UT alumni begin illustration businesses to promote representation

Ikram Mohamed

Tired of the lack of ethnic representation in zodiac sign illustrations and art genres like Art Nouveau, UT alumnus Ryan Downs started creating prints featuring Black cultural figures. 

Last year, Downs began designing and selling his prints to escape the confines of working as a graphic designer for someone else’s brand. 

“I don't see enough Black art,” Downs said. “So I decided to make something about it. So I think it may have just been inspiring for people.”

Chika Otuata, a UT alumna and graphic designer, is also building her own business to promote diverse work. 

“I focus on Black women mainly because of (the lack of) representation,” Otuata said. “I don’t see anyone who looks like me in many store’s designs. So I wasn’t going to let my designs continue to be unrepresentative of someone who looks like me.”

Otuata first started making digital illustrations as a student in 2016 when someone asked her to design an illustrative guide about mental health. Otuata said the project pushed her to explore a career in design. 

In May 2018, Otuata started sellings prints and commissions on her website. 

“I began illustrating things for friends and family and doing some logo design flyers on the side,” Otuata said. “Last year, I finally took it seriously by … investing in the process: getting printers, papers and softwares that would help me be better.”

Struggling to find clients who would purchase her prints at a decent price, Otuata said she had financial difficulties when she began selling her work. 
 
Downs said he also experienced difficulties gaining clients because of the competitive nature of the art industry. 

“I think the biggest hurdle was just getting the word out and gaining interest,” Downs said. “With social media and so many creative people out there doing their thing, it was hard to stick out.”

Both artists participated in the recent Black Makers Market, an annual weekend shopping event hosted by the African American Cultural and Heritage Facility, where Black creators and vendors sell their work. The event was held virtually from Oct. 16-18.

 



In years past, the Black Makers Market functioned as an open shopping area where visitors would go from table to table where vendors’ items were displayed. Vendors were able explain their work and converse with visitors. This year, the market linked vendors on their website for individuals to explore.

Otuata said while she only received a few sales, the Black Makers Market increased engagement on her website. 

“The Black Makers Market did a really good job of publicizing my content,” Otuata said. “I got more followers from them posting my Instagram stories, my posts. During (the market), I was getting more engagement on my page.”

Both Downs and Otuata participated in the market last year and said they hope to continue to be involved in the event. 

“I love what they're doing because they're bringing Black businesses into the same space,” Otuata said. “It's about … reinvesting in our own community.”

In July, Downs donated 50% of his profits to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Downs said his art is his form of activism for the Black Lives Matter movement.  

“Protesting is one way of speaking out, (and) art is another way,” Downs said. “It’s just my way of contributing. (Black Lives Matter) is what we're all ultimately trying to support. Doing something for your community, putting something out there … that's gonna bring a lot of joy and inspiration to others. I feel like that's always a valid thing to do.”