In Habiba (Biba) Nabisubi’s six ink drawings of black women’s hair that currently hang in the UAL Showroom, she has omitted the faces of her subjects. Drawn in beautiful detail, their small scale pulls you in close. And although they are faceless, these heads of hair feel strikingly human. In defiance of centuries of black women being stigmatised, exoticized, or ridiculed for their hair, Biba writes that her drawings “honour the endless possibilities of kinky, curly hair.”
Biba and I are sat outside the Ritzy in Brixton, desperately trying to soak up fleeting waves of sun amidst another grey summer day. “My mom will tell you that she’s the one that put the pencil in my hand when I was in the push chair.” She laughs. “Because I literally have been drawing since forever. And I’ve always loved it. And I always kind of knew that I just wanted to continue drawing, always. It just made sense.”
Before we met, I’d suspected Biba had been born drawing. Her illustrations demonstrate discipline and training. But there is also passion coming through her marks—like life lines. She strikes me as an old soul (despite being twenty-two), holding herself with a quiet dignity that certainly comes through in the intimate style of her drawings.
When Biba was growing up, her mom, a publisher, could leave her with books—or a pen and pencil—and her imagination would keep her entertained for hours. Bedtime stories were a formative part of her childhood. Especially, Biba told me, the pictures. “I loved the magic that they had.” From a young age, she had the urge to ‘recreate’ this magic—and it remains what she hopes to do now: illustrate children’s story books.
Her transition from reader to illustrator was rather serendipitous. Biba told me about Verna Wilkins, the Grenada-born founder of Tamarind books: an independent book publisher (now an imprint of Random House), established in 1987 and devoted to representing Black, Asian, and disabled children in picture books. Verna started Tamarind after her then-six-year-old son started colouring in his self-portrait with a pink crayon because “black people aren’t in books”.
Biba grew up reading Verna’s stories. Her mom found them wherever she could, and eventually the two women met at a book conference. Two years ago, Biba’s sister approached Verna at another conference. It turned out that these two meetings were exactly 25 years, to the day, apart. Biba and her family have since built up a friendship with Verna. When Biba explained that the Tamarind books were her main inspiration for becoming an illustrator, Verna offered Biba her choice of manuscripts to illustrate.
Biba then wrote her dissertation at Camberwell College on diversity—or lack thereof—in children’s picture books and ‘the importance of seeing yourself in print from a young age’. It solidified her desire to illustrate children’s books that are “inclusive and honest—without tokenising children.”
Her hope was to expand on her collaboration with Verna into a final degree show. “I was so excited. I got fully into the story—it was/is called ‘Paint Me A Rainbow’—it’s about a black daddy and a white mummy, and their little-mixed race daughter.” She recounted. “And it’s just basically talking through the colours of the rainbow, and different objects. For 4-7 year olds.”
But about halfway through her third year, Biba’s tutors told her the project was “a bit simple” and that she wasn’t challenging herself enough. “Which completely threw me because I was well into it. Going to make a book—great, love it.” Her collaboration with Verna was something she’d hoped to do vocationally, beyond school, and so she found it really difficult to be discouraged by her tutors.
Biba tried expanding on the book by learning how to knit and making the book characters into dolls for stop animation—but again her tutors didn’t feel the project was “really working”. But at this point, she was running out of time. “I basically kind of cracked. It stunted me for a long time. I felt quite directionless.”
In the end, Biba decided to delve deeper into her storybook family, imagining how the parents would have met in South London. In her research, she came across the SS Empire Windrush that brought men and women from Jamaica to South London. The project became about “the history of black people in London”, she explains, “The Dad character was a second generation SS Empire Windrush immigrant.” This led her to the riots of 1981, and the fire in New Cross. Events she hadn’t previously been aware of and wanted to bring back into public consciousness.
Her degree show had a black vinyl print on a white wall of lists of feelings and emotions from the fire—which she found from archival first hand accounts. “I wanted them to be really clinical and kind of cold,” Biba elaborated, “that’s why I got them vinyl printed. I wanted it to look very unemotional.” Accompanying her print was an audio of archival material of people talking about the fire and the riots—“all sparked because of this racially motivated attack”.
Because she grew up in Didcot and Oxford, Biba was eager to study in London and initially excited about Camberwell. “It’s in the middle of Peckham—great. Afro-Caribean community—love it”, she recalled. “Get there: oh, class of about 80, and I’m the only one of African heritage, brown skin. And that was a big reality check because I was so sure I was going to be surrounded by a mixture—and it was so not that.”
She found the 2013 study done on UAL, which revealed BAME students were 20% less likely to get a 2:1 or 1st compared to their white counterparts, “heartbreaking”—and in keeping with her own frustration with the lack of support for BAME students within the University. “The institution doesn’t want me to win”, she said, “I’m just a statistic.”
