Illustration by Isabelle Mulvany
In the UK, many studying at University are receiving an incomplete education due to an outdated and narrow syllabus. There is little backing for a wider exploration of topics outside of the Eurocentric canon, with movements like the British Black Arts Movement in the 80's being excluded or generalised into one lecture. Many students have to actively seek out a complete education, with those who don't losing out on rich cultural history. This isn't specific to arts education, and students across the country continue to go unawares of histories being excluded or incorrectly presented.
Theophina Gabriel begun Onyx Magazine whilst attending Oxford, one of the UK's most prestigious universities. Unfortunately it is also one of the most traditional, leaving a serious need for the platforming of the Black creatives that attended. Theopina saw the rich and varied work being created and decided that she would help bring people together, using Onyx Magazine to showcase talent in a way that her University was not.
We caught up with Theophina to talk about starting her own magazine, her experience at Oxford and the wider issues with our current education system.
Tell us a bit about Onyx and how it got its name. What sort of work gets published in the magazine?
Onyx is made for Black creatives by Black creatives. The idea came to me while I was studying in Oxford in 2017. I’d come across talented Black photographers, writers and creatives, and thought about how great it would be to have one singular place to gather the talent I was seeing on Instagram, and blogs...and what if this space was a beautifully printed magazine? In Oxford, there is a real sense of hypervisibility and otherness, so some form of collective platforming for me was the assertion that we’re here and we’re us. The symbolism behind the name Onyx came from the idea that there is value in these voices, they are rare, interesting... underground. There’s also a historical narrative behind the onyx gem - the Ancient Egyptians used it to form pottery, sculptures and art pieces.
‘A space where we would be free to be creative in our expression without necessarily having to mention ‘the struggle’’. What does this mean for you?
The Black experience is multi-faceted and varied, but we often only highlight a limited representation of that. This representation usually comes in relation to historical differences in experience which have of course shaped the course of history, such as civil rights, slavery and racism. Of course these are worthy conversations to be having but they don’t shape us. This problem manifests in creative industries, where this ‘otherness’ is really brought out. There are so many books on racism and white supremacy, on encountering and overcoming oppression - of course these are important educational tools, but just give me a cool story, or romances with Black people as main characters! This kind of content is really missing from a lot of industries, like they don’t know how to handle narratives not linked to historical elements. So I just really wanted to have a platform for Black creatives, where they don’t have to write about their experience of racism to be heard. I feel that this type of thing can lead to a packaging of your creative self. So I wanted to lift that restriction around the creative sphere. The idea was that people would bring all this interesting stuff, whether it was philosophy, photography or abstract fiction, and it didn’t have to mention ‘This person touched my hair’, or whatever. Creativity can be so much more than this one aspect of the Black experience.
Can you talk about the experience many Black students, and more specifically Black creatives, at Oxford face, such as institutional racism and lack of representation?
This term ‘institutional racism’ has sort of become this...soundbite used by politicians and diversity reports. Of course the consensus is that Oxford needs to be doing more, but while everyone drives home this access point, once you’re in the system you sort of feel like it’s ‘Job done!’. There’s definitely less pressure on respective colleges within Oxford to accomodate for their Black students. Institutional racism doesn’t end when you’re in the door it’s how you’re treated by tutors and peers as well. There can be a lot of racism that can go unseen, or seen and brushed under the rug. When marketing Onyx to colleges, we asked them what initiatives they have for current Black students, and they would default to ACS (the university’s award-winning African and Carribean Society, and I just thought ‘No, not what ACS is doing, what are you doing?’. It can be for many people, a big shift into a mainly White space, with class divides, and colleges themselves aren’t as aware as they could be. Students can face isolation, lack of representation and loneliness, which impacts on mental health and can lead to students dropping out. So of course I still back access work, but we can’t stop caring about the students once they get in.
Would you speak about the impact of the erasure of the Black Arts Movement from the UK Curriculum, and why platforming Black British artists is so important?
A lot of it comes down to what is in the remit of gatekeepers, and what is deemed as ‘classic’ and ‘other’. When we talk about heritage, we talk about British heritage and British people, but ‘British’ is not holistically reflected in the curriculum. We are still coming to terms with the multi-faceted nature of nationalities that have been a mixing pot since they migrated in mass numbers. There has been pushback from the generation that has grown up after Windrush - you know, we know our parents exist, we know we have history in this country beyond Windrush, but it’s been pushed away as this ‘diverse’ sphere, away from classical movements. I remember studying Picasso at school, people who ‘they’ feel hold weight within the world. There was a lack of Black british history and even correct history. I didn’t know about the Black Arts Movement until uni and it’s strange to think that there was a group of Black artists in Britain holding events about the colonial past, in 1982! Until we get more people who see the worth in these stories into positions of power, we either have to lobby with people already in power, or try to make changes within the system ourselves. There’s a lack of Black teachers, professors; there was the first Black Dean in Oxford in 2019! If a certain history is out of your periphery, you won’t know about it, so it is a learning process and I feel positive about it. There’s this energy with our generation, lobbying for change; an attitude of implementing change ourselves. Strides are being taken to infiltrate and shake up the structure of the curriculum and the art world.
