Black creatives based in the Middle East speak about big breaks, career highlights, and the work that still needs to be done to level the playing field.
The Middle East has always been a melting pot of cultures and religions. Many choose to live in the UAE in particular as it is internationally regarded as a safe haven and a place of tolerance. But as in all places in the world, there is racism. While growing up in Dubai, I witnessed diversity every day, yet it’s always been rare to see people who look like me – a black woman – on TV, in films, or in magazines. When they did appear, black women were never featured as the hero. As time went on, it became common to see token black actors or models, but there seemed to only be room for one. It was hard to shake the feeling that they had been offered a platform for any reason other than to tick a box.
Over the years, in the region, equality among people of different races has progressed. Diversity and inclusion have become buzzwords used by brands, publications, and CEOs across various fields. Challenges arise when those conversations and social media posts need to be converted into action. As with everything, it starts with people. The power of the creative and artistic community to raise awareness, educate, and affect change cannot be underestimated. Here, we highlight black creatives who are trailblazers, and, importantly, stand as leaders within their respective fields.
Kenyan producer/partner at The Factory Production Studio in the UAE and Seven Thirty Films in Kenya
A film producer with commercial, editorial, narrative, and documentary work under her belt, Wafa Tajdin, who is of Swahili/Kenyan descent, grew up in Nairobi, Dubai, and Muscat. In 2009, her first short film was funded by Twofour54 in Abu Dhabi. On working in the region as a narrative film producer, she shares that though it’s still a white and male-dominated world, “I consider myself lucky to be living in a time when we get to see an actual hegemonic shift in these old power structures that are rooted in white elitism.” Reflecting on her career so far, she says that as a black woman with her background, it’s a slow process but it can happen. She believes that this latest so-called awakening might just be the change we’ve been waiting for.
Kenyan film and TV commercial director at The Factory Production Studio in the UAE and Seven Thirty Films in Kenya
Being Afro-Omani, Amirah Tajdin’s family has always had ancestral ties to the region. A film and tv commercial director whose short film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, Tajdin says that being based in the region has given her the opportunity to helm campaigns that would have taken her much longer to land as a female director of color anywhere else in the world at her age. Regardless, she recognizes there’s work to be done. “It’s getting slowly better via platforms like free the work that fight for marginalized viability in the industry, but I know I’m still paid less than white male directors.” Last year, she was the only woman – and the only woman of color – nominated in the shorts category at the Tribeca x Awards.
Dina Sheikhaddin Yassin
Eritrean-American founder and creative director at East African streetwear brand Efro & Co, stylist, and art director
Having lived in the Middle East on and off for 27 years, Dina Sheikhaddin Yassin – a creative who wears many hats, including designer, stylist, art director, writer, and consultant – got her break while assisting stylist Suzette Lavalle in New York. Work with Diane Von Furstenberg (who personally interviewed her) and Vera Wang followed, as did success with her own brand, Efro & Co, in the form of collaborations with Levi’s and the Idris foundation. Yassin confirms that she’s always had to work twice as hard to earn what she deserves because of the color of her skin. She feels that things are getting better in terms of inclusivity but there’s still a long way to go. “Our cultures are being adapted by people who don’t know much about them; they should just allow us to do what we know best.”
Recognized as the first black model in the Middle East, Chanel Ayan moved to Dubai in 2005 and considers the UAE her second home. When she arrived from New York, it was an eye-opening experience – the industry in Dubai had never worked with a black fashion model before. After struggling to break though, her first runway show was for Maison Valentino at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi. She was selected by Kevin Oliver, a choreographer known for his diverse approach to hiring. Other career highlights include the Chanel Dubai cruise campaign, working alongside Naomi Campbell at the Burj Al Arab, and being selected to represent Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty brand. Ayan says, “I try to stay positive, relevant, and leave long-lasting good impressions so that I can help open more doors for black and darker-skinned models in the region and globally.”
British fashion stylist and creative director
A move to Dubai from her native UK eight years ago wasn’t part of Celia-Jane Ukwenya’s plan. While on holiday, she was offered a job as a fashion and beauty editor at a regional magazine and decided to take the plunge. Now a freelance stylist and creative director, her packed portfolio includes work with Chanel, Dior, and Gucci, as well as Lady Gaga, Jessie J, and Scissor sisters. Though Ukwenya doesn’t feel that her skin color has negatively impacted her career, in terms of allyship, she says, “In the fashion industry, more qualified people of color, who are designers, creatives, and decision-makers need to be included and not just in a token manner.” Ukwenya also feels that people in positions of power need to open doors for the next generation.
