Skin Deep is a London-based magazine focused on issues around race and culture. Their publication aims to combine the creative with the political by showcasing a diverse range of stories, experiences, traditions, and forms of self-expression.
Shades of Noir sat down with the three women behind Skin Deep on the day before their fifth Magazine Launch in London at the Free Word Centre.
Lina Abushouk (Editor), Anu Henriques (Editor), and Sylvia Suli (Creative Director) first met two years ago, while they were all studying at the University of Oxford. While we were taking photographs of the three of them, their closeness became all the more apparent. These women spend most of their time working as online faces in different countries or cities—and the magazine launch is giving them an overdue opportunity to spend time together in the same room. The warmth with which they treat one another certainly comes through their approach to bringing an accepting community of creatives together with Skin Deep.
I ask them to tell me a bit about how the magazine got started.
“I think the magazine started because there was a lot of student movements going on around the time around issues of racial justice, issues of racial equality,” explained Lina. She and Anu organised a conference at Oxford about what projects could be started that would actually make a difference to the discourse around race within the University. Lina told me that despite the success of student-run magazines like Cuntry Living ( which focused on feminist issues) and No HeterOx (queer issues)—they felt that a magazine dedicated to issues around race was missing. After starting Skin Deep, the next question was whether or not the magazine was, as Lina described, an “archive of voices of colour”—or a place to discuss issues and come up with solutions.
Anu felt it started as an archive. “I think one of the reasons why it was started as a creative magazine was because people didn’t have a creative outlet in Oxford to talk about race.” She elaborated “So there were political forums and discussion groups, very academic circles in which you can talk about race to a certain extent. But there was very little that paired the creative and the political. That was always kind of the motivation. It was never just political or just creative, but the pairing of the two, which didn’t really exist at the time. And I think it gave people a way to tell stories that weren’t necessarily written in the first person, that weren’t necessarily non-fiction, that were still relevant to the experiences they were having in Oxford at the time.”
Why has Skin Deep moved out of Oxford and into London?
“Initially, we kept a branch but I think sort of like with most student groups is when everybody graduates there’s no following unless you recruit freshmen,” Lina explained. There were emerging movements in Oxford, like Rhodes Must Fall (to remove the Cecil Rhodes state) and TORCH Forum (a weekly dialogue at the Philosophy Centre), that provided ‘outlets’ for students. Anu added, “we realised that the problems, all of the kind of reasons we started in Oxford, were translated outside of University. And it was still something we were passionate about, and it was still something we wanted to do, so why not do it.”
The transition into London, the team feels, has served to strengthen the content of Skin Deep—and expand it’s potential. “I think the benefit of having it in London,” said Anu, “ is if you start something in an academic sphere it’s going to be inherently academic. Whereas if you’re bringing it somewhere where it’s out of University context, outside of the institutional context, it changes the nature of the work you’re producing, the kind of people you’re interacting with.” Anu has found the 9 months since leaving Oxford, to be “way more interesting and exciting” due to the number, and range, of “collectives working on race of culture”. She thinks there is an increasing “sense of solidarity amongst those collectives. So you overlap in the institutions that you go into, you overlap in the events you go to, so you get to know people very well because of interests.” Solidarity was the source of their first big event this past April, titled 6 x 60—where Skin Deep invited 5 other collectives focusing on Race and Culture to present for 60 minutes each on their current projects. The event enabled each group to expand and share, their audiences. Anu reflected, “So that’s been the most fun part of bringing [Skin Deep] into London: is just realising how much there is already going on, and how you can feed off that, and share ideas, and collaborate.”
Does Skin Deep have a core group of collaborators that they are working with? Or is it constantly shifting?
“I think it’s changing and shifting” Anu responded, “and think there are people that we admire, like Sorry You Feel Uncomfortable— love the work that they’re doing. We’re doing work with the Stewart Hall Foundation which is kind of an intergenerational exchange of learning, and then there’s also groups like Decolonize Our Mind movement who we want to work with again. But then there’s new groups like BBZ who are like a women of colour queer club night in South London who we want to collaborate with [in future]”.
Lina added that keeping their work “creative, new, [and] innovative” was crucial to the magazine’s ethos—hence why they’ve brought Sylvia in as their creative director. They want to make sure not to overlook other minority groups “beyond the Black Power fist” in their iconography. Lina continued, “I think the meaning of race changes depending on where you are. And that’s one of the things: if you’re going to highlight that [race] is a social construct, then, portraying as many articulations of [race] as possible is one of the ways you can do that.”
For Sylvia, the visual component of Skin Deep—its artwork, layout, and design sensibility—has made the magazine “more accessible” for new readers. “I respond more to anything that is graphic, or [to] imagery. And it widens our public”, she said.
Lina added, “We are able to do workshops, do events, get our message across in different ways.”
Sylvia told me that Skin Deep wants to be a platform for contributors world-wide. “We try to be as international as we can.”
I ask the team how important it is for Skin Deep to be a magazine in print?
They look around at each other and laugh. Clearly, I’m not the first to ask about the fact that these guys are making actual magazines.
Anu responds first, “Personally I feel like because that’s how we started, in that sense it’s essential for me, but also I feel like the way in which we consume culture at the moment is very, is very quick, and it’s over very quickly as well”. An actual magazine forces a reader to take their time, to let it sit on your desk, to give it as an actual gift to a friend. “And I think the amount of time and effort that people of colour—well artists and writers generally—but especially writers and artists of colour put into the work that they are submitting to us, it just shows them a level of respect for their work.”
