Fairies have dependably been a staple of the legendary world—Tinkerbell, The Fairy Godmother, Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream—representative of enchantment, magnificence and womanliness. They’ve likewise been depicted only as white—up to this point.
Sumaiyah Jones, also known as the Freckled Hijabi, is an 18-year-old college student and artist who’s amassed a large social following by painting fairies for women of color. Think of Jones’ art as akin to that of official Barack Obama portraitist Kehinde Wiley, who paints black people as royals, casting them in a light they haven’t historically been portrayed in; in the same way, the fairy tales we enjoyed as children didn’t include the black women, Muslim women and all the other beautiful figures that populate Jones’ fantasies. ELLE.com chatted with Jones about the ideas and inspiration behind her inclusive artwork.
Tell me about Freckled Hijabi and your art.
I’m 18 and I was born in Maryland but I mostly grew up in North Carolina. I didn’t start really painting until I was 14. When it came to portraits, I just stuck to women in general. That’s what I really like to paint. I like to paint women. I love to paint highlights and women that look like they’re glowing from within. My whole style is based off of women of color and trying to show us [women of color] in a different light.
How did the idea to reimagine fairies for people of color come about?
When I was younger, I was obsessed with a fairy and in particular one book about fairies that I can’t remember the name. Through the whole entire book, there were no women of color really, except the baby.
Also, I went to an Islamic school with a lot of people of different races and cultures. The majority was Pakistani or Arab, which included a lot of black girls and boys. Something I noticed, volunteering in younger kids classes, is that when they would paint, they would color themselves white. They would never color themselves their skin tone or their skin shade. To me it was like: they probably didn’t do that because they never saw themselves in art. If you are showing a kid something over and over again and it’s not representing them, if they don’t see themselves in a certain place, they’re not gonna expect themselves to exist in that place.
What are the benefits that come out of black representation in fairy culture?
Something I’ve noticed a lot in the black community is that when people paint black women it’s in a very specific way. Curvy, a certain skin shade color, the same afro, over and over again. Afros are beautiful and I tend to include them in my artwork, but there’s more to black girls than just an afro and a curvy body. There’s more to us than showing our bodies, as well.
I feel like having something as delicate as fairies is a perfect new portrayal of black women. When we’re complimented, we’re usually complimented as fierce and independent and strong, and that’s wonderful but we can also be delicate and sweet, and kind, and radiant. A lot of pieces I like to make are where black fairies can be strong and delicate. It’s okay for us to be a little soft, or delicate, or shy, or quiet, or radiant and bright and a bit more quirky in a way.
Why do you remove the eyes from your fairies of color?
So basically, as a woman of color and as a black Muslim girl, a lot of people come up to me and I can tell when they’re talking to me they already see me in a certain way. A lot of people think Muslim girls are submissive or a certain way or we have to wear a hijab because of something. I’ve had people ask me about my hijab, but I can tell they’re interrogating me like they’re asking me, “Oh, so what are you, like, forced to wear it?” But it’s like, you know I wasn’t forced to wear it. I’m 18. With my art, I use the eyes as the window to the soul. I feel like removing eyes and replacing it with vibrant colors and replacing it with something it shows what is radiating out of her
What can fairy culture do to be more inclusive?
I’m actually working on a book where I want to have a different vision created of fairy realm. For me, fairies are similar to humans in a way. Fairies are a species full of diversity. There’s elves, nymphs, mermaids, and I jumble all those things up to a broader category of fairies. I feel like when people create books about mythical creatures there should still be representation. Why not include everyone?