Featured Image: The African American Flag by Ryan Oakley (Courtesy Photo)
Phoenix floats in the air, the tips of her hair crackling in space like lightning. Her eyes shine brightly as her right hand cautiously holds up a smoky winged figure emerging from the ashes. And while the drawing exists only in ink and is therefore devoid of color, this Phoenix is ââBlack. It is the same, but markedly different.
In another post, artist Ryan Oakley chooses Magik, another X-Men mutant, to flip. Gone are her straight blonde tresses, long thick locks in their place.
âI just wanted to reinvent the white characters,â Oakley says of the work she created for âBlacktober,â a month in which black creatives celebrate fandom through art. “I didn’t want to do other colored characters because they’re already limited too.”
While Oakley Pieces chooses landmark pop culture characters, much of her work could be seen as a self-portrait, as an artistic extension of herself. In a drawing of Black Marceline, a vampire character chosen in “Adventure Time”, Oakley infuses a sense of rock and edge, an aspect of her personality that she lets fly in her activism and her outspokenness. In another, she plays Nurse Joy, the main caregiver of the PokÃ©mon world, as a black woman with voluminous pink hair, perhaps drawing from her own experience while studying medicine. Her characters may be far-fetched, but they act as a way to soak up herself and her blackness in a cultural world that doesn’t prioritize people like her.
âI wanted them to be reversed but also choose characters that you wouldn’t normally see black people in,â says Oakley, who grew up in Greensboro. âLike a metalhead or a punkâ¦. You don’t see black women portrayed that way.
Oakley started drawing when she was just a kid. In elementary school, she copied cartoons that she watched on television such as little scribbles from “Lizze McGuire” or “Spongebob Squarepants“. Soon she switched to drawing black characters, ones with the same melanin-rich skin tones that she existed in. Sometimes she drew herself or members of her family.
âI remember one time I drew a picture of my mom in her work clothes,â Oakley says. “She still has it to this day.”
These days, Oakley, 26, has been honing his portrait drawing skills to create commissions for organizations and national brands. In November 2018, her piece for the Women’s March featuring a black boxer with tight braids wrapping her right hand in the American flag was chosen from among 50 submissions from over 1,000 submissions. In March of the same year, Oakley created an image of Winter BreeAnne, a student activist who helped organize a nationwide student strike to protest gun violence, which went viral and was shared by celebrities. Last summer, Oakley created a series of Lifetime portraits of famous women of color like Selena and Dolores Huerta. But her favorite piece was a picture of Sandra Oh, she said.
“I like it in Kill Eve! âsaid Oakley.
The images are bright, with women in front and center against colorful, cloudy and heavenly backgrounds. In another play for Lifetime, Oakley portrays mothers whose black children have been killed by police. Like the portraits of Oh and Selena, the images are colorful and full of life.
âI wanted them to have a lot of color and be vibrant,â she says. “I didn’t want them to be dull, to be a sad image.”
In the play, Oakley portrays Tamika Palmer, Sybrina Fulton, Geneva Reed-Veal, Lezley McSpadden, and Gwen Carr, with each name floating below the portrait in a banner. Initially, she says Lifetime wanted to include the names of the children of women as well, but Oakley pushed back the idea and told them that if they wanted to honor women, they should.
âYou know, like ‘Say their names’,â she said. âThere was a time when I had to put ourselves in the right direction. I had to ask, “What do we mean with this piece?” If we represent black women, many of these women have their own voiceâ¦. What happened to their sons is terrible, but we know their names. We do not know the names of these mothers.
In the future, Oakley hopes to use his skills to create his own comic book full of diverse, multidimensional black characters who don’t have to take inspiration from a white counterpart.
“My idea to enter [Blacktober] was to show how there is a plethora of white characters, âOakley says. âAnd the only reason they’re not black is because the designers are more than likely white. This was to show how important it is to have black voices behind the scenes so that authentic black characters are created.
Oakley knows it will be a challenge to break into the predominantly white industry.
âI think a lot of black artists are easily disappointed that if you are not white it will be difficult to break into comics,â she says. âIf you are not exceptional it is difficult and it is not fair for black people to be exceptional. I feel like black artists have to be perfect from the start.
Still, she says she’s going to keep working on it because that’s what she’s good at and it’s what feels most genuine to her.
âI think I want to keep creating in my own way and if a big name wants me, I’ll go from there,â she says. âGo on after. “
To learn more about Ryan and his art, visit his Instagram at @ryanoakleyart.