A Conversation with: Uzo Njoku
Artist Uzo Njoku is a D.C based print-maker and painter whose work focuses on Black femininity, sexuality and her Nigerian heritage. In this interview, she discusses her growth as an artist, her mission to support Black individuals within the art world and in Nigeria, and how she uses her art to speak to larger issues.
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How are you?
I am good, just trying to keep myself busy during this time. Oddly enough, I have been getting more orders for prints and I have been doing smaller commissions. People have been ordering my coloring book more so I’ve just been increasing shipments. My art studio is still open, so I have been going to the studio and taking that time to create my next body of work. I am not working anymore so I have a lot more time to be in the studio and focus. Usually I only stay there for a bit, so now staying there longer has been very beneficial for me.
How did you develop your style?
When I first started painting, I would practice by mimicking others because I still didn’t know my style. It was not until I started taking classes that I started gauging it. I wanted a way to still represent my Nigerian, West African culture but also shed light to my American upbringing. I started dancing around with fabric. At first, I tried putting actual fabric on the canvas but it wasn’t necessarily working for me. Then, I started painting it and I also found that I felt more comfortable with women being the focus. I used to study a lot of High Renaissance. Women are art and women have been the focus for a lot of male artists who have become big but you can tell when it’s a male artist. Especially now when women are muses for art, they are hypersexualized, especially black women. This is sort of my way of reclaiming, reclaiming our bodies and that we are powerful. Not hypersexualized but powerful, through their expressions and poses which is important to me and for what I do. I’m telling stories and all the women shown are real women that I have approached in real life to model for me.
When describing your work, you say you focus on body performance and black femininity.
Yes. [The people you meet] have more realistic bodies. In my work, I have been engaging that instead of “high fashion” bodies like I did in my older works. A few months ago, I would work with body poses you would find mostly in Vogue. Now I’m not doing that.
I’m now more focused on text and color scheme, but I still play around with divinity and displaying powerful women. Sometimes you can gauge their age, other times you cannot. But still showing powerful Black women and their bodies in very different areas. Right now, I am starting to push into creating more dynamic portraits. I started that through one of my most popular works called “Working Women”. Now, instead of a placing figure on a background of Ankara, I am embedding the figure into a scene. I feel like art is always a type of revolution, sometimes you go back and sometimes not. Working in that way but still keeping my concept in mind.
Sleeping Venus, 2020
How did you develop your two different sides? Art.uzo and uzo.art?
My uzo.art Instagram page is more personal. You see more of my process, especially how I have set up my page. While art.uzo is a finished process it is minimal. Without me having to focus on details of the figure, I focus on more on color placements and the style of Ankara. At first, I was creating plainer, minimalist styles but as I said, I am taking time and playing around with how I can place Ankara properly in the figure. But I also find the minimalism refreshing in a way. Paint is a career for me, but the minimalist style is more soothing, there isn’t much pressure, the figure is simpler and it is easier to move around the space and play with compositions. [The page] is a little bit more organized in a way, there’s a lot of thought but not so much focus on the face. I can divert my attention elsewhere. The Instagram page looks more organized due to this. That page is VERY new. I also needed a break. When you keep working on the same type of style, it can get tiring and I start to get a creative block. Creating a different style to dance around with is a nice break. I feel like it’s definitely helpful in terms on mental health.
That’s a great way to switch up your creative pursuits.
Yeah, it is. My last semester in undergrad, I studied in London at University of Arts London. It was different, the way they perceived arts at their school and it was different to back home. America is more focused on technicality, how it is painted. Over in the UK, it was more about concepts. I do find that some of the concepts a bit lacking, a lot of the artists just focused on feminism and sexuality in a broader context. But what does make stories stronger is intertwining the personal which is very important.
I had the issue of coming into the program painting one style. And they were like “you can’t do that”. And I said “why not?’ They were like “the whole purpose of art is to explore different mediums as much as you can while still arriving at the same concept.” Not only did I not have this more minimalist style, but I also worked more with textiles, I worked with clay and different things. I just haven’t posted those things yet. I don’t know how I would start intertwining stuff like that, maybe in a year or so I will start bringing the other explorations I have. Yes, it is very important not to get stuck in one style, but arrive in different means. Sometimes it can be a quick sketch that is still a part of a body of work as it shows your thought process.
A few months ago, you posted on your page how you cut up some of your old work because you were no longer resonating with it.