Furthermore, Biba can only recall hearing lectures or coming in contact with a handful of BAME artists and tutors during her 3 years at Camberwell. She explains that she would have loved having a black tutor “to just talk about these things”. While she found the UAL So White campaign over the last year exciting—and motivating—Biba also experienced a lack of support from some of her white friends at Camberwell. “I feel bad saying this, but this is a very real, current, issue within our shared environment. How can you [her friends] not see or support it?”
I asked her why she felt bad saying that— and she replied that she didn’t want to make anyone feel guilty. But it upset her to share how she feels and be met with surprise. “How can you not know that?” She wanted to reply. “Look around this room! Of course, I feel this. Deeply. And I have forever.”
Why does she think there is such resistance to talk about race?
Part of the problem, Biba thinks, is that if someone isn’t affected on a daily basis, it’s easy to think things are fine—and just get on. “If everyone was like: ‘yeah UAL is so white’—or ‘we need to do something about this’ then [the administration] would. But it’s just voices here and there”. And as a result, she thinks there are temporary attempts to appease tension with exhibitions, workshops, or a bit of funding—but the deeper problems remain.
“I’ve gotten a lot more involved this year because I’ve also reached out to other people across my year at Camberwell who are BAME, and who have felt excluded or isolated.” She regrets that this community hadn’t formed sooner. “It would have been a completely different journey—my university experience. But still, I’m grateful it happened anyway.” One thing that struck her during a weekly meeting was that “we’ve all had exactly the same [experiences]: we all felt like we were going to drop out in the first or second year because we felt so isolated and uninspired. And unsupported”.
Smiling, she adds that “all of our work is now kind of race related and we all wrote our dissertations about these issues”. Initially hesitant about being an “artist making only black art”, in her third year at Camberwell she has come to the conclusion that this is “totally fine” because it is needed. “I need to celebrate loudly and proudly. Make this art. Because I feel passionately about it. And there is an issue to address.”
Despite finding a community of students that she can speak freely with, Biba felt there was an unwillingness amongst her tutors to understand the issues around race being addressed in her artwork. One of her friends was doing research on her experience of race, and her tutors allegedly discouraged this student from pursuing the project. “They were like ‘could you do it on something else? Because I don’t know enough about this.’” And Biba feels it is a common attitude. “It becomes such a regular thing, that you’re like ‘I’m not going to step on anyone’s toes or speak too loudly’. Or, ‘nevermind’. And then you tend to go into yourself, and not get involved. I definitely [became] introverted and didn’t get involved with my classes because I felt like no one really understood my experience—so nevermind.”
In hindsight, she wishes she’d ‘made more of an effort to voice” her feelings of isolation. But this was made all the more difficult by the fact she was required to switch tutors with each year. Even when she got some counselling through the university—after two sessions she never heard back. It felt like no one cared—despite it being obvious she was in need of help. Because she wasn’t ‘very vocal’, she told me, “I think I definitely fell through the gaps of my class.”
With her Graduation this weekend, I ask Biba if she plans to get back to work on illustrating books with Verna.
“Yeah, I’m still in contact with Verna. She is like my second mum, I love her so much.” Verna was a source of support when Biba was dealing with complications around her degree show. Biba’s still unsure if she would have been happier taking a year out, or moving to a different college where she would have received more support. “I definitely tried to just hold on and just get it over with”. She regrets putting the arbitrary pressure on herself to graduate in 2016, feeling now it may not have been the “healthiest choice” to carry on with her degree.
On the bright side, I argued, she is now free from needing anyone else’s approval of her work and her practice. This is something she’s very much looking forward to. In fact, she and Verna are hoping to publish ‘Paint Me A Rainbow’ sometime next year—“look out for my name!” she jokes. “I’m very excited. I’m very lucky. Fate put me and Verna together. She’s my guardian fairy godmother—and just a wonderful woman.” Biba’s ethos for illustration is in keeping with Verna: “Just simple stories, honest representations, for children to see themselves.”
“And,” she quips, “it makes me happy!”
How does she feel about the Black Blossom’s Exhibition as closure for her time at UAL?
“I think it is the best closure I could have got. Which I’m really happy about.” She recounts reading the Black Blossoms’ blurb—and it immediately speaking to her. “It’s all about Black women, and femininity, and feminism, and society. And I was just like YES. So, it just came really naturally to me, I just drew different hair styles. Because Afro-hair is so versatile and great. And we need to celebrate it —it’s not this big scary thing. We need to stop stigmatising it. It’s not a bad thing.” Biba was inspired by the other artists sharing the space—and felt proud to be part of such a powerful exhibition and community.
Are her drawings on sale?
She grins and exclaims that they are, but she’s going to get her sister to help her price them, because she hates doing that kind of thing. Then she pauses, and reflects: “And that’s another reason I’m very grateful. To have just my sisters and my mom. Good support, strong women—around me. It makes a difference.”
Don’t miss: the Black Blossoms Exhibition will be on display at the UAL Showroom (272 High Holborn) until October.
And check out more of Biba’s work on her tumblr