Black Heritage Undergraduate of the Year Award: Canaan Brown

Art and Design student, Canaan Brown, tells us about his journey to becoming a finalist for Sky's 'Black Heritage Undergraduate of the Year' Award.

Sky are searching UK universities to find the outstanding 'Black Heritage Undergraduate of the Year'. They look for people driving positive change within the community, who break down barriers and are inspiring role models. The winner receives up to three weeks’ work experience at Sky, collaborating with professionals across a variety of business areas. 

The award seeks to recognise exceptional undergraduates with black heritage who can demonstrate they are passionate about helping others, are champions of diversity and inclusion and have a knack for solving problems.

Art and Design student, Canaan Brown, is a member of the Afro-Caribbean Society (ACS) and the West Indian Society. He is passionate about advocating and inspiring black excellence, through his art work and in his personal life. This passion motivated him to apply for the Sky 'Black Heritage Undergraduate of the Year' award, and led him to becoming one of the finalists!  

Why did you apply? 

I applied with the belief that I reflected the values and practices which the award was looking for. I’ve always been passionate about advocating, exemplifying, and inspiring black excellence - in my art and design practice, and in my life as a person. I felt that this award was an excellent opportunity to put myself forwards with this in mind - a chance to step up and take a considered risk towards my ambitions.  

Can you tell us about projects you're working and the application process?

I began the process by answering three questions from Sky - around my past projects, my career goals, and how I strive to bring about positive change in my community and the wider world. This was a great opportunity to discuss recent projects I have been working on. Including a project with Legacy West Midlands, as an emerging artist, being mentored by the Birmingham-based artist Luke Perry to design and create a sculpture celebrating black heritage in Britain.

A project still in process, I have been consulting members of the local community to identity what diverse representatives of society would want to see represented and celebrated in public artworks. This resulted in me having a much more grounded perspective of what can genuinely inspire people of colour in Birmingham, the UK, and beyond - representations which empower, dignify, and champion decolonisation.  

The written submission was followed by a personality questionnaire - a series of questions brought together in the form of a psychometric test. This was to assess my values and personality traits - the questions were all asked in rapid succession, giving me little time to think about my response, so I could respond as naturally and truthfully as possible. The results of this test were then used to deduce whether I had the traits the award final was looking for. These included leadership, forward-thinking, creativity, diplomacy, and kindness.  

After successfully completing this stage, I was invited to undertake an online video interview. The interview consisted of five questions - three of which were about why I wanted to work with Sky, and the other two concerned my aspirations and personal ambitions outside of this. I was given one minute to formulate a response to each question, and then two minutes to respond.

Ultimately, the process was a test of my competence, drive, and passion - for inspiring, actioning, and sustaining, positive change.  

What makes you a worthy winner?

I believe that art and design practice is a means of creating work which reflects my most rigorous interests. From storytelling, fiction, and history, to speculation, activism, and education, I have always been taught on the BA Art and Design course to make work that helps make the world a better place. On my most recent project, I set myself the task of creating a body of work inspired by the life of Joseph Johnson - a black British sailor who served in the Navy between the 18th and 19th Century. Johnson, after being injured during his services, was discharged and not afforded a pension or parish relief - leaving him to find his own way. He would eventually become a busker - performing with a sculpture of the Naval ship, the HMS Nelson.  

I wanted to fictionalise his life, interplaying his life in the Navy with my interest in spirits and duppies. I therefore used film, writing, and digital media, alongside sculpture and projection, to create a fictional memoir based upon his life. This project  was an excellent opportunity for me to bridge my passions for black history, fiction, and the supernatural, with creative practice. It was amazing to have this project exhibited at the Birmingham School of Art, and circulated across numerous social media channels.  

I ultimately have a desire to tell stories, and to make work that would inspire a younger version of myself. I am driven to make the best work I can, and to work with others to ensure I help others to do their best as well. Currently working on a new exhibition with my course mates, responding to sites around Birmingham, I am using writing, film, and sculpture to help forge and build connections between Birmingham’s landmarks and the people they affect.  

What are your future aspirations? 

Aspiration, achievement, and recognition were the drivers behind putting myself forwards for the Sky 'Black Heritage Undergraduate of the Year' Award. Making it into the final is an achievement I am super proud of and I hope to use this achievement to motivate me further to use work in the arts and media to help empower communities. 

I aspire to pursue a career in the creative arts. Making and producing new media, projects, and works to be seen and engaged with by various audiences is an inspiring prospect for me. I hope to continue to build and elevate platforms, for mobilising black excellence - helping to make our communities and societies more equitable and bridging the gap between our societies, and the utopias we imagine.  

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