After graduating school, I didn’t plan well and I didn’t have a studio. I didn’t paint as much. I had all these paintings had started months ago and I couldn’t work on them still. So, I started dancing around with illustrations. So now that I have a studio and I saw them and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the color scheme, I didn’t like the composition, I didn’t like anything. And it was making me really upset. I didn’t know where to approach my art. It was relieving for me to strip it down and start a fresh. Focusing more on theory, color scheme and pattern making and that was a eureka moment for me.
Back to what I said about having more extra time, now I have more time to reach this new point of my stylistic approach to art. It important to do more research, taking in new ideas and thoughts and applying that to my work and daily life. A lot of people I interact with say “I just want things to go back to normal”. But I say “Actually, that normal was not the best for us mentally, and people working minimum wage. So let’s return to a new normal that’s better for everyone.” A lot of people like now have to address their mental health. Before, they were working so much meant that they didn’t think to approach it. A lot of people have died and it’s important for us all to address this and consider new ways to live. It’s good to always call in and check up on your friends especially being stuck at home.
If you weren’t an artist you wanted to be a farmer. Speak more about your interest in agriculture and development in Nigeria and how this is in integral to your work?
If I wasn’t an artist, I would have put a lot more effort into farming. Especially being in America and seeing food deserts and in Nigeria seeing how people farm, and only 1/3 of grown food makes it to market because there is not much preservation. It’s very sad to me. I used to read all of these agriculture books. In Nigeria in the 60s, they used to export all these things. Now the only thing we export is oil and its really hurting people. It doesn’t make sense how we import tomatoes and stuff when we have the resources to grow these things. It applies to things like construction. We use a lot of cinderblock. The great things about wood is while it is not stable, it can be used to rebuild communities faster. You know where you see forests, in far places in Edo state, some of those are almost cut down because Chinese investment has come in and cut down trees without replanting. I don’t’ know how to swing back into it, but I want to use my works to speak more to situations like food deserts. In impoverished areas it’s difficult to find affordable healthy food. Agriculture is actually a major but there aren’t many Black people in those fields. I feel like a lot of Black people should consider agriculture as it would be beneficial for communities.
Do you think that’s a result of people not knowing success that could be seen through agriculture?
There are a lot of things we don’t know or have access to and aren’t taught. A lot of schools fail students. There’s money in trade jobs, technical schools. But even still sometimes that doesn’t work for people. Education or specific fields aren’t for everyone and there are many alternatives outside of what we usually go for. Like arts administration. I did take some classes because as an artist, it’s good to understand what’s available to you as an artist and how they help you survive. Some people do go into arts administration and there should be more. An example is the situation at the Brooklyn Museum with the white African Art curator. I remember that sparked a lot of issues. It’s not because of where you are from [Nigeria] that you have that knowledge, but there are a lot of barriers for us to access the necessary information. Then they forgot about it and continue on with their lives. There’s a lot of scholarship and things in art administration I want to see people involved. As I continue on in my journey it’s sad to see less Black people in the field. I refuse to [not help with that]. I had an art dealer from Switzerland reach out to represent me. But I declined. I don’t want a white man representing me. I have an art dealer right now. He does not have that much experience, but he’s always at auctions and accumulating as much knowledge as he can. I would rather put my trust and art with a Black art dealer. Even though he is not in the art world as much, I am and I can plug him in as my representation as I progress forward. I always want to help more Black people get into the art world. With my site, I was trying to create a website to see art opportunities like administration and video editing. The more people know the better. I don’t have the time to do it, but I hope somebody does. There are not that many that I have found. When I started posting on my twitter about video opportunities, people were asking “where do you find it etc”. It’s hard to find but you can find something beneficial for you.
I want to help create organizations where art is appreciated. I think it’s very important for arts in Nigeria. I don’t like the way a lot of artists paint in Nigeria, they have found a style but a concept. I think this is difficult to sell internationally and even some people come and exploit them because of the culture of not paying artists their worth. I do see myself becoming successful in America but my efforts are needed more back in Nigeria. I had an argument about the British museum returning artifacts back to Nigeria. We’re not ready for that. We don’t have the facilities to and we need [more] people trained to conserve our artifacts. I’ve been to The Benin Museum, it is not well run. Our art is not yet carefully taken care of. I feel that people are hungry to learn about how to support art. I don’t think art should be taken back until we have those structures in place. We want to take them back to preserve it for generations not just to say we did it.
Through the Looking Glass, 2019
The architect David Adjaye is building a new museum to house artifacts in Nigeria when they are returned.
I hope it works. I am not a fan of some institutions like the Nike Art Gallery. There is no circulation of works. The circulation of works a gallery has per season is really important to bring in new business, events, multiple things can happen in the community just based on the rotation of art. I also think the presentation of works could be better. Some of the works are kept on the floor.
