Perspective: gal-dem and the Elevation of Unheard Voices
gal-dem began as an online magazine last year and has since found huge success by supporting the creative work of women of colour. Reflecting on their takeover of London’s V&A, gal-dem opinions editor Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff discusses the importance of creating your own platforms for visibility.
On 28 October around 6,000 people snaked their way into the V&A museum in South Kensington for gal-dem’s Friday Late event. As a magazine written and produced exclusively by women of colour, the demographic of our audience was diverse, and it felt as though there was a new kind of electricity lighting up the stale air. We were taking up space in a place that wasn’t meant to be for us, filled with the busts of long-dead white men and the marble-stone curves of the women they dreamed up. It was magical.
For the past year, gal-dem has been shouting about the lack of diversity in the media and the creative industries, and how this leads to situations where, for instance, you have national newspapers demonising young, black female student campaigners, publishing racist cartoons, and organising positive action events where all the speakers are white men. Our exclusion so often means we are underrepresented and misrepresented in areas where we should be flourishing.
Liv Little founded gal-dem last summer after a frustrating two years at the University of Bristol, where, she says, there were “specific instances [of racism] that made me want to scream, and if not scream, cry.” As a fledgling journalist, I could feel her pain – before gal-dem I often felt alone in the workplace, battling microagressions, sexism and some instances of outright racism. But, working alongside a voluntary team of over 70 contributors, as one of the editors of the publication I have been lucky enough to see us develop from the ground up.
"We were taking up space in a place that wasn’t meant to be for us, filled with the busts of long-dead white men and the marble-stone curves of the women they dreamed up. It was magical"
Slowly, gal-dem has become more than a caress over the scars caused by colonialism and the ongoing racism and misogyny women of colour face because of it – we are the change we want to see in the creative industries. September saw the launch of our 260-page print magazine (I like to call it the gal-dem bible) around the theme of “gal-hood”, which I hope reaches the type of teenager fed up with looking at bambi-esque white women posing awkwardly with overpriced luxury items and reading vapid sex columns, as so often found in mainstream women’s magazines.
The really special thing about what’s happening with gal-dem is that we are not alone in our journey. We worked with dozens of women of colour at the V&A to fill up the 15 rooms we occupied with music, art, performance, food, panels and discussions – and all of them are making their own waves. Throughout this past year I’ve seen collectives like BBZ, who run a monthly club night and miniature exhibition for queer, trans, non-binary folx and women of colour in Deptford, go from strength to strength.
At the V&A they turnt up – and as anu, a BBZ contributor wrote shortly before the event, “I’ve been making art that people have called ‘weird’ since day… but now a piece of work that I have created is being shown in the V&A and most importantly, it’s being shown amongst the work of several other talented women of colour who are incredibly powerful and positive influences”.
Other highlights were the exhibition from Unmasked Women, which channelled the black British female experience in a way that can only be described as regal; the raw honesty from Lotte Anderson, artist and founder of MAXILLA and Lynette Nylander, deputy editor of i-D, who spoke candidly about self-worth and the process of creativity; Reel Good Film Club’s “MTV bedroom” taking us back to the 90s – and, of course, Kelechi Okafor’s “twerkshop”, looking at the origins of the now widely-popular dance form that has its origins in Africa. While these may sound disparate, the coming together of all these pieces of creativity felt like a revolution for the lost little brown girl I once was, growing up as one of the very few mixed-black children in Edinburgh.
"Security were in shock – 'We’ve never seen so many black or Asian people here.'"
There’s no denying that the whole night was surreal. Seeing so many black and brown people amongst the exhibits at the V&A, comprised of a largely homogenously white demographic, was bizarre. We tripped along through rooms filled with treasures from ancient ages, hung our illustrations from the huge ceilings and generally made ourselves at home. Out on the door, the queue trailed round the block. Security were in shock – “We’ve never seen so many black or Asian people here,” he said, adding that our event was also the busiest Friday Late he’d ever worked.
As we spilled out onto the pavement as the night drew to a close, one of my favourite journalists, Lola Okolosie, turned to me and said that she believed the night was “historic”. Later, looking at social media, this sentiment was repeated. Change is in the air, and we’re going to be a part of it. As one of the gal-dem(and V&A panellist), Chanté Joseph, wrote, “[At the V&A] I felt completely comfortable and at ease with myself. I was so blessed to be in a space with people who don’t see me as some ‘angry black girl’… gal-dem have given me the tools and the confidence to go on and create the spaces that I want to see.
gal-dem magazine is out now