Conversations: Gabrielle Oke

In the autumn of 2020 I worked on a big commission for Uber, alongside a roster of amazing Black talent. The planning was hectic, but the 2 days of shooting was mellow and a success! Everyone gelled well and I also got the chance to get to know some of the team a little better. There was one particular member of the team that I didn't get the chance to speak to in depth. Gabrielle Oke, also known as Gabee, was the assistant of the set designer; very quiet with a pleasant vibe. I guess I didn't want to interrupt her work flow as she was very dedicated. They both done a great job with the set design.

Nina Simone by Gabrielle Oke

When we did get the chance to speak, I learned that she was a painter. We exchanged socials and that was that. Fast forward to December, I put up a post on my Instagram story about Bumpkin Files, which led to the discovery of Gabee also being a fellow Hertfordshire girl like myself! How did I miss that on set? I was shocked, but also wasn't surprised. Upon reflection, I remembered when I first came onto the scene, I found myself 'hiding' where I resided until someone asked me. It's just something a lot of Black creatives subconsciously done in hopes to just get on with it and 'blend in' with London's rhythm.

We later spoke and shared our experiences about our upbringings, goals, hopes, and how we manage to navigate in a fast-paced industry from outside the bubble. Gabee also shared with me how growing up outside London had informed her practice.

"Growing up in Hertfordshire was great. Yes I was in the minority as a Black girl - 1 of 2 out of about 160 in my year, but I really feel that allowed me to define being Black and British for myself. Outside of 'Desmonds', there were so few examples of what that meant for me, that I almost couldn't be wrong. There were some ignorance but nothing I hadn't been prepared for by my parents. My scrimmage with placement and identity entered a new phase when I started meeting large groups of Black people almost entirely from London. Initially, having these new friends who were so similar and so different to me was slightly disconcerting as I felt that I had become the subject of a different type of scrutiny. One I hadn't been prepared for. My accent amongst other things had others questioning my identity in an entirely different way to what I encountered in a predominately white school. I wasn't necessarily detrimental to me, I feel like it makes for funny stories now. However, it's always been difficult to articulate exactly how I've felt 'bothered' in society, and art has proven to be the solution for me."

"Over the last few years, the premise of my work has been the dichotomy between belonging and displacement. Through portraits and figurative paintings, I've been contemplating what Blackness is, what it is, what the world sees and what we want them to see. Most importantly, my work aims to depict people that look like me, with Black figures in the foreground as the main object of attention. From what I'd been taught of Western art (where people of the diaspora have occupied under

Cheikh by Gabrielle Oke

various contexts for hundreds of years), apart from the anomalous Black figure in the background, it's typically not the case that the Black figure is the object of desire or the key figure in that narrative. I've come to understand that there's something about dark skin, Black skin in particular, that is loaded, that can speak volumes with no words with or without consent of the person it encases. My work is focused on unpacking that whilst I simultaneously hope to create work that includes, honours and preserves power, beauty and identity of members within our diverse community."

Gabrielle hopes to get to a place where she can create in a local studio to her home. You can find her incredible work here.