This profile is part of our Culture Shifters series, which highlights people who are changing the way we think about the world around us. Read about film archivist Maya Cade, internet star Keyon Elkins, rapper Latashá, music historian Katelina Eccleston and filmmaker Alika Tengan.
It’s around 8 p.m. in London, though you couldn’t tell it’s that late on a February evening by looking at artist Kay Rufai. He pops onto our Zoom call with such a wave of positive energy —sporting a lime green shirt with a matching hat, a gold chain necklace and a megawatt smile —that you might assume it’s more like high noon where he is.
“It’s been a good day,” he said, settling into a self-made soundproof booth in his home. “It’s been a busy day, but a good day.”
An indication of how Rufai, 38, spends his stuffed weekdays is perched right behind him in the cubicle: a row of images of Black and brown boys grinning from ear to ear. “They’re ever-present,” he said pleasantly. He is referring to his groundbreaking S.M.I.L.E-ING Boys Project, a photographic well-being initiative specifically designed for Black and brown boys in the Swinging City who are often reduced to dehumanizing stereotypes with no concern for their mental health. Rufai’s ongoing research-led project helps boys access their joy and other aspects of their interior selves around which they often put up boundaries.
Their guardedness is typically a defense mechanism against a city that, even amid today’s cultural reckoning, largely skirts around issues of race, particularly when it comes to the police.
“For example, situations around violence, especially youth violence, is very racialized in the way it’s reported,” Rufai said. “But when there’s anything that’s speaking on the experiences of Black people, or people of minoritized or global majority groups, people get very uncomfortable.”
Some of the words used to refer to Black and brown boys in the media, he says, “are so nondescript.” That language bunches kids together with no care for who they are as individuals. It particularly dismays Rufai because he grew up in some of the same neighborhoods where these boys live, in the same circumstances as many of them. He has also worked with young people who have been in and out of prison or in gangs.