Here at The Laura Flanders Show we have a comprehensive John Jay Justice Fellowship program where participants work hands-on gaining first hand knowledge about our independent movement media operation producing our TV, radio and podcast productions. Throughout the program our entire staff spends time with each fellow sharing their expertise and knowledge from editing to scripting to promotions and technical skills, and more. We mentor our fellows and guide them in producing their own media pieces. You are about to read one of those stories produced by John Jay Justice fellow Eugenia Kwayisi, a college senior.
In my culture, where anything other than medicine or law is practically an abomination, imagine coming home one day and telling your African mother that you want to work in media and become a fashion household name.
As a Ghanaian American student, the journey to purpose has been full of a few highs and many lows. My passion for the arts has often been discouraged, causing me to think that success is unattainable. From Criminal Justice to Computer Science, to Public Administration, to Psychology and finally to English, my quest for a major and career that my heart desires has left me in an identity crisis.
With little to no family support, do I pursue my dreams of creating, writing and designing fashion or do I let go of my dream and find a “regular” job — the easiest and most convenient alternative?
Growing up, I never knew any Ghanaian creatives. That is, until I met Yaw Owusu at church. And there are more Black creatives like him in the world. It is true that the world cannot function without Black creativity.
How can we break the glass ceiling? How can we do what we love and be successful, believe in ourselves and pave the way for Black youth? There will be failure, but how do you set on where you want to be and use it as motivation to keep going?
- Yaw Owusu: Visual Artist
Report — What If It Works?: Forsaking Fear and Pursuing Passion as a Black Creative in America
My African immigrant parents came to the US with hopes of providing a better life for them and their families. With their experiences, what they have gone through, and their independent job struggles in this country, they tell me what I should do in my life. In the subtlest way, the questions posed are “What is your major?” or “What do you want to do for a career?” Woe to the person who says anything other than STEM or law.
They want the best for you. My parents want me to be a nurse because of job security. But I believe that if I am passionate and work hard, I can live a successful life fueled and funded by my desire to work in media and fashion. For years I struggled with embracing this because I do not believe in myself enough, am afraid of failure and afraid of proving everyone who discouraged me right — that my desire is nothing short of a “far-fetched dream.” But what if? What if I do make it in such a career as a Ghanaian American woman? What can get Black youth closer to their dream career? Is it perseverance? Is it by chance? Is it belief? What is that thing that turns your “what ifs” into reality?
I personally never knew any Ghanaian creatives that I could look up to. That is until I met Yaw Owusu a few years ago at church. A visual artist born and raised in Ghana, Yaw possesses one thing that myself and so many youth of color could only dream of having: the courage to chase his dreams in a culture, and a world, that may not fully accept or understand it.
Yaw Owusu received his Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts in Painting from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana and his Masters Degree in Fine Arts from Pratt Institute in New York City. An award winning artist, Yaw Owusu creates a lot of his art from repurposed objects that may seem worthless, and finds distinctive and unique ways to put them together to create beautiful works of art. With his art spread across more than four continents, in cities like Accra, Berlin, London, Dubai, and Marrakesh, Yaw Owusu always believed in himself and his craft. His work speaks for itself.
He described himself as a curious child, constantly breaking things into pieces and trying to understand how they were made. As a result, he studied chemistry in high school but ultimately art was what he truly loved.
“I grew up painting and drawing which I continued in my undergraduate degree, but in my master’s I studied integrated practice which was a more theoretical and philosophical research based program,” he says. “I think my work as an artist is more sculptural paintings where instead of painting with oils or acrylics, I paint with objects.”
As the last born child on his father’s side, Yaw comes from a long line of engineers, mechanical and chemical accountants and business people, but they were always supportive of him. When he decided to pursue art, It wasn’t something new to them.
“My parents were very supportive. When I was in Ghana, there was a bit of uncertainty on whether I would be able to survive in Ghana as an artist because there were not many examples of successful artists in Ghana at the time” he says. “Nonetheless, they supported me, gave me money to push my career to the point that when I would make paintings, they would be fighting for who gets to put it in their room or office.”
