PHOTO BY JOHN ALEXANDER
For those who have never seen Brown Sugar Fairies, the glorious celebration of diversity in the fae realm created by Aiysha Sinclair on Instagram, you can only imagine what you’re missing. A gorgeous lakeside fairy bower woven with flowers and reeds, a thatched-roof cottage captioned “African Fairy Vibes,” and countless magical shoots with captivating images of Black and Brown fairies that illustrate, with breathtaking beauty, an inclusive fairy culture.
“Since our inception, Brown Sugar Fairies has aimed to illuminate and uplift Black and Brown creatives within the faerie realm through art, culture, storytelling, photography, and healing,” says Sinclair. “This has been a community platform that supports all folks who share in that magical dream. It has been my honor to host this page and experience firsthand the power that we all possess when we live out loud and express ourselves creatively.”
Sinclair—the author, artist, and actor who founded not only this Instagram feed but also an associated book series and an upcoming Brown Sugar Fairies magazine—is a modern-day storyteller with a mission.
“It is of great importance to me that my offerings in the art and literary world reflect a Black lens,” she says.
Since her early twenties, Sinclair has been drawn to folk and fairy tales from different cultures around the globe. Now she creates her own, featuring Black and Brown heroines, inspired by Black history. “As an actress in the theater, I liked to learn about fairies from Irish and Southern folk tales and I tried to find them in African and Trinidadian culture,” she says.
Traditionally, there has been little diversity represented in the fairy world. “European fairies are what we see in the mainstream,” she says. “I feel a shift now in Black culture, although it’s been there all along with the little people in Virginia Hamilton’s books or tales told by people of the Gullah culture along the Carolinas. People want to be seen now. I want to see myself reflected as well.”
These shifts have inspired Sinclair. “You want to create what you don’t see,” she says. “And you want to feel a connection. Social media has made the world so much smaller. And the world is spinning so much faster now! It’s a beautiful thing to see so many people of color creating content that we may not have seen growing up.”
Sinclair recently relocated to Savannah, Georgia, to research a new book called The Cotton Fairy, geared toward young adults. The Cotton Fairy is part of the Brown Sugar Fairies universe, though it is set in the antebellum South, where, according to Sinclair, “seeds of our own history and truth are planted within magic and myth. The characters get lost in the world of the fae—and the history of the South.”
For the book, Sinclair transforms the world of history, “from the shores of Africa and the Caribbean to the scarred woodlands of America’s past,” she says. “The Faelynn carry their healing spirit of song and enchantments into a world unlike our own. The primary heroes of these tales are the innocent, both child and fairy alike, which allows us to see the light and dark of our world through their eyes of wonder, hope, and imagination.” In other words, the book is hopeful but somewhat intense.
The way Sinclair’s personal story has unspooled is itself like a fairy tale. Her affinity for fairies began when she was recovering from surgery several years ago. “I learned about energy healing,” she says. “I saw a fairy in my meditation, and my mind would wander into my imagination. A nymph would follow me around wherever I was in my mind.” Sinclair started to write stories about “the brown fairy,” Saroja, which led to the children’s book series.
Her first book, Saroja’s Quest, is about a curious, spirited, and inquisitive ten-year-old girl named Peppa. When Peppa’s grandfather becomes ill, her world unravels. Peppa’s mama arranges for her to work at a local shop where she discovers a book filled with magic, along with a live fairy named Saroja. Peppa and Saroja bond over a difficult decision as the story unfolds. Abloom, the second in the Brown Sugar Fairies series, continues the tale of Saroja, who lives in the magical land of Lumella. As she struggles to harness her power as a flower fairy, she is challenged by nature’s changing seasons. “Being a performer, writing has always been a part of me,” says Sinclair. “I’ve been writing plays, and I’m currently working on a one-woman show. And as an artist, working with mixed media and collage, music—old jazz and blues—inspires me.”
Of Caribbean-American descent, Sinclair was born in Brooklyn, not far from the renowned Brooklyn Museum, with roots in Flatbush, a historically West Indian neighborhood. Sinclair wasn’t quite five years old when her family moved across the country to California, where she was raised, but she remembers shuttling back and forth to visit family on the East Coast as they emigrated here from Trinidad and Guyana.
