AS PART of its celebrations for Black History Month, Amazon’s Black Employee Network has commissioned artist Onyinye Iwu to create a series of illustrations of sometimes-overlooked African historical figures – including warrior queens, abolitionists and musicians.
Amazon’s Black Employee Network wants to educate more young people about the prominence of black achievement and has gifted free posters of these illustrations to more than 60 schools around the country. Also during Black History Month, Alexa users were able to find out more about these historical figures by using a few simple phrases such as, “Tell me about Queen Amina”, or “Tell me about Ignatius Sancho”.
Iwu has said that she wants her work to help reshape how we think about black identity and history in the UK. She said: “When we talk about black history and achievement, there are certain people who come up repeatedly, often African-Americans. But it’s important for those of us living in Britain with African and Caribbean heritage to be represented as well. I believe that we all need to be represented, and sometimes that means thinking differently and diving deeper.”
Iwu is an artist, illustrator and teacher based in east London. Her most recent work has focused on ‘Queens of Africa’ and she is passionate about redefining how we think about black identity in Britain.
Iwu’s work is inspired and informed by her own historical research and she uses a range of resources to recreate the likeness of her subjects. “There are no photographs of these figures, so I piece together their appearance by referring to historical resources,” she said.
“For example, I would look at the facial features and clothing of indigenous people in Africa at the time to recreate their appearance.”
This passion for creativity is rooted in her childhood: “I was an only child at the time and we lived in Italy, so I was the only black kid in school. That meant I had lots of spare time at home to draw, think and write. When I got older, I realised that my illustrations were never of people who looked like me – subconsciously I was portraying the people I saw around me in Italy. That was an important realisation about the nature of identity and representation.”
Today, Iwu wants to change the narrative around black identity so young people feel represented and more in touch with black history. “You know, there was black history and achievement before and after slavery. If we don’t expose children to their heritage, they may struggle to relate to the world around them. Films like Black Panther are a brilliant way to change minds, but ultimately those are fictional characters – while these are real historical figures.”
“When I studied the poetry of Chinua Achebe in school I was like, ‘Mum he’s Nigerian, he’s Igbo, he looks like us!’ It was mind-blowing. So my message is that black people have achieved a huge amount throughout history and we should celebrate that.”
Aisha Suleiman, Chair of Amazon’s Black Employee Network said of the Iwu: “I saw Onyinye’s ‘Queens of Africa’ illustrations and loved her work, so I bought one for myself! I also realised that working with Onyinye would be a great way to celebrate these stories and bring them to a wider audience through Amazon and BEN.”