A First Look At Uzo Njoku

DC-based artist Uzo Njoku intertwines her Nigerian, West African culture with contemporary themes about gender, race, and ethnicity. Highlighting Ankara patterns to juxtapose the figures within her canvas provides for intricate, colorful large-scale compositions. Njoku is passionate about her work, describing her motivation as a mentor and a resource to budding artists as she was never afforded the same luxury of having someone to look up to and support her throughout her artistic journey. She is determined to work hard to ensure her own success, as seen through her self-published coloring book, her representation through an international gallery even while finishing her undergraduate program, and enrolling at the New York Academy of Art in the Fall for her MFA. Her prints, paintings and merchandise can be found on her website, here.  And as she says, “the rest is history.”

Courtesy of the artist.

Tell us about yourself. Where are you from and when did art first enter your life?

I was born in Nigeria and moved to America when I was 7.  I grew up in a family full of lawyers and doctors so it was natural that I did something along those lines specifically STEM related.  I entered university, a starry eyed teenager, thinking a major in Actuarial Science was the best path for me. I quickly discovered that I felt empty and took a year off. During my year off, I moved into a new apartment and wanted to add art to the wall so I started just painting. I posted them on Facebook and the rest is history.

Courtesy of the artist.

What’s your process like? How do you begin a work?

I usually use a life model. Sometimes I approach a random woman on the street and ask if she would model for me.  I build all my canvases from scratch so I have a wider range in dimensions.

Courtesy of the artist.

Has your work always taken on the style it currently embodies?

No when I first started off I was more focused on showing off my cultural background with the figures wearing traditional clothes, but I realized that it made my work one dimensional and did not allude to my American upbringing or my personal experiences as a black woman.

Courtesy of the artist.

What have been some challenges you have faced in getting to where you are today?

I would say my biggest challenge was not being able to have a mentor that I could relate to. My teachers were always so distant to me but now I just pass down any advice I learn along my journey to my younger peers who are on the same artistic path.

Courtesy of the artist.

From where do you draw inspiration? What’re some larger questions, if any, that you explore in your work?

My art practice is not simplified only in terms of my racial identity, but who I am, how I am perceived, and how I experience the world.  My identity, like my gender, sexuality, and class inherently informs my artwork as well as my racial background. I began exploring the psychic landscape of black femininity that eventually became a more refined investigation into the different alternative modes of thinking and being amongst black women.

Courtesy of the artist.

Does your work reference any art historical movements?

No. Just focused on the contemporary period.

Which artists would you say have been the most influential to you?

Definetely Njideka Crosby and Kehinde Wiley.

Courtesy of the artist.

You are represented by a gallery in London. How did that relationship come about?

I was dissatisfied with the services I was receiving from a gallery in DC, and the gallery in London reached out to me at first to purchase art. I liked that they cared about me personally and invested in me like getting me a studio because I could not afford it.

Courtesy of the artist.

On social media, it seems that you and your mom are really close. How would you say she has encouraged you throughout your career so far?

Hmm. We started getting close and are still working on our relationship but she realizes that it’s more productive to be supportive of what I do as long as I am happy.

Courtesy of the artist.

What do you have coming up next?

I got into my MFA Program! So I will be attending the New York Academy of Arts in the upcoming fall on a scholarship.

At the end of every interview, we like to ask if you have any artists you’ve been loving for us to talk to next. Who would you recommend?

I would recommend. Tayo Jr for photography and Lizzi Aronhalt for painting.

Courtesy of the artist.