to educate the uninitiated – still blind to who these upheld narratives are shaped by (namely, privileged white men). On this journey, they’ve continually spotlighted all the good work coming from the community, bringing much-deserved attention to PoC creativity that is criminally underrated or tokenised at best. With this in mind, we thought they’d be the ideal partners to bring you the remastering of the iconic Levi’s 501s into a new skinny cut.
Shot by and starring women and non-binary leaders of their fields, this series of photos and film are a multimedia celebration of the PoC changing up the creative world right now. Be it the south London R&B artist, Ojerime, or black trans femme performance artist who took over the Tate Britain, Travis Alabanza – these are people that proudly live their truths. For this, they embody gal-dem’s representation of what it means to be true to your authentic self. Joined by artist manager Danai Mavunga, NIKAO jewellery designer Lisa-Marie Carter and singer-songwriter Fran Lobo – these are artists and creators that share gal-dem’s vision of remaking the world in their own image.
Channelling the energy of the re-imagined Levi’s 501 skinny cuts they’re wearing, these game-changing individuals appear in collages and film that illustrate their iconoclastic approach to making a space for themselves where, traditionally, there has been none. For gal-dem’s art & culture editor Mariel NO, “It’s the perfect time for people to take what has traditionally been said to them and actually turn it around, cater it to what their specific needs are, what their specific hunger is for.” Here, we talk to the women behind gal-dem about how they approached this project, and what it means to them to remaster creative spaces like they have.
How did you approach the project?
Ifama: We wanted the project to really focus on the fact that women and nonbinary people of colour have always been trailblazers in the creative world. From the creatives we selected to be featured to our stylist Helmi Okpara and photographer Abiola, it's a team full of people who really epitomise remastering a creative field and doing it for the culture.
Why did you choose the talents you ended up featuring?
Ifama: Firstly, because we rate them so, so much and we really appreciate and admire the work they do. We know how necessary and important each of them are. Every single person involved in the project I have at one point been sat with friends gassing them up and talking about wanting to work with them. They’re all incorporating their own narratives into creative practice and, more importantly, controlling their output. I’m literally in complete awe of every single one of them and it was just a natural decision to get them all involved and we’re blessed they wanted to work with us.
Mariel NO: Obviously, I’m inspired by all our talents but, for me in particular, Travis Alabanza is like one of the most exciting creatives out there right now. I’m just constantly in awe of their work – I think they’re just incredible. The strength that it must take to perform what they perform, and to do what they do – it’s incredible and it’s skillfully done, as well. I think that it’s very rare for a performer or artist to have both of those things in equal measure. The kind of skill of performing and the strength to do it. So yeah, I am constantly in awe of Travis and I was so excited to meet them. On that day, literally, I was like a little girl!
Antonia Odunlami: There are so many amazing different pockets of DIY things happening at the moment and everyone’s sort of writing their own narrative. Everyone’s so sick to death of being pigeonholed and also, I think, just having the autonomy – having the internet and having the resources, just make us really fortunate to be able to continue to do all the things that we’re all doing. We just wanted to showcase that.
“Let’s start doing something that’s positive for us, and that reflects and is actually done by us, as opposed to what other people are thinking of us” – Antonia Odunlami
What do you think the importance of remastering creative spaces is?
Ifama: It’s funny that by ‘remastering’ something it means that one set of work has been seen as the blueprint and really that shouldn’t be what creativity is. Just because something suited a certain group at one point in time doesn’t mean it was fit for everyone and often we don’t get to hear the stories from those who were left out of this narrative. What we see a lot of in the UK’s current mainstream creative world is a lot of regurgitating and republishing of stagnant work with little update of a real want to challenge behaviour or uplift marginalised voices and at its core, this really isn’t being ‘creative’. Creativity by definition requires evolving ideas and innovative approaches to project and this is something that communities of colour have been doing really well for a very long time.
Mariel NO: The whole point of gal-dem is that women of colour, systematically, do not have the same platforms and agency as white heterosexual, cis-gendered men from western countries. We just don’t. What we’re doing here is giving women of colour a platform to talk about whatever it is they want, because usually women of colour journalists or content creators are only brought into talk about certain issues. But, actually, it’s really important that people's voices get heard talking about whatever it is that they want to talk about. We work with so many creative people – mostly in the UK, but increasingly internationally. There are so many ways that you can represent women of colour and get our output out there, it’s exciting.
Antonia Odunlami: People always ask of gal-dem: “Do you ever there’s a time where gal-dem doesn’t need to exist anymore?” That would be the ideal thing because that would mean we’ve achieved ultimate equality within mainstream media – but then, at the same time, it means that we won’t be doing the same amazing, fun and important things that we’re doing. Challenge the narratives forced upon you by institutions, like I was saying. Use the resources – the internet, the support network of people around you who are able to join you and be like, “Yeah, we’ve had enough. Let’s start doing something that’s positive for us, and that reflects and is actually done by us, as opposed to what other people are thinking of us.”
I think the best example of this was probably when you took over the V&A – can you tell us more about that?
Mariel NO: Yeah, we were having like a big ol’ turn up at the V&A, you can’t ignore it anymore! I think that’s important, taking the online element and putting ourselves in physical spaces. We can only do that through events or exhibitions.
Ifama: That’s probably my favourite moment of gal-dem so far, just going past the queue and seeing all these women of colour waiting outside to get into the event.
Antonia Odunlami: As well and good as it is to have a massive presence online, it is just as important to be physically present. Because of the nature of the work we do, sometimes we’re just not visible in places like arts institutions. Even though this is London, anytime you see a big group of a certain race that’s not white, you think like a certain music gig’s on, do you know what I mean? Honestly, that made me so emotional, that day. I was running around like, “What is going on?” It was great to see all these crazy talented people in a place that might usually turn their nose up at everything we were doing in there. I just remember the main DJ area and everyone was just dancing – the vibe was so perfect, everyone was just so happy and like, upbeat.
What does remastering mean to you – how do you become your authentic self?
Mariel NO: When you trust yourself that the things that don’t feel right, don’t feel right for a reason. Trust yourself that you can do something about those things – step away, or step up.
Ifama: It’s really weird that we see these things as classic – like the average, or accepted. I mean, to outsiders, it probably seems fine but, really, people of colour have been doing this stuff for so long, they just haven’t been acknowledged for it. Did you really redefine it, or is it just like bringing it to the front? That’s what I think is great about everyone that we’ve had for this project. They’re doing something that’s good within the sector – while paying their dues to the people that came before them. Don’t look at diversity as like “I’ve got a certain amount of Asian people,” – let their work shine through.
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