We both agreed that all youth of color deserve families that will support their dreams although they might not fully understand it. As an artist, Yaw noted that his career became a conversation killer as he got older. A conversation killer that can make or break your dream, but with the support of friends and family can keep you going.
Yaw told me so many stories where he was disrespected because of his career. But one notable thing he mentioned was that he never let it affect him deeply, because he knows who he is, not only as an artist, but as a person.
“If I had listened to what people say, there is no way I would be where I am today. Once I was asked to go pursue law in my MFA program. At some point I was actually going to quit and I applied to the architecture program and was offered a full ride scholarship. At the time, I was paying off some fees for the art program. But I didn’t let my let downs or fears deter me from pursuing my dream.”
“Discouragement or offense doesn’t only come from close relations. It comes from even people in the industry that you find yourself in,” Yaw states as he recalls a time in his undergraduate career where a museum curator discouraged him because his art was “too big” and he was “too young.”
“At the time I was making big art installations or bigger works. He told me that no one was going to buy these kinds of works because, to him they were too big and I was too young. I think two weeks later, a huge museum acquired that work.”
The wins, however, came with failures as well.
“My art was based on failure . . . I’ve had shows that none of the work sold. I’ve had friends say very hurtful things. But one fact that I use to motivate myself is that, ‘If I could turn my failure into success, then what else can I do?’”
Not everybody can be a lawyer. Not everybody can be a doctor. Not everyone can be a mechanical engineer. Not everyone can be a pharmacist. As a Black creative, your name could be in books, in articles and on TV. You can make an impact by being different.
The late Virgil Abloh left a hundred million dollars in wealth. He is actually the perfect example of a Ghanaian youth who chased his passion and became successful. He wanted to go into fashion but his father wanted him to go into engineering. He respected his father’s wishes, became an architect and eventually started working for Kanye West and ultimately through his hard work and dedication to his craft, became the designer for Louis Vuitton. He even left behind a free website where creatives can receive guidance on how to create their own brands, styling portfolios and much more.
“Passion is not enough. It is 5% passion, and the rest is hard work and belief in your craft.”
Yaw Owusu came to the US alone with no family or even connections to peers in the art world. He worked hard and knew that no one had the ability to create or think of art the way he does. After his first couple of months at Pratt Institute, he was making triple the amount of Pratt’s yearly tuition, in a month.
“I could have said, ‘You know what, I’m Black, I’m young, I don’t know anybody.’ These are real barriers that can scare you from progressing. But now people don’t even know me personally, but they love what I do.”
“If I had envisioned success, I don’t think this would be it. I don’t think I would have my own studio, assistants, or having to fly all around the world. I couldn’t imagine that. So while it was pretty much a failed attempt, it ended up being a successful one.”
From Yaw Owusu and so many other Black creatives, we learn that you will never know whether you are capable of reaching your dreams unless you try. Sometimes it can get discouraging, scary, and tough, But if you understand who you are, and the future generations of Black creatives that can come after you, that alone can give you the encouragement to advocate for yourself and work towards your dream. It is up to us as Black creatives to open our perspectives and figure out what we are going for, researching, practicing, and hearing stories of what other people did to get to where we want to be, then proving ourselves by work as well. You can have passion, but not be so good at first, and get better through hard work.
Do not see yourself as less than, or incapable. Be your own cheerleader, because when you believe in yourself, nothing and no one can stop you.
“Fear of danger is real, but fear is a choice.” So personally, I don’t make that choice. I don’t choose to be afraid. The same energy that I use to be afraid of losing is the same energy I’ll choose to put it into winning. You could spend the rest of your life dealing with what ifs. But the question is “What if it works?”
We need more brave Black youth to fight for their creative passions so that our culture can see that art is not only for white people. Dance is not only for white people. Fashion design is not only for white people. Videography and movie production are not only for white people. The culinary arts are not only for white people. Journalism and news reporting is not only for white people. We do not have to run to STEM or law careers for safety.
To quote author Joshua J. Marine, “Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.”
The world does not move without Black creativity.
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