Gyimah Gariba, social change catalyst and proud Ghanaian-Torontonian, grew up turning to art to document and process the world around him. Over time, his work also started to carry coded messages about the injustices he was witnessing—especially for those identifying as LGBTQ+.
When he’s not inking comic books, creating and executive producing new animated series (his latest, Big Blue for Guru Studio), or landing on Forbes’ “15 Young African Creatives Rebranding Africa,” Gariba’s working tirelessly to turn dreams into reality. In his latest collab with UGG for their “FLUFF FOR ALL” campaign—highlighting the brand’s bold and colourful Fluff It collection—the Toronto creative is sparking conversations on gender, race, and cultural heritage.
We caught up with Gariba to find out how he’s tapping into his West African roots to create social change and a better way ahead for those who follow.
The interview, edited for clarity, is below.
What drew you to art personally and eventually to becoming an illustrator?
I think initially it’s the attention. When you’re in school, the first thing you do is what gets the adults’ or your peers’ attention—that’s kind of the thing you gravitate towards. So it must have started with drawing of a Pokémon characters, or a Dragon Ball character, and someone being like, “That’s good!” And then, I was like, ‘I want to feel like that all the time,’ and then it just developed into like, ‘I’m really into this and can be alone for several hours and just do this on my own.’
From your experience, why is art such a great platform to instigate social change?
It can be a nice way to have a conversation. I think on the flip side it could just be a nice way for people to recognize humanity outside of themselves. Living life is overwhelming. It’s all your senses engaged. And when you’re looking at art, it kind of gets distilled down to recognizable stuff…. It’s the same thing with movies, where you watch a movie and then by the end of the movie, you’re like, ‘I think it’s a film of my life.’” It mirrors stuff without being too pushy, you know, you can do it through metaphors, or characters or whatever. I’m not good with words. It can be hard for people to come to terms with things. But with images, it’s a lot less intimidating, I think.
And in terms of your art style, what’s your favourite?
I’m into caricature in all its forms, so like exaggeration of reality. I’ve never been into photorealistic renderings… [Caricatures] are augmented versions of things that you will see in your day-to-day life, and I really like that. It underlines a point, and that can be used negatively, just as much as it can be used positively. It’s playing with what people perceive and what’s actually there.
“It’s gaudy and intense and it’s very Pride. It’s very celebratory… I like the idea of being African and doing that. Even if it’s not the reality of my life, I like participating in that celebration.” – Gyimah on working on UGG’s new campaign
In your own work, you feature some very potent images that double as social commentary. How have you been using illustrations to catalyze social change and promote LGBTQ+ rights in Ghana and more locally?
It’s only something I started to do recently because honestly, I’m just getting comfortable with myself and just with the ideas, and skill level… There was part of my life where I was—I don’t think hiding—but I was waiting to be legitimized by institutions. I was rightfully so afraid of being punished for really strong views.
With imagery, I can articulate philosophies that I’ll always believe; visual language can change more freely than [verbal] language… In my more recent works, which are pretty large-scale illustrations, it’s what I try to do because I’m Ghanaian.
The situation is pretty upsetting because ever since colonialism, homosexuality and queerness have been a label that’s like, “Oh that’s un-African. It’s influence from the West. It’s not a good thing. It’s not a natural way of being.” And I’m finding a way to subvert that imagery. I’m trying to make clear and coded images that are also unabashedly African… It’s going back to like African sculpture, African masks and appropriating that imagery through the lens of queerness so that regardless of the conversation, a queer African person will be able to see themselves through that imagery. I’m using imagery to reinforce a standpoint.
From what I understand, LGBTQ+ rights are heavily suppressed in Ghana. What else is going on there for those who identify as LGBTQ+ right now?
There is this idea where if you critique [Ghana], there’s so much backlash from the standpoint of being like, ‘Oh, you must not be proud of the place you are from.’ I’m extremely proud. But I think that there are glaring things that require people to dismantle their ideas of religion and culture. So if you alter or update your ideas of queerness, what does that do for your way of thinking?
There are institutions that are actively working to suppress queerness and queer voices. So there was an LGBTQ+ centre recently closed down like a couple of months after it was formed. There were like 21 people arrested for gathering to have a conversation about gay rights, and how to adapt the movement for the modern age… It’s like everybody is celebrating Twitter headquarters in Ghana, but the free speech situation will get people killed there. Queerness is hyper-surveilled.
So it’s like people like Lil Nas X… everybody’s dancing and everything is fine. But once it comes down to truly accepting people and allowing them to express themselves [fully], it’s taboo. It’s a bit of an elephant in the room. So my hope is with visibility and imagery we can build a Ghana for everyone to boast about, because right now it’s only for those who fit within these very specific heteronormative Christian ideals, you know?
For me to be able to use my visibility is a place of privilege and that I’m able to, you know, send out messages.
“My hope is with visibility and imagery we can build a Ghana for everyone to boast about, because right now it’s only for those who fit within these very specific heteronormative Christian ideals.”
Do you have a piece you’re especially proud of?
I think my recent post for raising awareness for the LGBTQ+ Rights Centre that was closed… So there were a couple of pieces that were being auctioned off just to raise awareness for that, and for people to donate. Those have a familiar West African aesthetic to me—there’s one of plastic chairs, which are all over Ghana.
Where do you get your inspiration for your work? What do you strive to represent?
I’ve always been a people-watcher… Like all these weird little idiosyncrasies that I’ll pick up about people; ‘this is how a lady holds a baby, this is how a dad holds a baby.’ This is how then I feel like people just see people. I’ve trained myself to kind of see things and remember what something looked like—a kid peeking out of the window—it’s a thing to remember to illustrate. So hopefully, it’s a better way to communicate people’s humanity. I’m talking to my bullies pretty much.
Having the draftsmanship ability and the character ability to code an image with same-sex tenderness, and for a person who’s a homophobe to be able to look at it and appreciate that tenderness hopefully begins to start turning the wheels.
And what about your personal style? What would you say it says about you?
To be honest, somewhere along the line I learned to code myself [as a straight person]. So shout out to RuPaul—it’s all drag—like it’s all a costume. My personal style is just costuming. It’s seeing what I could pull off and in what situation. There are days where I dress like a straight person. If there are days where I want attention, I’ll dress gaudy. And being able to measure that and kind of regulate with the world around me is the way I dress. But honestly for the most part, it’s just like trying to see what I can pull off.
What makes your lived experience and creative vision such a perfect fit for UGG’s latest FLUFF FOR ALL campaign?
It’s gaudy and intense and it’s very Pride. It’s very celebratory… I like the idea of being African and doing that. Even if it’s not the reality of my life, I like participating in that celebration. It’s almost like intense euphoria… I like the participation in that fantasy because I feel like fantasy is what got me here; to see a place where I feel more comfortable is like fantasizing and it is imagery of dreams. Like, if I saw a person who was clearly African and he’s laid out on a bed of flowers, eating grapes with his partner and in fuzzy shoes, that’s amazing even if the reality is like, this person deals with systemic racism and homophobia every day. That state, that imagery is like a statement of what should be a possibility.