Artist Kay Rufai is on a mission to challenge the negative stereotypes attached to imagery of Black boys, through his ‘Smile-ing boys’ art project.
Funded by the Wellcome Trust and Arts Council, it was set up in response to the rise in youth stabbings, which sparked a series of reactionary approaches from the government regarding tougher criminalisation of youth, more stop and searches, and greater police presence in minority communities.
The initial stage of the project was held with 50 young, Black boys in Year 9 at a school in Lambeth; it aimed to empower them by providing tangible coping strategies to manage their mental health, through workshops and field trips.
The project used the 8 Pillars of Happiness as defined by the Happiness Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark, such as belonging, security and a sense of purpose.
It explores how teaching these principles can have an impact on the rising numbers of youth violence and murders in the UK. One of the project participants, Riley, previously said: “I’ve learnt how to express my feelings more by using the mood box that we were given every week.”
Another, Musab, said: “It’s taught me not to judge a book by its cover – I don’t like it when people do that to me.”
Their smiling faces were on show in a place central to their everyday lives, within their own community – affirming that they belong, to readdress the negative narrative so often associated with their faces.
Kay believes in the importance of using art in public spaces to bridge the accessibility gaps that exist within cities. In Southwark, at the Oxo Tower Courtyard, the smiling boys have also just been installed as 2 metre high outdoor installations.
Writing on Instagram, he wrote: “Manifesting my mission of continually proliferating the city with countless smiling faces of incredible black kings and witnessing passers by in awe, overwhelmed with joy, pride, amazement as they took a proud and assured stand on the concrete.”
An indoor exhibition is also being planned, to further showcase the boys’ smiling faces, and continue to share the mission of challenging negative stereotypes.