Carefree queer expression and the creative magic of chosen family

by Jessica Simps

All images by Gyu Gyal

It’s summer. Walking down the hall of this warmly lit Montreal apartment, you hear the sound of pop music (maybe it’s Janet, then Destiny’s Child) as beautiful people move around every room trying to find the right shade of glitter. Another two pile on the floor in front of a mirror, lacing up pink feathered shoes and helping the other tie a head scarf. These are siblings getting ready for a photo session centred on chosen family — portraits of black excellence.

Jessica Simps: Who is in the room right now?

Gyu Gyal: These people are my friends, but these people are also black, beautiful, bad bitches. The [photoshoot] concept was basically black excellence.

JS: What does black excellence mean to you?

GG: Excellence itself is to portray your true essence to world. Black excellence is the peak of coloured excellence. It’s everything. It’s my drive, it’s my lifestyle, it’s about my eccentricities, my community, my family here and how we can define it for ourselves. Like Solange’s A Seat at the Table, by now we’re making our own table. I was inspired doing this shoot, and I hope other black people will be inspired by us. Black Excellence is my only rock to go back to, when everything around us is trying to stop us. It feels officialized now, like “fuck black people”. Now more than ever is the moment to show your source of power to other people of colour.

Kwabena Darko: [Us] wearing pink, the pink guns is about the softness of being black. It’s not all about the dangers of gun violence, but affirming our 2000s Britney Spears selves, our Aaliyah selves.

JS: Why did you want to be involved today?

Christopher Antoine: Because we live here [laughs].

Annie Christina: Seeing [Gyu Gyal] thrive as a young woman, I want to be part of that.

Malika Beckford: The concept of an all black photoshoot is so rare, and I love seeing stuff like that. It’s so beautiful.

GG: We don’t see it.

Fanny Salomé: And to be a part of it is amazing and shows that we have to stick together.

JS: How do you feel about chosen family?

GG: It’s the best family. Especially for us, black queer kids, because the culture of our families is not to accept queerness at all, so chosen family creates something we don’t get to have. It’s not my mom’s fault, it’s just the way the system was built. Our families are never going to accept us.

MB: Especially because Western European religion was forced upon all of us, and that all they know in the church is homophobia.

JS: What do you care about?

AC: I like to see POC working in the media, our image is more out there. Diversity we can see. Someone we can relate to.

JS: What does it mean to you to see other black artists and people in the media?

FS: You feel represented.

GG: You feel like you can do it too, when everything else is telling you that you can’t do it. You never see black models. It’s really rare.

MB: I did a video about beauty in the media, and I was walking around and all I see is images of white women. There was one shot that I remember — I went to Pharmaprix and I looked at the magazine rack, and the only covers that had a black person were black magazines. Other than that, it was all white. Growing up, that really messed with my mind — your dolls, everything on the TV was white. I remember in the ‘90s black tv shows were really big, and now they have declined. Are we progressing, really?

JS: How does it make you feel when fashion magazines aren’t openly critiqued as “white media” or even white supremacist media?

Black excellence is the peak of coloured excellence. It’s everything. It’s my drive, it’s my lifestyle, it’s about my eccentricities, my community, my family here and how we can define it for ourselves.
— Gyu Gyal

MB: People get real sensitive when you start to bring that up, and then they get hostile, like, ‘Do you really wanna bring that up’? I only feel comfortable talking about stuff like that with POC because they will listen. In terms of being an ally, you just need to listen and a lot of people don’t wanna do that. It’s really frustrating — you want to spread your knowledge, but you don’t know how people are going to react around you.

JS: It’s traumatizing to try and explain yourself and not be heard.

MB: I used to love speaking openly about how I feel, but then there were a lot of bigots who just don’t want to change their mind, and then it’s just detrimental to my own health. It’s so exhausting to keep repeating yourself.

GG: That’s why you don’t have to repeat yourself ever.

MB: I stay away from that now.

GG: You don’t need to surround yourself with these people. You don’t have to work with these people, you can make your own stuff. That’s what we are doing. This house is really important living in Montreal, to find a house with a reasonable amount of black roommates. To not be the only black person, it felt impossible, until I moved here [and started] working with people who are down to create black art. It’s inspiring, and makes it feel easier and more natural.

JS: Healing happens when we surround ourselves with community. You have a beautiful thing here, this house is a beautiful thing.

Gyu Gyal is a black queer performance-based artist and designer currently located in Montreal. See Her on Instagram.

Fanny Salomé is an art director and photographer. View Her portfolio and see Her on Instagram.

Follow the rest of the family (Annie, Chris, Kwabena and Malika) on Instagram.