“Wait…” Bolanle Tajudeen frantically jumps off camera and grabs a book from her shelf, before quoting me a line by Andy Warhol: “‘Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.”
That mantra is at the forefront of the 31-year-old’s mind, and with good reason. The artist and curator is now adding the impressive title of businesswoman to her credentials, following the launch of her latest venture, the Black Blossoms School of Art.
The online platform aims to decolonise, deconstruct and democratise, in a bid to shake up the current education system. By hiring an inclusive and diverse faculty, Tajudeen is breaking down the class and race barriers often present in traditional institutions.
With a vast selection of four-week short courses spanning Black British Art, Black feminism and the Art of Devotion, Black Blossoms aims to provide anyone with an interest in creativity, the opportunity to expand their learning and network within their community – without breaking the bank.
So how did we end up here? Let’s scroll back.
Tajudeen was always an activist. When she enrolled to initially study PR at the University of the Arts London, she fought to be class rep, before landing the role of education officer and Vice President of London College of Communication, making her the mouthpiece for her peers.
“I decided to run for education officer because I wanted to be a voice for students on all of their educational matters. I also was aware of the statistics of BAME students failing at a higher rate than their white counterparts and knew some of the figures around there being a low number of POC lecturers. Going into that role meant I could speak directly to senior members of management at the university about the students, especially Black students.”
In a statistical report from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in 2018, it stated that an astonishing 0.6 per cent of UK professors were Black. To put that into context, out of the 21,000 professors, only 140 identified as Black and just 25 were listed as Black British Female.
At present, bad hiring practises are in place. As Tajudeen explains, “back in the day anyone could say ‘oh do you want to do a couple of hours worth of teaching’, so a lot of people were hiring their mates because it wasn’t as rigid. That’s how there was an influx of whiteness. I also think people who sit on hiring panels hire people who look like them. Senior management shouldn’t be afraid to hire on the basis of racial diversity.
“I’ve always been adamant that having lecturers of colour is important,” Tajudeen continues. “If you can increase the number of staff from different backgrounds, that will immediately have a knock on effect on the grades. If a student is writing about Black culture and your lecturer has never heard about those topics, your lecturer won’t understand the cultural significance.”
Tajudeen tried to raise the importance of this multiple times in governors meetings but faced opposition. “I swear to god they did not take me seriously. To the point where I would leave meetings crying. It was such a traumatic experience. I had old white guys telling me to ‘grow some balls’. They knew this was a problem but they wanted to sort it out in their own way.”
Drained and defeated, Tajudeen switched off from the whole thing. That was until she received an alarming phone call from a fellow student.
“They said, could you imagine …. ‘a member of staff from London College of Fashion said to me that I shouldn’t use Black models in my Autumn/Winter collection, because our skin is better for summer.’ Excuse me, our skin is not an accessory!”
Racing to social media to vocalise the institution’s racial insensitivity, Tajudeen coined the provocative hashtag #ualsowhite.
“All of sudden it started to spiral. Students were talking about it, staff were talking about it and they started to take me seriously from there.”
Tajudeen had an awakening. “All of a sudden my whole perspective on the world shifted and it really made me think about what I wanted. I have an 11-year-old daughter and it made me think: what world is she going to grow up in? Is she gonna have to be fighting racism and elitism?”
And so, Black Blossoms was born. Initially focussing on wellbeing and healing, Tajudeen wanted to host a space for Black womxn from creative industries who felt like their voice was unheard.
“I was sensitive to the fact that Black people don’t really get creative jobs. The more I was around Black women from these industries, the more I realised that this is more of a universal problem. If you do have a job in an industry that we don’t usually have jobs in, you feel like a Black unicorn. You don’t really want to complain.”
From wellbeing conferences, to yoga and talks on how to deal with whiteness in the workplace, hosted by Tobi Oredein from Black Ballad, Black Blossoms became an inclusive space not only for Black people but for all people of colour.
“I’ve always been super aware that to fight against the white hegemony in creative industries, it has to be done by POC people collectively. That’s why the Black Blossoms School of Art isn’t just going to be run by Black women, the course leaders will be all nationalities.”
The idea of Black Blossoms School of Art was conjured in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Realising there was a gap in the market for affordable short courses in art and culture led by industry professionals and experts that want to deconstruct and deconalise white art and cultural history, Tajudeen stepped up.
Her roster of course lecturers includes ex-Goldsmiths tutor Evan Ifekoya and art historian Ferren Gipson. Tajudeen has also enlisted the help of independent curator, writer and art advisor, Lisa Anderson. With a background in International Relations and Human Rights, Anderson developed the curated platform @blackbritishart that explores the contemporary art practice of artists from the African Diaspora in the UK. At Black Blossoms Art School, she will be teaching Contemporary Black British visual culture, looking back over the last 50 years.
Anderson hopes that people will interact with the course “sincerely and ambitiously”.
“An extraordinary window of opportunity, to develop self-awareness and cause social transformation has opened up in the wake of the George Floyd murder,” she continues. “Critical perspectives about visual culture and art that have been ignored or misrepresented are [now] gaining attention and deeper consideration. There’s an openness and willingness to learn … and an accessible digital platform is the perfect way to deliver this in our new, socially distanced world.”
Tajudeen will be running a short course titled Art in the Age of Black Girl Magic, which delves into the heart of Black feminism, examining the work of Black womxn artists addressing social, economic and political issues for the first time.
Art in the Age of Black Girl Magic has been taught twice at Tate and received a staggering response. “The course kind of blew up. It’s always sold out and always got really good press. As soon as I started working with Tate and got that institutional nod, I saw how people respected my work more.”
Tajudeen wants this to be a 10 year project and has set her sights on writing a book in the next few years. “There are so many Black women who have had a disservice in the art world,” she says. “They haven’t been properly inducted into the art canon, so there is so much missing. I want to make sure that the artists who are working right now are remembered.”
For those of you who are interested in enrolling at the school, everyone’s welcome — students and art pros alike, from age 16 up. At the moment, it’s £50 for any four-week course – undercutting the vast majority of established higher education institutions. “I don’t want people to pay for this and feel like they’re missing out on something else,” says Tajudeen of the subsidised model. “It’s about having as many people as possible on board.” (Five percent of the school’s profits will be donated to art therapy platform Our Naked Truths, who are currently raising money to support Black femme and non-binary mental health.)
In addition to the courses, Black Blossoms is launching itself as a cultural hub, with articles written by POC practitioners, commentary on film and media, artist spotlights and a podcast further down the line.
As we begin to wrap up our video call, Tajudeen reflects on her journey over the last few months. “At the beginning of lockdown I probably had £1,000. I didn’t know where I was going to get more income from. All my freelance work was gone,” she explains. “Teaching my course Art in the Age of Black Girl Magic, I made more money in that time than I would usually make in a month and I realised that I had been living in a system where all I cared about was institutional access. It made me realise that I didn’t need to rely on an institution to make money.”
And that’s why Tajudeen has a fulfilling future ahead of her having gone at it alone. “I can now say ‘I’m a business woman’, you know?”