The Star Wars Sketch Card Artist’s BLM Project
In February of this year, I’d become an official Star Wars sketch card artist for Topps and since, have not only completed my first set of sketch cards for them, but a handful of what are known as PSCs (Personal Sketch Cards) on my own card stock also. Soon after announcing my signing with Topps, I was invited to join a Facebook group for Topps artists, and it was there, a couple of months later, that artists would be invited (by a fellow Star Wars sketch card artist, Jay Manchand) to draw Afro-Caribbean characters from the Star Wars universe, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In March, after sending in my contribution to Topps for their Star Wars Chrome Perspectives: The Resistance Vs The First Order set (released on 6th August 2020), the Coronavirus hit and the global pandemic brought the planet to a near standstill. And whilst the pandemic tore through society at an unprecedented pace, a new battle emerged. But it wasn’t a new battle at all.
George Floyd, An African-American man with a criminal past, was apprehended by Minneapolis police after allegedly attempting to use a counterfeit $20 bill in a local convenience store. He was killed by one of the arresting (caucasian) officers and thus began protests, mostly peaceful, some violent, highlighting police brutality against the black community. Again. The death was needless and the protests were global and the movement Black Lives Matter was in the media once again while the Coronavirus issue was ‘parked’, albeit temporarily. Some went for the approach of ‘all lives matter’, missing the point of the current situation altogether. All lives DO matter, but at that moment in time, it was the black community that needed the attention and support. And the rekindled attention to racially driven crime further evoked some old memories in me; memories that I generally try not to focus my attention on too often, if at all. But, as it turned out, this was the year to bring those personal issues back to the forefront of my mind, as a special video call I partook in, just prior to the Floyd killing, had began to reignite those memories anyway.
Riz Ahmed & The Zoom Call:
Earlier in the year, post Covid-19 lockdown, I was fortunate enough to essentially be a ’fly-on-the-wall’ in a private video call with actor Riz Ahmed (Four Lions, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and in that talk, Ahmed spoke about many things: particularly our ‘New Normal’ post Coronavirus outbreak. He spoke about Capitalism, our addiction [to ‘things’], the ideas of productivity associated with Capitalism and its negative impact on our well-being (“I don’t have enough, I don’t do enough, I am not enough”) and how we as a society need to “reassess our endless need for more".
But one thing that stood out to me during his talk was a post 9/11 airport experience he shared. I shan’t go into too much detail about what he said, but he mentioned that he’d essentially been racially profiled during a work visit from the U.K. to the U.S.
In case it wasn’t painfully clear, Ahmed is what’s known as a PoC: A Person of Colour. This is an acronym that’s somewhat new to my ears and not one that I particularly agree with in all honesty. In my opinion, it helps to perpetuate the differences between people. It risks creating an ‘us and them’ attitude among people. And sadly, I feel that there will always be an ‘us and them’ attitude in society. But I digress. The reason his story stood out to me was because it bore a striking similarity to an experience I had at an airport, in the U.S. a short while after 9/11 also.
Vitruvian Man at the Airport? I Do Mind if you Do:
September 11th 2001. At the time, I was in my third semester at Columbus State University in Georgia, U.S.A. The Deep South. As I mentioned earlier, these race related issued between the police and those of ‘colour’ is nothing new. I am an Indian Ethnically, but British by Nationality and grew up in London, whilst also having spent a substantial amount of time in the U.S., I’ve unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) seen these issues of race first hand.
As a means to fund my numerous trips back n forth between the U.S. and the U.K. (and occasionally domestic trips within the U.S. itself), I would sell my artwork through exhibitions; usually group shows or small displays in restaurants, coffee shops and the like. I would be travelling perhaps 3-5 times a year and on one such trip, whilst waiting to board by my (rather busy) gate, some officials and a policeman approached me and began asking me numerous questions about myself, where I was travelling to and why, etc. After I told them, they told me they had to do some physical checks and I complied, not that I had a choice. They asked me to stand and remove various articles of clothing. Nothing too drastic mind. They didn't strip me down to my underwear or anything (well, not that I recall. It's entirely possible that they did and that my memory has simply blanked that part of the experience out). Regardless, in front of everybody, I had to stand with my legs and arms apart whilst they physically handled me. Not with a scanner, but with their hands. No privacy. No dignity. Just compliance.
