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Kay Rufai’s portraits of smiling black boys from south London came out of an initiative that investigated the lack of mental health provisions for black teenagers.

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The internationally acclaimed artist- Kay Rufai returns with a Wellcome Trust & Arts council funded research led mental well-being project for BAME Boys in London. The Project was created as a direct response to the rise in youth stabbings (1,299 in London between April 2017 and April 2018) which sparked a series of reactionary approaches from the government regarding tougher criminalisation of youth, more stop and searches and greater police presence in minority communities.

This birthed the S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys Project.

In terms of challenging stereotypes and representations of black boys this was so powerful for me … because it’s not an image that you’re used to ever seeing, and you question why it has such an impact on you,” says Kay Rufai. He is talking about the 16 large-scale colour photographs of teenage boys that went on display at City Hall in London last autumn. They are distinctive in that each of the 13-year-olds is smiling, captured in moments of happiness, relaxation and vulnerability.

“For them to allow me to capture this of them took a lot of work, to peel back these layers of stoicism that they need for protection and self-preservation, but which fuel a self-fulfilling prophecy of what people perceive them to be,” he says.

The photographs are on show again this month, printed on to large flags hanging from the ceiling at Brixton Village Market.

But Rufai’s photography is just the most high-profile aspect of a wider initiative, the Smile-ing Boys Project, which aims to address the mental health needs of black teenage boys that can go unacknowledged and unmet. Rufai, whose previous work has explored issues around masculinity, says the project was a direct response to rising levels of knife crime, government “kneejerk” reactions and the media portrayal of black boys and men as perpetrators and victims.

As a black male artist already working with young people, Rufai explains, he could see that rising knife crime was a “symptom of something bigger” and young black boys weren’t being given the tools to manage their mental health.

“These young boys don’t have positive outlets,” he says. “Who’s talking about that? I realised that nobody was – and if they were, it was on the margins.”

With £32,000 funding from the Wellcome Trust, Rufai developed a series of workshops around the eight “pillars” of happiness, such as belonging, security and sense of purpose. He even travelled to Scandinavia and Bhutan – which measures prosperity through gross national happiness – to carry out background research.

About 30 boys were recruited from three schools in south London via teacher recommendations as being among the most disengaged. They were given cameras to document which aspects of their lives were contributing to, or working against, their happiness, including people and places.

The Smile-ing Boys Project is now in four more schools, but Rufai wants to eventually see this preventative work in all schools in the capital as an alternative provision to “typically punitive ways of dealing with kids that they struggle to engage with”, such as pupil referral units or exclusion units.

Williams, a 28-year-old entrepreneur, grew up in New Cross, south London, where his peers were predominantly black; and Essex, where he was at one point the only black pupil in his school. He describes attending college among mainly black people and then stepping into a white world when he took up a degree in architecture. These experiences he says, helped “inform a world view”.

He first conceived the idea in 2018 after his project to develop a studio for the local creative community in Peckham High Street stalled because of difficulties with the council and others over the building. Williams turned his frustration into positive action by launching a campaign to help black men change their own narrative.

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