Jacob V Joyce is a zine-maker, spoken word artist and punk musician dissecting white supremacy and sexism one illustration at a time
When someone tells you that one of the main missions of their work is to "clap back at the white supremacist heteropatriarchy" you might not expect it to be a giggle-inducing experience. And yet Jacob V Joyce, a non binary interdisciplinary artist perhaps best known for their zines, manages to poke fun at things like racism and sexism in a way that is bristling with an electrifying intelligence, but also highly-accessible and hilarious.
Joyce, 27, grew up in Mitcham in south London – "a bit of a nowhere place", they say – and has been making artwork since childhood. They are one of those people who is always doing the most.
Alongside zines and a beautiful Black History Year calendar, Joyce is part of artist collective sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, who who are currently working with the ICA, fronts punk band Screaming Toenail (described as "the punkest shit I’ve heard in forever" by punk legend Kathleen Hanna), does spoken word poetry, activism and workshops.
Oh, and they make 'Token' jumpers which, they say, "are an example of how I sometimes feel about being in white institutions".
Their latest zine project Groundr, which tells the story of a non binary alien cruising for intelligent life, is the Afrofuturist take on cruising culture. They'll be presenting the zine with music at Somerset House next Thursday (27 April), as part of a series called HOTLINE.
How has your upbringing influenced the type of work you make now?
Jacob V Joyce: In 2011 my mum was diagnosed with throat cancer after being misdiagnosed and she ended up having surgery that meant she lost her voice box. That made me really angry and upset because she hadn’t been listened to, despite the fact she was a nurse and she’d had cancer a few times before. It was kind of a wake up call as to how important my voice is, and how easily I could lose it. I think it gave me a lot of the fuel for the music and the art I make which is often about patriarchy and white supremacy. And it made me really aware that people don’t listen to women.
Were you always quite artistic when you were growing up?
Jacob V Joyce: When I was a kid I used to make comics. And I’d make my own action figures. Looking back at them now they’re predominantly people of colour, black people and women. I think that was one of the first times that I was trying to make myself visible and respond to not seeing myself represented in the cartoons and films I was watching.
“I don’t really believe in the word woke: I think we’re constantly waking up every day” – Jacob V Joyce
There’s an essay by teacher Darren Chetty in The Good Immigrant that talks about how a lot of black and Asian children in the UK only draw and write creatively about white people, as that’s what they see in the media and books. Why do you think you had the opposite reaction?
Jacob V Joyce: My mum’s Irish, but she moved to London when she was pregnant because she didn’t want me to grow up somewhere where I was a minority. So I think it’s because I didn’t grow up in an overly white environment. I guess a lot of the drawings were inspired by my friends. I thought: “Why isn’t there someone who looks like my best friend in Pokemon? Why aren’t there any dark skinned characters in Legend of Zelda or Sonic the Hedgehog?” Though Sonic the Hedgehog is black! You can tell.
There was a very distinct moment in time when I started becoming aware of racial microaggressions and everything else. When did that hit you?
Jacob V Joyce: It was in the last year of studying sculpture at Brighton. And I wasn’t really woke. (I don’t really believe in the word woke: I think we’re constantly waking up every day.) I made a piece of artwork about being of mixed heritage – a sculpture of a black lion fighting a white unicorn. As soon as the crit started someone was like, “We get it, you’re mixed race”. And I kinda thought “Well, how can you get it? You’re all white. Everyone in this room is white apart from me. How can you get it?”
I didn’t really like the people I studied with. I don’t wanna be throwing any shade at them but I didn’t really gel. I got kicked out of school when I was 16, and I think it made me really angry at institutions. I'd identified as gay from when I was 13. I used to wear makeup and nail varnish to school and have big messy hair. I stuck out like a sore thumb and was always made an example out of. So when that happened I got really pissed off and I think I had a bit of a point to prove. Which was, I don’t need to go to this shit school anyway because I’m going to go to art school and keep on drawing. But I now have this thing where if I feel remotely unwelcome in a space then I don’t fuck with it.