I've always been acutely aware of the colour of my skin having grown up in South London. Despite being an incredibly multi-cultural environment, racism was always rife. And not just from the 'white man', but from Afro-Caribbeans, Europeans and Oriental people too. It was just the way things were. Oddly enough, I never felt as though there was ever any real malice behind the racism. We were just kids being idiots. A classmate called me a Paki, and I called him a Blacky (which was usually followed up by my getting punched up and walking away with a dead arm, but not before lecturing them on the geographical differences between Indians and Pakistanis). But some hours later or the very next day, we'd be back to doing whatever it was we did. Kids being kids. As though the altercation hadn't even taken place. And it was nothing for the most part. No, there was no real malice. A malicious slur or attack is when a concrete mixer truck housing a couple of middle aged, overweight, cheap beer swigging and Sun reading white guys scream "PAKI" at you whilst you're waiting in traffic, with your wife sat next to you and your toddler son in the back. This happened in October 2019 and yes, I'm still angry about it, hence the 'need' to label them as some type of typical blue collar, white trash. Which obviously such reactions never solves the problem and if anything perpetuates it, and is likely not the truth at all. For all I know, they could've been upstanding members of society. I'll thankfully never know. And the more severe and extreme cases of such malice sometimes leads to far worse, such as the deaths of Stephen Lawrence (1993), *Christopher Alaneme (2006) and - in a reversal of colour - caucasian Marcin Bilaszewski, a Polish teen killed by a black man back in 2010.
The media reports these things and people listen, at least until the next thing comes along. So fleeting seem to be news stories. So I wanted to do something that was perhaps a little more permanent. Part of achieving that objective is obviously writing about it, within the contexts of my own experiences, hence this article and publishing it on the internet. The other was to contribute via something that is so engrained within pop culture that it'll [hopefully] remain in people's consciousness for at least a little while longer than a news story. Enter Star Wars, and a group of outstanding artists.
The Star Wars Sketch Card Black Lives Matter Project Subjects:
It is clear I hope, the reasons behind my getting involved in this project. George Floyd himself may have been a criminal at some point of his life, but to argue against the fact that he didn’t deserve the end he received, demonstrates a lack of empathy and understanding of the greater situation. His death at the hands of **Minneapolis Police Officers has been well documented and incited massive protests across the globe. And despite some protests turning violent, the majority seemed to remain peaceful and contributed greatly to raise awareness of the issues of institutionalised racism on the whole.
And so I decided early on that I would do what I could to support the Black Lives Matter movement. I donated a small amount to TV and film writer (and general pop culture nerd) Marc Bernardin’s charity based venture ***The Plague Nerdalogues, but it wasn’t until Jay Manchand posted in the Topps Artist's Facebook group about doing something for BLM, that I felt I could contribute towards the movement in a more meaningful way.
Despite the project only asking for a maximum of 2 cards, I decided to create and donate 3. For the most part, I chose subjects close to my heart: friend Dee Tails and a gentleman by the name of Derek Campbell, as well as actor Tosin Cole (whom I have no relationship with and have yet to meet, but he emenates such positive energy through his smile and performance in The Force Awakens, that I felt compelled to draw him, albeit sans smile! He featured prominently in the final dog fight in The Force Awakens, as well as making his way onto the Behind the Scene VFX reel for the same film, which is absolutely worth checking out if you have an interest in filmmaking and the processes involved.
Dee and I’s relationship goes back some years now. We met through my wife Arti [Shah] and have remained close since. We’ve even worked together on a couple of small film projects and I can vouch that he is one of the kindest and most genuine people I know, along with being someone with one of the most interesting careers in entertainment of anybody that I know.
He comes from a musical background and formed 1/4 of the British R&B band MN8. From there, there were multiple acting roles which ultimately lead to Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens. Since then, Dee has been involved in almost every Disney produced Star Wars film, portraying a plethora of characters. So it was a no-brainer that I’d look to him for inspiration for one of the BLM cards. His characters have almost all been prominent ones, and he’s appeared in the cast list of a couple of the films, and in the CFX credits for the others. He's a Star Wars staple, a person of colour, and a good friend, therefore an obvious choice when it came to picking subjects for the cards.