They do have an art residency program that is very well ran, I am very impressed by it. There is always room for improvement, but for now I think they are doing pretty good.
There are a lot of [ideas] to think about and create that I come across. But I can’t do everything. And that applies to business and more. People have these great ideas but they can’t do it all by themselves. It’s very hard. You need a team of people who are like-minded. That’s why project management is very important. You need people to allocate work properly. It’s also that same concept when you have art. I can’t be a farmer and do art. I can’t wear myself thin. People come to me and ask if I do animation. I practice animation, but I’m not going to say I do it. Animation is a whole different realm. I want to stick to what I’m doing and become the best at it and the best that I can be at it. Hopefully I meet someone who is in animation so I can plug them in.
That is partly what this platform was created. To showcase the different types of work Black people are creating in the Diaspora.
I think with [the pandemic] going on and things are started to shift. People are home more and people are looking for something new. I noticed a lot of artists like photographers are posting, things are becoming more viral. I hope that thisbrings more opportunities and collaborations. I hope it opens more doors for them.I’m even about to start going to New York. I don’t know how bad the pandemic will be, if I’ll be able to start school at the New York Academy of the Arts. I’m really excited to start though. I’m there to prove myself. I think being in a community like New York for art is really important.
You commented in a video that you want to teach art, teach more people about opportunities in art. How did that idea develop?
Teaching art is something I have thought about for a while and I’m trying to get more defined along the way. My parents, they want to be shown something stable. That’s why I started looking at [getting an] MFA. I can become an assistant professor in the future, reach tenure and do something stable. I do think it is important to have more people you can see and relate you in the art world. To this day I have yet to have a Black painting teacher or a Black teacher in studio art. It’s great learning about Black art but it’s important to learn how to integrate the theory, like the Black Renaissance into creating art. That’s what I would like to have, that opportunity to do that for others and I feel like I’d be able to help other people along the journey. Also along the way, I always have these ideas and my messages and DMs are always open. The only issue is that people come to me and they’ve just started their art journey. They ask how I’ve got to where I am and topics like that are not something I’ve ever really thought about. These ideas [like teaching] have just come to me as I continue. I just focused on improving as an artist every day. There are always steps for you to take towards improvement. They ask how did I make money. It’s really not about money. I’m good with just getting residencies. But it is being from a Nigerian community and being stable is really important. But I don’t paint to create money. I mean now I separate my art from my retail by offering t-shirts, prints and coloring books. But in terms of the art I create, it is more for my personal gain and developing my concepts along the way.
Tell me more about the retail side of your work. Your coloring books have been extremely successful.
Yes, there are a lot of things I want to do when it comes to implementing art into retail. I remember when studying the High Renaissance, commercial art was very looked down upon in the art world, and it still kind of is. Especially when you get higher up They don’t like to see graphic design, they don’t care for when you just create art just for customers. I try not to push too much into commercial art. I’m treating it as a retail store front. A lot of what goes into that is customer service because a lot of people are trifling’. At the end of the day it is about making sure the customer has a great experience. You never want to let it come back to bite you. “Whatever I can do to help you, as long as your happy.” It’s been a lot of work to build this up, my portfolio and my website, dealing with taxes (I’m a registered LLC), and even just focusing on my art. Sometimes now I have to take time to do retail stuff. For example, the COVID-19 images were me going out of my way. Sometimes you need to help other people out and also create some comedic relief.
I saw those. I love the memes you made for twitter.
I don’t remember how I started doing that. I just thought it was funny. I always loved Rick and Morty it was so creative. It was really weird. That’s how my following blew up. That meme made my page blow. People like comedy. The moment that happened, I had to quickly reel back to show my work and what I actually do. The memes are art in the sense of humor but I wanted to focus on what my true work is. Being very aware of social media is important but challenging, knowing when to put memes and humorous things out and when not to.
Where do you want to go from here? I noticed you posted about reading a book discussing color theory.
I’m trying to push myself in terms of more personal skills. Color theory is not only important for my paintings but I want to start creating paintings for fabric. I find Ankara to be very stiff. VLISCO reached out to me for a collaboration but it wasn’t something I was into. I want to be able to put my own type of designs onto silk, chiffon. That’s a project I want to complete in a year? I have had a lot of fashion designers reach out for a collaboration but I want to make sure it’s perfectly executed and that’s why I have been taking my time. There’s a lot I want to do so I just want to make sure I execute it properly.
Ghana Must Go, 2019
June 1, 2020