What do you think the next steps should be towards a less Eurocentric education inside institutions like universities?
I saw this Tweet today, by a Black student, saying: ‘Oh my God, there is a black person on my syllabus. And I’m in third year! I’m going to quote this person so much!’. And it just made me think that really we don’t even see what’s missing until someone points it out to you. Within academic institutions, the problem with having White, male tutors and Deans is that you can get stuck in a circle of academic thought that reflects and perpetuates the people in those positions of power. And being a Black woman, it’s like...waiting for the diversity escalator to finally reach you. We’ve gone from the first Black student in Oxford, Christian Cole in 1873, to the first Black Dean in 2019. It’s slow progress, but this is a reflection of moving away from one homogenous group in academic spheres. For decolonisation of the curriculum, we need to reinforce people’s sense of representation. Oxford in particular puts so much emphasis on tradition and legitimacy, and it takes a long time for change to solidify in these spaces. But for me it’s about recognising that if you’re going to claim you’re the best in the world, you can’t only consider work from one group or one perspective. To be fair, it is happening, but it needs to take root, otherwise it becomes another performative expression of diversity.
How has it affected your experience of university, and creativity, to be at the core of a team of Black women inspiring each other and those around them?
An energy. I had to fight to find them...when you’re in oxford the stress is so real, so it was hard to pull people into the orbit of Onyx. I asked a few friends there if they would be interested in joining my team. And I just talk really fast when it’s something I’m excited about, but it was nice to see the excitement in their eyes when I was describing what it could be. So I got my Deputy Editor, Serena. I like to think of myself as quite thorough but I’m really not. So Serena was the detail trudger, checking things 6 times. We balance each other out so well. Once we had Oluchi and Zeynab on board, we did callouts for team members, found Alyssa from Somerville College and then thought ‘We can swing this’. It was amazing to have a group of women that I could relate to within the sphere of Oxford.
How have you found the process of getting funding and support for distribution for your publication? (Backed by Oxford colleges, celebrities etc.)
Surreal. I dragged my team through so many applications at National level, for example we applied for Arts Council grants, which are SO long. They rejected us because they had no way of measuring the magazine’s engagement. After that I realised I was going about it wrong: we are literally going to one of the richest institutions in the world...some of these colleges own land - how did I not see this before? So we applied for the Oxford Equality Grant and we were successful, and we crowdfunded as well. I really saw the need for Onyx from the crowdfunding process - it showed me that people were really excited and wanted this to exist. We got funding from colleges, with the angle being the need for them to support their Black students and their voices. It would act as an affirmation of the students within colleges as well as an access tool. So I’d encourage anyone in a similar position to set it up as an access initiative - the uni were very supportive of that. There’s definitely a willingness to listen, you just have to bring the idea.
I’ve read that Onyx was invited to 10 Downing Street. How was that experience?
Magdalen College, one of our supporters, had an Access initiative in which Black students were invited to talk to the advisor of the PM (Theresa May at the time). I always think of Onyx as having two main prongs...to provide visibility and affirmation of Black student creatives and to address the wider issue of representation within the creative industries. So this trip to Downing Street was very much the second prong. So we went down to 10, sat down, it was all very surreal. I spoke about implicit bias and how it can operate without people even thinking about it. It was good to have the conversation about the way race functions, not just in terms of visibility but psychologically. I suggested more ‘on the ground’ initiatives because a lot of initiatives are operating in themselves. They expect people to find them, instead of going out into schools and mainstream places like bookshops, you know, feeding into community spheres. It’s about the fluidity and consistency of communication, so when you cut this you can’t expect it to function. Youth clubs being shut down, creative spaces are being shut down because of funding, but you can’t expect to fix one problem, when you undercut the root. I walked away feeling slightly shaky but it was a good chat! It felt so good to represent the narrative that the magazine embodies.
What would be your advice to young creatives trying to launch ambitious projects such as this while juggling a degree?
Degrees are not easy things. But trust in the weight of your own vision, and learn to become comfortable with discomfort. There is a weight that comes to having a dream, there are always a million fears, and it can become uncomfortable. Never let them grow bigger than the positive side of your vision. Find a good team who love what you’re thinking about. There’s a myth that you always remain positive - sometimes you’re really fed up and want to stop. But if you have a good team, they bring their own energy to it. Planning, breaking it down, being willing to be nimble and dynamic with it - what else can we do? Team, hustle, ambition and remaining flexible. Because things will go wrong - it’s about how you roll with it.
Artwork and Description by Kirsty Bekoe-Tabiri
Interview by Devon Armstrong