American content creator
Saufeeya Goodson is grateful to have had the opportunity to rise and grow with Dubai for the past 15 years. A content creator, Goodson’s first photoshoot was with Alexi Lubomirski for his book Diverse Beauty. She has worked with Beyoncé’s makeup artist Sir John on a project for Teen Vogue. Today, Goodson is proud to have built a platform and engaged a community that fosters thought-provoking conversations in a safe space. She is aware that her look doesn’t always fit the Eurocentric beauty standards that many brands uphold in their campaigns, yet she is positive about the progress within her industry. “I hope women like myself continue to break down doors for others to come up and have better opportunities in the future.”
Blessing John Asiko
Recognizing that there were opportunities for her in the region, Blessing John Asiko decided to move to Dubai from Nigeria to pursue her modeling career. In the past two years, she has worked with Gucci, Valentino, and Roland Mouret, although she remarks that she is still looking forward to her big break. Asiko admits that at times she still struggles to book jobs and almost gave up on her modeling career due to the discrimination she faced. “Being black in this industry is still a problem,” she shares. “We are supposed to be judged for our professionalism, not our color.” Yet having worked with fellow creative and inspiring people in the industry, Asiko looks forward to what the future holds.
Selina Adéjokè Dixon
Nigerian-British PR and communications professional
A sense of adventure brought Selina Adéjokè Dixon to Dubai 11 years ago when she decided to leave a job in London at an e-commerce site to take up a position at Boutique 1. She has since worked with several high-profile brands on projects, including the Chanel 2014/15 cruise event and the opening of the Dubai Mall flagship Under Armour store with Michael Phelps. Dixon remarks that because of her “white-sounding” name (when she doesn’t use her middle name), there have been times when she could see the shock on the faces of people interviewing her. She adds that racism is not just an American or British problem, it definitely exists here in this region. “Being an ally for people of color in this industry goes beyond posting a black box on your social media for a day and going about your business. It is a long-term commitment.”
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British chef patron and entrepreneur
Izu Ani came to Dubai from London 10 years ago to open LPM, at a time when the region didn’t have mature brands and there was a lack of good eateries. According to the Nigerian-born, British chef patron, being based in the Middle East allows anyone who has the work ethic, ambition, and drive to get somewhere quickly, as opposed to Europe, where you have to wait a long time for an opportunity, even if you’re very good. Cognizant of his status and ability to change what has been – and, in some cases, continues to be – the norm, he says, “in my restaurants, no matter what color or nationality you are, if you do the same job, you earn the same pay.” An entrepreneur with several successful restaurant concepts, Ani considers the highlight of his career the chance to encourage others to strive for more within themselves.
Also Read: Halima Aden to Join Team Vogue Arabia as Diversity Editor-at-Large
British CEO, Those Guys Events
A British national of Caribbean and Ivorian heritage, Monbelle moved to Dubai from Cheltenham in the UK to work at a big hotel and didn’t get out much to see the city. She left to work at a smaller events and entertainment company and it was there that she started to grow and build her own network of creatives. As well as executing events all over the world, Monbelle launched a clubbing brand, Afrocentric. The monthly afro house and afrobeat night is 100% black-owned and features international and local DJs. Despite her success, Monbelle says that being a woman of color in a male-oriented industry and region is hard. “I don’t see us represented at awards ceremonies and we’re barely in the press getting the recognition we deserve. Things are not changing.”
British fashion film director
Augusta Quaynor moved to Abu Dhabi from London with her family in 2009, at 16. After gaining a degree in television production in the UK, she returned to the UAE in 2014, to pursue her filmmaking career. Being based in Dubai has allowed her to work and collaborate with and learn from talent from all over the world. Her big break was an editorial film for Tod’s, which was shortlisted at Istanbul’s fashion film festival. To this day, she still feels a sense of achievement when she sees her work on public display, including a film for Vogue Arabia x Samsung, which premiered on screens at Vogue Arabia’s second-anniversary party. Speaking about how people in positions of privilege can support black creatives, she comments, “A true ally must be able to adapt and rework what they believe to be correct and become comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Originally published in the July/August 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia
Creative director Celia-Jane Ukwenya
Hair Olive Jeanne
Makeup Toni Malt
Producer Laura Prior
Set Designer Sam Francis
Photography Assistant Aaliya Bekova
Style Assistants Nebal El Assaad, Fabiana Lolli
Makeup Assistants Diana Tinean, Anastasia Yakshina, Adriana Nuno
Location Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach
Creative director Celia-Jane Ukwenya
Film edit Aaliya Bekova
Retouch Daemon Rafe