According to Sinclair, her upbringing was deeply rooted in family tradition, spirituality, and Caribbean culture, which helped shape her artistic lens. Recurrent themes in her artwork and her career include fairy tales, folk tales, and Black history. “I spend a lot of time gathering stories about heroic women and enslaved Africans in America and the Caribbean, as well as folk and fairy tales throughout the diaspora,” she says. “These stories are haunting as well as uplifting. It is an honor to share my stories and those of my ancestors, whether that is through writing fairy tales, mixed media, or creating dolls.”
A brief excerpt from the new book, The Cotton Fairy, coming next year
“Close your eyes and see in your mind’s eye all the ancient power you are connected to. We are as old as the hills and as deep as the oce an floor. We are a luminous dark, emanating celestial stardust from our fingertips. A supernatural reoccurrence holding the key to pathways once hidden. My stardust remains twinkling in the night. Forever etched in the souls of all who have dared to believe in something as bold as dream.”
Sinclair was a budding artist at an early age and, as a child, loved to create dolls and puppets from materials on hand.
That is still part of her artwork today. “I’ve always been into crafting and dolls,” she says. “I love to use found, natural, and repurposed materials to create puppets from twigs and sticks, create acorn dolls. Making things from found objects just stuck with me.” She is also a collector of dolls from a very specific time in history: “I’m a big collector of vintage Black dolls from the 1920s,” she says. On her website, aiyshasinclair.com, Sinclair features her beautiful handmade dolls made from felt, vintage fabric, and corn husk—dyed with hibiscus or turmeric leaves for color.
Like many artists, Sinclair got her start by improvising. Her family always kept a crystal glass serving dish on the kitchen table filled with walnuts, Brazil nuts, and hazelnuts (her favorite) on hand. Sinclair started to use them to create heads for her dolls. “It seemed like no one ever actually ate the nuts, so I felt they wouldn’t be missed,” she says. “I would grab foil and create the body, cotton balls for hair, and food coloring would make for my tie-dye paper towels that I’d use for clothing. That little girl who loved to find broken pieces of jewelry, write songs, and play make-believe theater still lives in me to this day.”
In elementary school, she learned to make dolls out of dried apples. First she’d skin a Granny Smith apple, then carve its eyes and squeeze lemon juice on it. After that she’d sprinkle it with salt to preserve it and let it dry for a day or two. A soap bottle—like Dawn, which is curvy—would be the doll’s body and the clothes would be vintage fabrics or dyed paper towels.
Sinclair now finds inspiration at flea markets and antique stores, where she scours for treasures that she can imbue with new life. She loves to work with natural materials—tree bark, acorns, and flowers—and uses butterflies and fairy wings in her art as symbols of rebirth.
She was approached to help support and launch Black Fae Day, an online event on May 8, inviting people of color to celebrate themselves in the mystical, magical fairy world by dressing up as elves, fairies, mermaids, nymphs, and other magical beings. “I did my part in promoting it, and it’s really taken off and gone viral,” she says. “People from all over the world have started doing their own thing with it.” Hopefully, Black Fae Day will become an annual event.
Sinclair is now using her Instagram platform as a jumping-off point for her new magazine, where she will share the work of artists, writers of folktales and fairy tales, poets, and more. Having a magazine has been a long-time dream, and with it, she wants to continue to “empower, uplift and inspire both young and old alike, for the childlike wonder in all of us,” she says. She intends to start by launching it digitally, seasonally, and then eventually roll it out in print. Sinclair’s goal is for children and adults to be able to see themselves represented “in the stories and photographs of beautiful Black and Brown fae.” The magazine will build on what she started on Instagram and in her books—a celebration of the spirit folk—by sharing fables and fairy tales, poetry, artist features, as well as fairy-inspired arts and crafts, costumes, and makeup DIYs.
“I wanted to answer the call from the Brown Sugar Fairies online community and supporters, who have been inspired by how I have cultivated and curated the Instagram page and have asked for more—especially regarding content about fairies and the magic within the African Diaspora,” she says. “I’m trying to share the message of positivity and inclusivity that has been the focus of Brown Sugar Fairies: To be free, tap into our imaginations, and see what we’re able to create through dressing up, seeing images of Black and Brown people having fun, and not having to be so serious.” And it’s only the beginning. “It’s a celebration of freedom and Black culture,” she says. “There’s no limit to it now.”