“I used to wear makeup and nail varnish to school and have big messy hair. I stuck out like a sore thumb” – Jacob V Joyce
In your life now as a non-binary, queer PoC are you still feeling the struggle or have you surrounded yourself, in general, with people who wouldn’t do shitty stuff like that to you?
Jacob V Joyce: I began to identify as non-binary about two years ago and at the beginning I was living in a house with queer people who were really respectful. If I’m out and about and getting food or something and the waiter says, “There’s your change sir”, I’m not gonna say anything. There’re times when it’s relevant, there are times when it’s not. But I think in my personal life I’m strict with blocking if people are trying to preach or dictate my gender to me.
I’m also very tactical about how I present myself. I’m working in a youth centre with teenagers then I probably won’t dress very femme that day because I don’t want a workshop about making a piece of art together to suddenly be about my gender – and it’s the same if I’m walking around. I think the fact that I’m read as male and present as masculine sometimes affords me a safety. In London it feels great that there are so many black, queer spaces constantly popping up – I feel like I can be how I want to be and it affords me a kind of sanctuary, though they have their own problems.
“I want my work to be nourishing to people who have had a similar experience to me. And to people who haven’t had that similar experience, I want it to stick in their throat” – Jacob V Joyce
When did you start coming into your own as an artist?
Jacob V Joyce: I guess it all comes from illustration. I really wanted to draw stories about African deities so I started researching and got really obsessed with the Orisha from West Africa and started writing comics about them. Every time I learnt more about them I realised how my drawings were colonised. All my drawings of black men and women were overly sexualised and just adhering to colonial tropes. The Orisha lead me to spoken word and forming the punk band I'm in, Screaming Toenail, and also helped me decolonise my relationship to black history and my own spiritual practice. I’ll be learning about the Orisha 'til the day I die because they’re not gods. God is an English word.
Do you take pains to keep your work accessible?
Jacob V Joyce: I guess I want my work to be nourishing to people who have had a similar experience to me. And to people who haven’t had that similar experience, I want it to stick in their throat. I don’t want them to just be able consume it and then shit it out.
White Boys was my first zine – it’s nine different ways that race is talked about in the UK with nine different illustrations of white boys. So many people pick it up and are like “fuck” or “I’m kinda guilty of this thing”. People of colour too. You’ve got Michael who’s a bit of a mansplainer and knows all about a topic because he has a degree in it and I think that’s really easy to do: to patronise someone without realising. I hope that everyone can learn from White Boys as well as laugh about it.
How important it is for you to create tangible things as well as to perform?
Jacob V Joyce: Because I’ve studied sculpture I really like making physical things. There’s a culture of making zines DIY, on cheap paper, but I like the idea of a zine being something that feels nice to hold in your hand and the colours being really rich and layered and textured. But I also really like the idea of a performance. I like to make things and when you perform something you’re always in the process of making. I don’t like finished things because then they’re over and you have to stop. That’s something that I’m grappling with Groundr – my Afrofuturist cruising comic. Once it’s printed it’s an object that I’m selling and I have to stock it and sell it. It becomes something so different.
We’re in a bit of a messy place in politics right now. How are you feeling about the snap election and everything that’s going on?
Jacob V Joyce: I feel that I would be really shocked if there wasn’t a response to what’s happening right now. Marginalised communities always find ways to respond to the current climate of politics. The Tories are very, very calculating in the sense that they own the media basically. We’ve got the media against us. And when I say ‘us’ I mean disabled people like my mum, black and brown people, homeless people, queer and trans people. I don’t rely on Labour at all, and I think the Lib Dems are fucking backstabbers. Though the Western world is devastatingly fascist right now, it’s always been that way really and I think that people will find new ways to subvert and break that system in ways that will change it.
That’s all I can hope for really. Unless there’s some kind of alien intervention.
Check out Jacob V Joyce's Tedx talk below. You can purchase their work here