Isis Raheem: '1791 is one of the most important dates for Africans everywhere in the world'

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Webcomic artist Isis Raheem is drawn towards Afrofuturism. (Picture: Elusade Elufowoju)
Webcomic artist Isis Raheem is drawn towards Afrofuturism. (Picture: Elusade Elufowoju)

Isis Raheem, 30, studied computer animation at Teesside University and lives in the East Midlands. She is a webcomic artist and illustrator experimenting with sequential art and enhanced audience interaction. Her work explores how technology allows traditionally closed narratives to be opened up and transformed into more immersive experiences. Stylistically, she is drawn to the aesthetics of Afrofuturism and near-future speculative art. Isis met with Bolanle Tajudeen, founder of Black Blossoms School of Art, to discuss the ways her practice explores the pitfalls of a post-privacy society and the value of physical and digital artworks.

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Bolanle Tajudeen: Hi Isis, I enjoy looking at your illustrations and painting, but you also describe some of your practice as making webcomics. Can you explain what this is?

Isis Raheem: A webcomic artist is similar to a traditional comic artist – you make sequential art, but the difference is it is hosted on a website. So often webcomic artists have a unique format, it is an endless scrolling format similar to what you'd have on Instagram but it is a more extended format.

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Isis says it's important she makes work with a compelling narrative. (Picture: Elusade Elufowoju)

Bolanle: Are your comics mainly illustrative?

Isis: They are both illustrative with a compelling narrative, too. My latest story is a fictionalised biographical comic about the life of Eugene Burkins, who was the inventor of the Burkins automatic machine gun in the 20th century. I find his story fascinating.

Eugene had no formal education and started life as a shoeshine boy. By looking at machine guns mounted on ships, he crafted a prototype for a machine gun and gained patronage from wealthy black businessmen who he then went into business with and manufactured the product at scale. I had never learned about him before, but once I'd heard this story, I felt compelled to make a comic about it.

Bolanle: I have never heard of Eugene Burkins either. Quite a few guns feature in your work. Can you tell me a bit more about the idea of these guns in your artwork?

Isis: The gun is a provocative symbol. It's a powerful symbol. When I was reading Huey P Newton's autobiography 'Revolutionary Suicide', he talked about the power of the symbol of a gun and how, in a way, it was used as a litmus test because people who were serious about his ideas would shy away from the symbol of a gun. So it was like, it pushed away people who weren't serious about his thoughts or who were easily frightened.

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Bolanle: I have such a deep connection with your painting 1791, I have no idea what that date means, but I'm drawn to the bold numbers on the red background.

Isis: Quite simply, 1791 is the beginning of the Haitian Revolution. It was the Haitians that began the process for the abolition of slavery in the world. Led by Toussaint Louverture, the Haitians defeated the French, Spanish and English. 1791 is one of the most important dates for Africans everywhere in the world. However, analysing the event from a world perspective, every culture, and every civilisation has had slavery, right from the Asians to Africans to Europeans. Even Spartacus was a slave, but only once in history were slaves able to fulfil a complete revolution and create their own state. Haiti is singular, not just for Black people and Africans, but for the entire world. It gives me goosebumps thinking about the moment's significance.

'Rats in the Opera House' was inspired by a conversation between Julian Assnage and a journalist where he painted a very bleak picture of the future. (Picture: Elusade Elufowoju)

Bolanle: Earlier on, you mentioned reading Huey P Newton's autobiography, are there any other books that have influenced you lately?

Isis: Cypherpunks by Julian Assange influenced a piece I made titled 'Rats in the Opera House'. In the book, Assange is having a conversation with the journalist Jacob Appelbaum and a few other guys, and he paints a very bleak picture of the future. As a metaphor for humans, he talks about a world in which only smart rats will be able to navigate a post-privacy society, those who are, as he puts it, ‘the high tech rebel elite’. I don't necessarily agree with him there. I think there’s something to be said about the interplay between simplicity and complexity. And there are interesting examples of the triumph of simplicity.

I also spent a lot of time reading pre-colonial African history texts such as the Tarikh al-Sundan (written in Arabic it is a West African chronicle that provides the history of the Songhay Empire, which was the largest state in Africa in the 15th and 16th century).

I sometimes find inspiration from historical practices, like the West African griots (storytellers) and their capacity to memorise vast amounts of information. They’ve served as inspiration for more than one of my comics.

Isis sometimes finds inspirations from historical practices. (Picture: Elusade Elufowoju)

Bolanle: Talking about tech, you are creating a non-fungible token (NFT) with help from Yahoo. Are you enjoying the process?

Isis: The thing that interests me the most about NFTs is the community around creating and selling NFT's. Some of the discussions that you'll see on Twitter are interesting. I was reading a thread the other day about how someone can justify value in a JPEG at £1m? As an artist, I understand that value doesn't just come from the material aspect of a piece of art. If I buy a canvas for £10 and spend £5 painting, it doesn't mean my work is worth £15, so discussions around the price and worth of NFTs are fascinating.

Bolanle: You are currently part of Disrupt Space, the visual Black arts agency. What is it like?

Isis: It is brilliant. There is a unity of purpose with the group. Very quickly, we all sort of started calling ourselves the ‘Disrupt family’, everybody's supportive. We are all developing as artists as a result of being part of this space.

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