Home East London The Project bringing a smile to residents in Hackney

The Project bringing a smile to residents in Hackney


THOSE WHO have taken a recent trip to Hackney, East London may have noticed some vibrant looking portraits of smiling teenage black boys dotted around various venues around the borough.

The S.M.I.L.E.-ing Boys Project aka (Send Me Inspiring Loving Energy) founded three years ago by internationally acclaimed photographer, poet and creative expressionist, Kay Rufai was created in response to the rise in violence and issues of mental health among young people in the UK.

Funded by the Welcome Trust, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Arts Council, the project works primarily with young black boys often mostly negatively impacted by mental health.

Rufai, a British born Nigerian who spent part of his childhood in Los Angeles, America, where he developed a passion for the arts which dashed any hopes his mother had of him becoming a doctor, has seen the positive impact his project is making in young lives across the London.

The S.M.I.L.E.-ing Boys Project is the brainchild of artist Kay Rufai

“To date we have worked with over 300 young boys covering 10 London boroughs with the latest project taking place in Hackney, East London. Sharing my love of photography, poetry and creative expression with the young boys participating in the project has led to many if not all of them developing a more positive self-image of themselves whilst also challenging the negative stereotypes which often come their way through a lack of understanding of today’s youth culture, race and diversity.”

The photos of the smiling boys on display in three venues around the London borough of Hackney (Graham Road – off Mare Street, Dalston Lane and Stamford Hill Station) have grabbed the attention of not only members of the general public but also members of Hackney Council.

Sophie Conway, Councillor for Hackney Central (off Mare Street) and Chair of the Children and Young People Scrutiny Commission said:   “I am thrilled to see artist Kay Rufai’s S.M.I.L.E-ing boys photos dotted around my borough, Hackney.  Imagery is powerful and these photos with their warm and bright colours framing the smiling faces of the boys is a stark contrast to the dark and negative imagery of black boys that we often see in articles on gangs and youth crime.

“The disproportionately negative representations of black boys in our media undoubtedly serves to stigmatise and demonise black boys and the S.M.I.L.E-ing boys photos serve to powerfully counter such negative narratives. I am hugely supportive of the broader ambitions of the S.M.I.L.E-ing boys project with its focus on a well-being approach to promoting the mental health and happiness of our black boys. I am also so pleased that boys from Hackney were able to take part in the project and I look forward to seeing key learning from this work influence the ways in which we both support and view black boys.”

Hackney’s Deputy Mayor and Cabinet Member for Education, Young People and Children’s Social Care, Anntoinette Bramble said:

“I am delighted we have had an opportunity to display the S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys colourful eye-catching portraits across Hackney which help show local young Black boys in a positive light to counteract the negative stereotypes that are sometimes formed.

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SUPPORT: Hackney’s Deputy Mayor Anntoinette Bramble

“Portraits of local Black boys smiling warmly at the camera will be displayed on billboards across the borough, as well as in an exhibition at Hackney Bridge this month, as part of a project which aims to challenge the sometimes negative portrayal of young Black boys through positive representation.

Bramble continued: “Thank you to artist Kay Rufai for his brilliant work in highlighting and addressing the concerning lack of mental health provisions available for young Black people. It is vital we progress the conversation around mental health and wellbeing for young Black boys in Hackney, and continue to offer new ways for them to express themselves and explore their identity. 

“I encourage our residents to learn more about the project by attending an exhibition of all 17 portraits at Hackney Bridge in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on Friday 17 December which wraps up Hackney’s Black History Season for 2021 and will allow people to meet the artist and hear from the boys involved about the importance of challenging stereotypes and enjoying the freedom of self-expression.”

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THRILLED: Hackney councillor Sophie Conway

Rufai, 37, who also produced a report covering the eight factors responsible for happiness which he incorporates in his project  added: “Narratives pertaining to youth involvement in gangs and violence with strong deterrents such as the building of more prisons and the increasing of stop and search particularly among young black men has become a regular occurrence in recent years, with often little regard given for the root causes of societal issues wherein lies the solution.

“I use the creative arts (photography, poetry and film) as a means of providing opportunities for young people and others to engage with in a way which hopefully empowers them to find solution focused outcomes for societal issues some of which often impact on the mental health and well-being of our young black boys.”

Free to members of the public, the Hackney S.M.I.L.E-ing Boys Exhibition will be on display at Hackney Bridge, Units 1-28, ECHO BUILDING, London, E15, 2SJ until January 31st 2022.