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‘The first time I wore Ankara I felt like a queen’: meet Converse All Star artist Jael Umerah-Makelemi

Black women shine in the vibrant work of this young self-taught illustrator and art director.

18 May 2021

Supported by Converse 

Born and raised in Peckham, South London, 22-year-old artist Jael Umerah-Makelemi is embodying Black empowerment and self-love, one illustration at a time.

Jael’s art plays an important role in her mission to uplift and empower the communities dearest to her. “I’ve always been fascinated by the multitude of diverse and bold personalities who aren’t afraid to express who they are through colour and fashion,” she explains. “This influenced me to create illustrations that are unapologetically vibrant and bold in style.” From even the briefest look at her Instagram, @nubiart, you can’t help but see the love that’s been poured into every post.

Depictions of Black women feature in almost every image, most with embellishments of flowers or Nigerian Ankara patterns. “It’s very important to love every aspect of ourselves, because there’s already so many people that stigmatise us and try to pit us against each other,” the artist explains.

In 2020, Jael joined for the Converse All Star Programme, a robust community-focused ecosystem of mentorship, commissions and funding and was launched by Converse to support the creative action of emerging creatives from under-represented groups.

This season, Converse celebrate the launch of their first collaboration with the prolific artist Keith Haring, whose signature pop art style became a visual language to raise awareness of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and became a voice for marginalized communities. This spirit of advocacy and breaking barriers motivated Haring throughout his life, who continued to encourage the next generation of artists to break to barriers on tomorrow. With this in mind, Converse are shining a light onto Jael, who seeks to empower those around her through her bold and vibrant designs, and whose visual language is becoming voice for under-represented communities.

During our conversation over Zoom, Jael discusses some of her artistic influences, from the Black Lives Matter Movement to Frida Khalo. She stresses the importance of using art to have autonomy over our stories.

gal-dem: How did your journey into illustration graphic design begin?

Jael: I got into illustration during secondary school and continued to study it all the way through to my foundation year after sixth form. It gave me that perfect blend of ICT and art that made it feel like a practical choice at the time. Coming from a traditional Nigeran family, I remember being told that artists are only ever recognised when they die. Which isn’t exactly something you want to hear as a creative. But art has always allowed me to translate my experiences into something that can relate to other people’s lives.

Your art features a lot of Black women. What is it about Black womanhood that you seek to capture in your art?

Growing up, I was constantly surrounded by amazing figures and examples of Black women so to illustrate them came naturally. But moving through the creative industry (and just life itself) I’ve seen how Black women are usually presented, if they’re presented at all. We’re just never represented as feminine. None of the muses in the art pieces I studied were ever Black women. And I just wanted to show that side. I wanted to say just take us for who we are, and you shouldn’t prejudge us based on other people’s assumptions.

You also feature a lot of Ankara patterns and Nigerian textiles in your work. Why is it important to you to represent this in your work?

The first time I wore Ankara clothing I felt like a queen. I always loved African patterns, textiles, coral beads and fashion. I really wanted my work to connect with my roots. It’s just amazing to be able to incorporate my culture in such a way that’s unique to me. 

I noticed that one of your pieces ‘Residing in Confidence’ was displayed on billboards across London. What was it like seeing your illustrations of Black women in London?

I had to pinch myself. Visiting one of the sights to see my work was one of those moments that just confirmed this is what I’m meant to do. 

Sometimes as creative, especially women, we have a lot of imposter syndrome. We feel like we’re not good enough or that we’re proving ourselves enough. But at that moment I was just like, yes, this is for me. 

You were the artist behind the 2020 National Coming Out Day graphic for Converse as well as the illustrations for BBC’s article on LGBT+ sportspeople. What did it mean to you to bring life to these stories?

One thing that really shocked me during the Black Lives Matter movements last year was that people weren’t being inclusive of all Black lives. What about the Black LGBT+ lives that so many people were happy to leave behind? So for me, it’s always important to represent everyone, because representation is key to progression. And if we want to keep moving forward and lifting each other up, we need to keep being represented in all of these different spaces. 

What did it mean to you to be selected as a Converse All Star?

It meant everything. I felt like such a fangirl because I kind of grew up with Converse. They’ve been a part of my life and a wardrobe staple for me, so to be recognised by a brand that I’m so familiar with was amazing in itself. I love what they are doing with the All Stars programme, and the way it enables and supports under-represented young people and their communities- they understand the challenges we face. 

I’ve been using what I’m doing with @nubiart as a vessel to say what I need to say and spread messages that relate to others in my community. But to be given that opportunity to have a larger platform to reach more people meant the world to me. Last year, I really discovered my purpose and defined what my mission was so being on the All Star platform just means that I’m really able to fulfil that purpose and to use my art to inspire to show people that they can do it and to fight for Black communities across the world. 

You make a lot of references to Frida Khalo in that piece of work. What is it about her art and life that speaks to you?

She was just so empowered. And I know that she was a disabled woman as well. When you look at her work, you can tell this is someone who is confident within herself. She was her own favourite muse.

There was a period of time within my life that was quite dark. I found it hard to express my emotions and put all the thoughts in my head like down on paper. But I found the best way for me to do that was just through art and illustrating. Frida used to talk about illustrating her emotions. It didn’t need to be literal. She uses the symbolism to get the story across. So you’re able make your own interpretations. And I found that very inspiring. I think the symbolism opens up a window for people to invite themselves in and be in her world for a while.

2020 was a turbulent and eventful year, were there any moments that you felt impacted your creativity?

The Black Lives Matter protests gave me goosebumps. The work that was done last year, and the way people came together to use their voices really moved me. It was just a moment you could not ignore.

It didn’t even matter if they weren’t able to march and be there in person on that day, because there were so many other things they were doing. During the protests I just saw how people were able to tell stories, through art and creativity. It was almost a form of protest. Seeing those messages and like interpreting what people were thinking and saying meant a lot to me. Art had a big role to play in that movement, not only capturing our pain as a community, but also Black joy. That was another thing that was really important last year, because it was hard, and it still is hard but being able to show Black people enjoying life is also important to the story. 

How do you hope to inspire the next generation of artists to pursue their passions?

Representation through art is powerful. There aren’t enough people that are senior for us to look up to. And I think I have a duty to inspire people and to make ways for them. In everything I’ve done with Converse I’ve tried to carry the message that the creative industry needs you. There’s not enough diversity, whether it’s age or race, in the creative industry. I feel Converse really support this message. 

If I could say anything to aspiring artists out there, if you know you have a purpose make sure that any opportunity you’re taking aligns with it. Because at the same time, you kind of don’t want to dilute your message. Do not let anyone deter you. If you have a passion that drives your creativity, or really anything that you’re doing, you need to run with it.

Check out the Converse All Star Programme

Converse x Keith Haring is now available on Converse.com and select retailers