Printed magazines, for Sylvia, tie back into Skin Deep’s original aim to archive voices. And Anu makes the point that Skin Deep’s digital presence is a compliment to the printed medium. The two forms “need each other”, and contain different content.
Additionally, Lina argued: “I think there’s something about having a physical manifestation of that knowledge being produced that’s constantly there for people to come back to, is quite a political statement in itself.” She also feels that the choice to print magazines is “about making it so that artists of colour, writers of colour, feel that they’re valued—as opposed to a tokenised, or diversity add-on to a publication where they want to reflect on an ‘ethnic issue’. I think that this is for them, by them.”
Lina paused, and said slyly: “it’s also that it’s really pretty”. We all laugh.
So, 2043—I ask—will it be a better world? Does Skin Deep feel positive about what the future will bring?
Lina smiled. And replied that 2043 was already in the “public imagination” thanks to Spike Lee, who marked this year as “the tipping point for people of colour in America when they become fifty-one percent.” Time is not linear, but cyclical, she continued, “elements of the past are always repeated in the future, and history repeats in fragments.” And Lina thinks “the idea that people of colour can imagine their futures [offers] one respite from the present.”
Anu argued that we imagine the future based on the present. “If the present is really tough, how do you use the future to better your situation?” She asks. “And I think it also serves a sense of motivation, and a sense of willingness to continue, and I think that’s really important. Especially now for people of colour.” We resist grumbling about the future of post-Brexit Britain.
Focusing on the future can also serve as a long-term plan for social change, argued Lina. “Let’s say by 2043, or a different year, you want racism to end. What are you going to do now to make sure that that happens? So it’s some way to lay out, a blue-print for the type of work and organising what you can do, the thinking you can do, but also it opens up for endless possibilities.”
“We were talking the other day about having—in social justice organising—you have the short term goals, the mid-term goals, and the long-term goals and then the dreams,” adds Anu. “And  is somewhere between the long term and the dream. So you need to have all those steps, but you also can’t forget the dreams.”
Held the evening after our conversation at the Free Word Centre, Skin Deep has transformed the Farringdon space. The vibe is immediately both calm and charged (helped by the music DJ’ed by Bombo and Erica McKoy), in two low-lit rooms brimming with various forms of art, and buzzing with people. Quotes from Imaging 2043 adorn the walls, and the displayed some of their designs.
In the smaller room to the right, The Architectural Association School of Architecture in London had a number of short films projected on the walls. Students from ‘Dip 6’ created a series of short films, one of which was about how, and where, our clothing is made. Connecting our highstreet styles to their origins in the ‘Unknown Fields’ of India.
“We have reimagined seasons, rewritten trends to operate between the scale of the stitch and the planetary supply chain and weave new connections between consumption and production.”
Maya Laitinen’s project, titled The Lung of Phnom Penh, “is a speculative urban and architectural intervention utilising the idea of the vertical dwelling to respond to land-ownership issues in the Cambodian capital.” Laitinen’s work addresses the recent displacement of thousands due to the filling of the Boeung Kak Lake with sand. To ‘radically’ reconsider allocated space for a displaced community, Laiten’s scheme utilises, among other things, air space.
Back in the main room, copies of Skin Deep are beautiful in hard copy—laid out next to stickers, post-cards, and tote bags.
To the left of their desk, an ‘Imagination Station’ has been set-up, where participants can write and draw out their answers to: ‘What are your biggest hopes and fears for the future?’
About an hour into the evening, we get to hear from three poets whose work is featured in Imagining 2043.
Jessica Knight takes the stage, and soon has the room along with her. She reads short segments of her poem, ‘Stripes & Scented Invitations: Navigating a Bicultural Art Practice’, on strips of paper. After each reading, she crumples the paper up and throws it on the ground with a cathartic smile. Her words are self-deprecating, yet defiant. Confident, bold and beautiful.
“The Invisible Palpability operates from within my motherland: an asylum from which to piece together the fragments of my experiences in a country where I so often feel morally discombobulated”
As she leaves the stage, she jokingly apologises for leaving trash in her wake…
Zena Agha reads next, giving a moving, first person account of going through customs while entering Palestine in her poem ‘Borderlands’. Her narrative blurs, and questions, citizenship, ownership, heritage, home—and borders:
“So I suppose I am your security threat/
My three syllable identity negates your falsity/
And my family blasts your re-written history
and as long as I breathe your air
This soil will nurture me
My sister said I am from here
So I hope you know I’m home.”
Particularly in light of this past summer’s tumult, her words are particularly poignant.
Finally, we hear the short poem, ‘Self-Taught’, from Anjali Barot:
“A stranger is a body./Strange body voyager./Naked voyage of body./Stand tall, body,/keep calves taut.”
To conclude the evening, Lina, Sylvia, and Anu address the room. In keeping with our conversation, the emphasis at Skin Deep is on the power of collaboration—and the gratitude they feel for their contributors, other collectives, and those who have helped them with tonight’s event. I can’t help but hope that this supportive, inclusive, attitude towards creative social progress is some indication of the future.
Check out more from Skin Deep here.
Here is a list of major contributors to Imaging 2043:
Haris A. Durani, Tiona McClodden, Elijah Moreau, Maya Mackrandilal, Alicia Reyes McNamara, Emma Uwejoma, Tunji Adeniyi-Jones, and many more.