My connection with Derek is nowhere near as strong as that with Dee, however, despite Derek only really having been barely an acquaintance, he displayed a rare value the night I met him. And the impact he left on me from our brief meeting was very real. An impact that'll remain with me for as long as I breathe.
We were fast approaching the end of 2018 and my wife Arti and I took over the responsibilities of organising the CFX (Creature FX) team's annual Christmas party from a friend. The party took place in a bar in London and it was here that I was introduced to Derek Campbell. Although he was quiet on the night (I'm sure the loud music didn't exactly help with inciting conversation), first impressions leant heavily towards him being extremely personable. He eagerly introduced himself, greeting us with a smile but maintained a gentleness about him. He wasn't aggressive or overbearing in the slightest and exuded kindness.
A double leg amputee, Derek was a member of the CFX team and performed creatures in three of the Disney era Star Wars films: Rogue One, The Last Jedi and Solo. His Rogue One character, the 8ft tall L1 droid, ultimately wasn't used so was repurposed for Solo, and can be seen walking through the spaceport on Corellia. And it was this droid character I chose to depict for one of my BLM sketch card entries.
Derek's other character was seen in The Last Jedi on Canto Bight, but fans were first given a glimpse of the character in the Vanity Fair The Last Jedi preview, which showcased some of the Canto Bight patrons. Derek is the rather distinguished, 'horse / goat' looking chap seen on the far left of the line-up. ****Jake Lunt Davis talks about his work with Derek across the Star Wars films and elaborates on what was involved with Derek's TLJ character in an interview on starwars.com. He speaks extremely positively about Derek's work and how the team were breaking the mould with practical effects.
Unfortunately, a mere few months after our meeting, Derek passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, no doubt forever leaving an irreplaceable hole in the CFX and Star Wars film-making team's hearts. I'm grateful for being able to have met Derek, and for having people like Arti and Dee in my life, and also to have been involved in this sketch card project.
The Star Wars Sketch Card Black Lives Matter Project Interviews:
What follows are a couple of short interviews I conducted with Jay Manchand, the originator of the BLM Sketch Card project, and Ky Dillan Ellison, who collaborated with Manchand on the collectors side (and is also the designer responsible for the images of the BLM sketch cards shown here at the end of this post).
Jay Manchand (Topps Sketch Card Artist):
RV: Hi Jay. Firstly, congratulations on the success of the project. Can you tell me a little about yourself? Where are you from and how old are you?
JM: Hey! I’m based in the UK and I’m 31 years old.
RV: How long have you been making Star Wars art, particularly for Topps?
JM: I guess I’ve been drawing Star Wars since I was a young kid. It has inspired me for as long as I can remember. I even had a couple of fan art drawings published in the British Star Wars comic when I was 10 years old. I began drawing Star Wars seriously in 2016. It began as drawing for enjoyment whilst I completed my Bachelors Degree in Fine Art. I began working for Topps in 2017, with Rogue One: Series 2 being my first officially licensed sketch card product. It changed the path I wanted my career to go in and since then I have worked on over 20 trading card sets for Star Wars, along with other licenses such as Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Aliens, and Stranger Things. I’ve gone on to doing many Star Wars commissions in the form of comic covers, portrait drawings, personal sketch cards and canvas paintings.
RV: The Star Wars BLM project was your brain child. How did the idea come about and did you expect the project to be as successful as it has been?
JM: Being in the UK and watching the horrors of the George Floyd murder and the beginning of the BLM protests, I felt helpless. It is a cause I fully believe in, especially as a person of colour myself. I wanted to contribute to the BLM donation fund and began thinking of ways to do so. Originally, I considered making a piece of art and auctioning it off in a raffle form to raise funds. This felt like the limit of what I could achieve would be minimal. I’m lucky to have a number of extremely talented artists that I call friends and reached out to see if anyone would consider joining a project that a) supports the BLM movement and b) aims to raise money for donation. I’ll be honest, I was pretty nervous. I expected backlash from varying opinions on the protests and movements, especially as many of the artists are from America and some were experiencing the negative effects of the movement. I couldn’t believe how many artists instantly showed their interest and from those early discussions, I got to learn of some of these artist's own personal experiences dealing with racism. The support was overwhelming.
