In London: Queer Creators of color are writing their own narrative – and having fun along the way

By Toby Clarke

Recently, “intersectionality” seems to be the word on everyone’s lips. Now often used to signal one’s virtue, the term has lost some of its once radical edge. However, a new generation of young, queer, and unapologetically black creators are redefining what the terms means to them. Through radical self-representation, these creators are bringing the term into the 21st century, forcing it to reflect the multiplicity of their own lived reality. 

I sat down with two of these creators, Ali and Fiona, to discuss love, loss, chosen families – and everything in between. The first of these two sit-downs brought me back to my undergraduate alma mater, SOAS University of London. Feeling out of place and, frankly, like yesterday’s news, I coyly waited for my interviewee’s arrival in the infamous SOAS student bar. After a few anxious minutes in which I pondered my interview strategy, a familiar voice brought my anxious silence to an end: “Heyyyy Toby Tobe.” It was unmistakably Ali. Dressed in red from head to toe, and exuding a confidence that filled the room, you could easily believe that, like many artists’, Ali’s path into the arts was one without question. However, over an hour, I caught glimpses of an all too relatable sense of self-doubt, a feeling that, despite his evident talent, the arts are something done by and for another – an abstract somewhere in the distance. 

Ali Akabar, ‘Hiding in my heart’, extras from video, colour, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

One of nine siblings of Kenyan-Somali heritage, Ali begins by telling me that “he never considered himself an artist.” The pandemic, a seminal moment for many, led Ali to pursue his identity further, culminating in the discovery of what he calls his “chosen family.” One member of this family, Fahri, encouraged Ali to participate in her own creative project, ‘Extended Limbs’, which he describes as a “creative building block.” The film allowed him to “see himself in the arts,” giving him a doorway to further explore his artistic identity. While the film’s release was not without its drawbacks (its wide circulation would lead to Ali being “outed” to his Mother), it set into motion a process that would lead to the production of Ali’s visual project – ‘Hiding in my heart’. 

In the project, Ali documents a conversation between himself and his mother in which they discuss their estrangement and try to find a path to reconciliation. At one point, Ali proudly tells his mother that he’s “met someone that makes him feel good, someone that makes him happy – someone that makes him not want to kill himself.” Taken aback by Ali’s admission, his mother replies by saying that suicide is not allowed in their religion, detailing the hardships she faced throughout her life – including violence at the hands of Ali’s father. Despite the apparent callousness of her response, the scene is a reminder of trauma’s universality: all of us, regardless of our religion or identity, are within its reach. Ali’s mum continues to quiz him about the source of his newfound happiness, querying “Is it a girl who has made you happy?” Comically, Ali replies by saying, “Let’s not worry about that Ma.” Not satisfied by his reply, she presses further: “Rhis not allowed in our religion, you cannot expect me to accept this.” “I didn’t ask you to accept it,” Ali intervenes. For the first time, the power dynamic between the two switches, Ali sounds commanding, and yet, at peace – a reassurance that only love brings. 

Fiona and Ali pictured outside of SOAS University of London (2023). Image courtesy of Ali Akabar.

In our interview, I asked Ali how he feels about this scene with the benefit of hindsight. His response is undeniably human. After a measured pause, he allows a wry smile to cross his lips, “You know, I never realised how much I don’t know my Ma, despite her lack of acceptance, I feel like I can see her now – I can see her humanity.”  

The second of my interviews was with Fiona Quadri, a London-based artist, activist, and workshop facilitator. We sat down to discuss the release of her self-produced zine ‘Quaretopia’, a project designed to explore and reflect the quotidian resilience of black and queer individuals within London’s Afro diaspora. From the outset, ‘Quaretopia’ rewrites the unwritten rules that govern queerness. Its name is itself a rejection of convention, Quare (yes, quare not queer), is a term that seeks to untether queerness from racialised ideas of sexual knowledge whilst equally de-homogenising our idea of what it means to be black and queer. Similarly to Ali, Fiona began by speaking to the importance of her chosen family, an eclectic group of diasporic black/queer Londoners. Fiona feels that her chosen family gave her the freedom to truly be herself, a space away from the conventions and ties of the traditional family unit. Whilst there are some consistently visible themes throughout Quadri’s work – the influence of London as a built environment being one – she is careful to avoid the lazy essentialisation that often plagues profiles of diasporic queer communities. 

Omnipresent in her work is an attempt to reframe conventional (and often well-meaning), notions of what it means to be both Queer and a racialized minority. In one of her interviews, she speaks to Aaliyah, a 25-year-old Sudanese Muslim raised in the UK. Aaliyah’s answers are refreshingly unorthodox, when asked what the term “coming out” means to her, she replied, “I think the term coming out is something that seems to have been pushed on to queer people, I found that the party is in the closet, the closet is lit and has been lit all this time!” Another interviewee, Caxxxianne, is unapologetic in her sense of self. When asked whether she seeks queer safe spaces she ripostes, “I’m not actively seeking safe spaces because everywhere is my safe space, I don’t take shit from anyone.”

Fiona Quadri, ‘Quaretopia’, screenshot from the video, colour, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

If anything, Quadri is deliberate, it’s a trait that comes through in both her work and our conversation together. This deliberateness is underpinned by a desire to be critical at all times. To her, homogeneity is the enemy. Nuance rules in ‘Quaretopia’.

In cultivating this nuance, Qaudri seeks to create “daytime spaces” in which these nuanced conversations can take place. Whilst she expresses some personal gratitude for hedonistic queer/BIPOC spaces like London’s ‘Pussy Palace’ and ‘Bootylicious’, ‘Quaretopia’ is an effort to form a more deliberate, thoughtful space for the expression of queer multiplicity. 

In person, Quadri is both at ease and (yes, you guessed it) – deliberate. Unlike many of her contemporaries, this deliberateness is not born out of an unbridled vanity, nor a sense of wary self-doubt. She is deliberate for those she represents. Our interview together is besotted by long (intentional) pauses, not because she is void of things to say, quite the opposite; to Qaudri, representation seems to be both an honour and an exploration. It would be all too easy to claim that ‘Quaretopia’ is an exploration of black queerness because, in a sense, it is. At this point, we return to the idea of what it means to truly be “intersectional”: ‘Quaretopia’ might be about what it means to be black, but it’s equally about what it means to be grey, to both conform and resist, to belong to all and only yourself, and to love without loving the labels to which we adhere, above all – to be human.  

Ali and Fiona are alumni of “The Ebony Initiative”, an academic program run by SOAS University of London, that seeks to both cultivate and recognise the excellence of black scholars. More of Fiona’s work can be found here https://fionaquadri.com/. Links to more work by the ‘Ebony Initiative’ can be found here https://ebonyinitiative.com/.  

Toby Clarke is a London-based student and journalist studying MA in Cultural and Creative Industries at King’s College London. Clarke previously served as the editor-in-chief of The SOAS Spirit, where his articles covered topics related to migration, social housing, and political corruption. Now a staff writer at GAY45, Clarke’s articles aim to tackle these same issues and their intersection with queerness.

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