Okocha Obasi is a designer who aims to not just challenge standards but to break them. Through the creation of RACE ZINE, the Leeds Arts University graduate embarks on his mission to uplift his community.
Okocha Obasi wants to break the mould. He told me this, but he needn’t have; it’s clear that Okacha’s aim of creating an element of cathartic liberation through art and design is as significant as the creative ideologies that shaped him. Every inch of Okocha’s life has been littered with moments of change through creativity. Even before the age of 18, he’d hosted his own fashion street style blog, was involved with the BP National Portrait Academy, and hosted events in London as part of his short time with the 98 collective.
Moving to Leeds for University, Okocha quickly became associated with the underground creative scene. In his first year, he ran Where Are You From, an event focusing on race on campus and within the creative industry. Alongside this, he hosted an exhibition and spoken word event exclusively exhibiting creatives of colour. It was at this point that Okocha began working with Wharf Chambers, a co-operative club in Leeds, to produce RACE ZINE.
RACE ZINE is a non-profit that collates healing, empowering and informative content made by and for the BAME community. The print zine has since led to nine events, including club night TONGUE N TEETH, and has pulled together three other likeminded individuals to form a strong collective.
Okocha says of his role, “I would describe myself as a designer who creates work that is strategically informed by political structures and physical experiences”.
With this, Okocha never restricts the zine’s content. Instead, the focus is on the intimacy of people’s stories, and in particular, how they shape our reality, “I hate things being censored and I connect deeply with work which is raw, thought-provoking, and liberating; that’s why the submission is always open to anything.”
Using an honest and open approach, the zine is crafted with a mixture of poems, essays, letters, art, and photography. “All of the content we feature is basically very matter of fact about what is being talked about. It’s important to document creatives who present work like this as they are not always visible.”
“We live in such a glossy fast-paced world; we sometimes forget that we are all humans experiencing different things all the time. And I guess that is what I look for: the human voice, the important voice, the voice which may not be seen, but must be heard.”
This voice, Okocha says, is an exhausted one – of always being on the outside, always having to explain, always being made to feel invisible. As the only black student in a class of around 80, Okocha touches on the moments of disconnect throughout his education and how RACE ZINE seeks to create a space for people of colour.
“I was never taught about my history of both being queer and black during any of my time in education. I was never told I was equal or deserved the same as my counterparts but instead always observed a difference in others’ transactions. I hear from people on how amazing, safe, and welcomed they feel in the spaces RACE ZINE creates. I have had moments where people have joyfully cried to me because of what the space means to them and the fact they finally have that space in Leeds which feels like some sort weird, beautiful community.”
As a community, RACE ZINE build on their need for connection and the human experience. Their club nights, talks, panels and workshops are notorious for being experimental: zine-making workshops responding to articles about race issues; workshops with young people to make world-altering inventions; and life drawing classes teaching Black and Asian history. The series of club nights, TONGUE N TEETH, have become a staple of RACE ZINE culture and takes its themes from current events. While the aim is to call on self-expression, there’s an undercurrent of creating a narrative for change; for becoming more liberated.
Okocha says, “As a young queer black designer, it is important for my practice to follow its responsibility and that is to shape and reflect the word honestly. If you put love and care into the world, that can travel as an unstoppable speed and strength for a very long time.”
For Okocha, it’s all about the people, and the creativity that resides within them. With that, he hopes that readers and participants in his events will be more conscious, inspired, connected and to feel that they too can support the mission for a brighter, more diverse creative world.
Words by Jessica Howell