Around 40 artists were interested in the project, though I wasn’t sure what the project would involve at this point. I reached out to the admins of the Facebook collector community group Topps Star Wars Collectible Card Traders, and proposed the idea of a personal sketch card raffle to raise money for BLM. Again, I was met with overwhelming support for the concept. The downside of this is that I’m not the best at organising events, so fellow artist Candice Dailey reached out to me as one of the first artists to show interest in the project and offered to help if I needed it…which I really did! All I can say is everyone should have a Candice Dailey in their lives. She managed to orchestrate and organise this event alongside myself and the TSWCCT group admins into something so incredibly professional and successful. Through this project we have become friends and I’ll forever be grateful for the support from Candice and the entire admin team at TSWCCT.
The event itself was made up of 44 artists producing up to 3 sketch cards each, depicting a character portrayed by an actor or actress of colour from the entire Star Wars franchise. We wanted to highlight the importance of inclusion in the Star Wars galaxy, and the characters that made us fall in love with Star Wars. We ended up selling the entire raffle spots for the personal sketch card event in a day, raising over $3,400 for the Black Lives Matter movement.
I just want to thank every single artist for dedicating their time and energy into producing some of the most beautiful sketch cards I have ever seen. And also to Candice and TSWCCT admins for making this event a success. I literally could not have done it without them. Most of all, I’m grateful to each collector who purchased a spot and is now eagerly awaiting their sketch card. This donation is far beyond my expectations and I'm thrilled at its success. We did a really good thing.
Ky Dillan Ellison (TSWCCT Facebook Group Admin):
Ky Dillan Ellison is one of the administrators of the Topps Star Wars Collectible Card Traders Facebook group and facilitator for the Star Wars BLM sketch card project. With his help, the project was able to fully form and raise the money that it did. Ky was kind enough to donate some of his time to me.
RV: Thanks for doing this Ky. Can you tell me where you’re from and how old you are?
KDE: I live in Texas, and am 28 years old on the outside but always a child at heart.
RV: How long have you been collecting Star Wars trading cards?
KDE: I started collecting Topps Star Wars cards back in Summer 2017. It was when their A New Hope 40th Anniversary set was released. I was vaguely aware of Topps trading cards but had never ventured into them. Very happy that I picked up the single retail pack that led me to here.
RV: What prompted you to get involved in the BLM project?
KDE: Jay Manchand approached the TSWCCT Admin Team and said that he wanted to do something in support of Black Lives Matter in early June, I believe. Being a group that enjoys members from all over the world, all walks of life, and different races, we knew it was a brilliant idea and offered our support. Jay was joined by Candice Dailey on the artist side of things to bring it all together.
RV: And finally, what’re your thoughts on the outcome? What do you think of the work submitted?
KDE: I am very pleased with the outcome of the event, having raised $3,440 for Black Lives Matter. We had an amazing group of artists come together and selflessly give their time and talent to ensure 100% of what was raised went to charity. Their (and your) work covered a vast array of characters from known to unknown, all of which were portrayed / voiced by people of color. The art was truly beautiful and a wonderful reminder of what I think Star Wars has always been about: standing up for what is right and celebrating our differences.
Star Wars has a deep and rich history that is what it is today because of the contributions of many talented actors and actresses of color. I am happy to have played the small role that I did and would like to extend a thank to you my fellow Admins for the efforts they gave to make this the success that it was. A big thank you to the collectors in TSWCCT for their support, and of course, again the artists for their generous donations!
*https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-16438933 - BBC article "Group lists 96 'racist killings' since Lawrence"
**https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_of_George_Floyd - Wikipedia entry.
***https://theplaguenerdalogues.com - The Plague Nerdalogues Website.
****https://www.starwars.com/news/designing-star-wars-the-last-jedi-part-3-bb-9e - Designing Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Part 3.