SXWKS: Strength in numbers
In a creative climate often teeming with competition and the isolation of working in silos, it can be difficult to find your artistic network. But there are people looking to disrupt that. Enter SXWKS; a multidisciplinary collective of artists based in London. The brainchild of founder and current managing director Charles Olayinka, the group started as a core group of friends, most of whom met at university during the mid 2010s, with the name serving as a nod to the six weeks of school holidays that their members relished during their youth.
The group isn’t tied down to a specific space, studio, industry or line of work. Instead they weave through different disciplines and focuses – poetry, photography, design, music – creating the perfect conditions for innovation and collaboration to blossom.
Most recently, the collective have teamed up with Calvin Klein to create a series of short films and images referencing the brand’s SS21 campaign theme, “Blank Canvas”, celebrating self-expression. The films, created by collective members Reece Laurent-Hughes and Barbara Premo, both explore different aspects of interaction in a time of isolation. Reece’s short film It’s All Love is an ode to non-verbal, tacit forms of love and appreciation – “daps, pounds, hugs, all that kind of stuff,” he explains – that aren’t always formally documented means of communication. Laurent Hughes’ project features three brothers and focuses on kinship and sibling love expressed between the three, as well as within the Black community at large.
“[The idea] came from a number of things that I was watching and viewing throughout the year, also during the back end of the Black Lives Matter movement and the uproar around that,” says the creative director and producer. “That period gave me a bit of courage to create something focused on our community. It partially stems from research I did into the origins of some of these greetings and how they’ve bled into lots of subcultures, such as the African-American soldiers that used them decades prior.”
Premo, a photographer, filmmaker and creative director, made her film Freedom in response to restriction and claustrophobia of the pandemic, tapping into the widely familiar urge to challenge the global mood of loneliness. “I found myself wanting to make something reflective of the freedom I was seeking, and of the questions I have about freedom at this time,” she says, outlining an intention to be “light-hearted” and provide levity. Cast through Jeune Agency, a modelling agency Premo founded, the black and white short uses a blend of photo stills, spoken narratives and filmed footage to share ideas of what freedom means to her, cast in various contexts.
Both films wordlessly speak to SXWKS’ open and communal nature, often relying on friends and people in the creators’ close circles for casting and other areas of production. It’s this very principle that has run through the group since its inception. Olayinka takes me back to summer 2014 after his final year at university, where he started the group as a means to have fun with friends. “A bunch of us went to Queen Mary, and there were a few other people I’d gotten to know through friends of friends. I had just started making music at the time and wanted to see the parallels between these different art forms,” he says. “It started off just wanting to know how different people approached the artistic process and have wider conversations about art, music and culture.” The group has naturally expanded and contracted over the years thanks to its casual open-door policy, sometimes ranging from numbers exceeding the dozens, to now settling at a core 10 to 12 members. Featuring notable artists like Lex Amor, illustrator Olivia Twist, director Jolade Olusanya and poet Sarah Aluko over the years, finding members has largely been via word-of-mouth and interest from friends and affiliates. “The collective has allowed people to come and go – the door’s always open for whoever, as long as it’s the right fit,” Charles says.
Speaking to the three members over Zoom, the friendly and tight-knit nature of the group is evident. Reece-Hughes, Premo and Olayinka readily crack jokes and bounce thoughts off each other while we’re speaking, revealing a working relationship that thrives off their real life relationships. During the early days, the group’s main priority was approaching their art recreationally, often putting on poetry slams, exhibitions, music nights and other live events. But over time they’ve pivoted to a more commercial framework to carve out opportunities for creatives, to sustain their work and allow them to grow. “[When we started out] we were doing stuff, but it was like five percent of what we could have been doing,” Olayinka laughs.
“We’ve grown a lot since. We were all quite young, we didn’t really know what we wanted to do and were still exploring different creative practices,” echoes Premo. “But if you think about the shows we were able to make, it’s not easy stuff! Because we work so well with each other and know each other, we had a dynamic that allowed us to get stuff done.”
SXWKS now takes on the form of a burgeoning production company, with Olayinka navigating collaborations with institutions like the BBC. Even with a focus on expanding into the commercial world, there’s an emphasis on comraderie throughout the collective. In creative industries where intense competitiveness is the norm, the group’s focus is on strength in numbers and elevating the collective over the individual. “It’s not just about the profit; there’s a social element here,” Charles says. “It’s about helping develop talent that looks like you, who you can relate to and you feel are similar to you.”
In regular circumstances, the working lives of freelance artists and creators can be unstable due to lack of funding and support on a structural level, not to mention the added cost of a pandemic. But the three creatives all speak of SXWKS’ function as an informal support network throughout difficult times. “We’re all ultimately not that interested in the standard 9-to-5 life, but the creative life is so precarious,” Charles says. “There’s days where you think, ‘I just want to quit this stuff and learn a trade!’ For what we’re doing, there’s a lot of risk and anxiety. You want to be able to talk it out with people you know who are in similar positions.”
Crucially, SXWKS provides a space for creatives of colour to flourish – the collective itself is made up of mainly Black artists. “It creates an inroad to opportunities that may not be available as an individual creative,” Laurent-Hughes shares. “We deal with subconscious bias in our society; people may not necessarily be prejudiced, racist or have a particular agenda, but it means that a lot of companies will tend to work with fewer Black creatives as a result. With the collective, it allows the art to be strong because it comes from people with different experiences. It’s almost like a Megazord version of what everyone would be alone.”
Looking to the future, the momentum of SXWKS is set to only grow, but as it does, the members are committed to paying their rewards forwards. True to their community focus, they’re eager to usher in the next generation of creatives, the “young people that want to carry it forward,” in the words of Olayinka. “I actually work with young people in education, so we’re thinking about how we can actively contribute to that space. It’s showing them that there’s something else you can consider – production, music, whatever it is – and trying to contribute as well.”
It’s All Love
Creative Director – Reece Laurent-Hughes
Director – Reece Laurent-Hughes
Photographer – Barbara Premo
Videographer – Benjamin Brook
Stylist – Jake Hunte
Styling Support – Nardia Bryan
BTS – Chad McLean
Producer – Nardia Bryan
Illustration – Olivia Twist
Music – Kieran Pharoahe
Project Manager – Duncan Harrison
Production Manager – Charles Olayinka
Editor – Benjamin Brook
Studio – The Cove