Jael Umerah-Makelemi started her own illustration company from scratch and believes drawing helps with her mental health. In this next interview with need-to-know creatives from D&AD programmes Shift and New Blood we spoke to the 23-year-old about how she uses her art to uplift the Black community.
When did you start illustrating and where do you find inspiration?
I've always been interested in illustration, but I rediscovered it over the last few years particularly, to help improve my mental health and just to help me have a creative outlet. I'm originally from Nigeria but I grew up in South London, so I've always been inspired by the people around me and who I grew up with, particularly Black women. I create work through my own lens and through the lens of people that are close to me or people in my community.
What was your biggest break into the creative industry?
In terms of art direction, it would have definitely been doing the D&AD Shift programme. At D&AD, I got a better idea of what art direction was and the different types of roles that you could potentially take on. I've always been a visual person, anything to do with details, translating words or emotions or feelings into visuals, or anything that someone can connect to visually, I think that really interested me. So when I went on to D&AD, that's where I met my partner Iman and from there we've just been a creative team. We took part in two projects, one was for Beats by Dre, and another one was for Formula E. For Formula E, we won the project overall and tied with another team. We actually got the opportunity to not only work with Iris worldwide, the agency that the brief was for, but we also got to see Formula E in Paris. Experiencing that coming from a background where you don't really get those opportunities gave us that boost that we kind of needed to keep going and keep looking for opportunities. So in terms of art direction, that was the big break.
Can you tell us more about D&AD Shift?
I didn't know what to expect initially, because I went to a foundation year at uni, but I decided that university wasn't for me. I just find it hard to concentrate, which I see with a lot of creatives. It's not until later in their life that they discover that they're actually neurodivergent creatives, and that's something that I didn't realise at the time. So there were times where I wasn’t as interested in the subject as I should be, or I'd find that in the classroom I wasn't really paying attention. But outside, when I'm in my own little corner in the library, I was able to get the ideas out and just express myself properly. So that's something that was really helpful about D&AD because the format was different. It wasn't like a class where you had someone talking at you. You were often involved in the conversation learning about different people and the different types of roles and what they do, actually going into the field and going into different agencies. I think that really helps us grow as creative, particularly me because I learned with things that are hands-on.
Can you tell us about Nubiart, how did your brand come about?
I think a lot of the time with art and especially with Black art, it's really centred around trauma. I wanted to create a space where I'm able to speak about that trauma but I didn’t want it to be the focus because at the end of the day our whole existence isn't based around trauma. We have times where we're joking. We're laughing. We're in a community to show how we style our hair and the nails that we choose and our outfits. I just really wanted to show that joy and switch up that narrative particularly for Black women, and show a bit more of our vulnerable side. That's why I also decided to tap into that mental health aspect, because it's something that I felt like I've had to conceal, but I want it to be something that people can express for themselves and feel okay. When you come into my little corner of the internet, you're safe because you're able to see quotes that uplift you and see illustrations of women that you know you can actually relate to.
Can you tell us a bit about the projects you're working on?
I’m currently working on a book of illustrations for kids. I'm loving it at the moment, because when they're finally finished, I can read these books to my little sister and she can look at the characters and think, "Oh, hold on. She kind of has the same hair texture as me or she has similar features to me," so that's something that's exciting, and in the works at the moment.
Has anyone helped you on your career journey so far, if so who?
My creative partner Iman is literally my lifesaver. If there's ever a time where I'm tired or she's tired, we cover each other. There's times where I'm stuck on something and she helps. It also helps that you know, even though we're from similar backgrounds, we’ve experienced different things and I think those different experiences that people have definitely help when it comes to coming up with ideas.
Who are three creatives who have inspired you, or who you think are doing interesting work?
What advice do you have for someone wanting to break into the creative industry?
I think you need to be consistent with it. I know there are times where you're applying to roles and no one's getting back to you. I've been rejected many times, but as you go along you build resilience and realise your worth. Also, just be patient with yourself as well, especially when learning new techniques and learning new things. So for me, it's like I just want to know how to do something and I actually have to sometimes tell myself, okay, relax, enjoy the process.
Get in touch with Jael Umerah-Makelemi @nubiartuk
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