How would you describe your upbringing?
I grew up in South London in the predominantly black borough of Lewisham, and went to school in the neighbouring predominantly white borough of Southwark. My upbringing was one of contrasts; Nigerian food, history, music and culture at home (with summers spent in Nigeria between Warri and Lagos), and white British history, culture and food at school. I was never fully one or the other, I couldn’t speak Urhobo (my family’s first language) and I wasn’t ‘proper British’ according to white racists that hurled abuse at my parents and I. So, I had no choice but to forge my own identity right down the middle of both cultures.
My mum was instrumental in exposing me to art and music (she loved David Bowie and Fela Kuti) and encouraged my curiosity of the world at large. On school holidays she took me to museums and although these institutions were white-centric and lacked diversity, she never made me feel out of my element or that I couldn’t understand what I was looking at. Rather, Mike (Caravaggio), Harry (Hieronymous Bosch), Damien (Hurst) and Tracey (Emin) became good friends of ours with interesting stories to tell. My mum gave me the freedom of enjoying art for the sake of it and made it something that was tangible, within reach, and mine to conquer.
How did you develop your style in painting, and who are you influenced by?
My style took years to develop. I first started painting aged 17, I wanted to be exactly like Lucian Freud, my hero at the time, who painted pretty conservative portraits but used such thick paint that when you got up close to a work it changed into abstract painting. When I encountered Freud’s painting, I thought it was the most magical thing I had ever seen and I wanted to make paintings like that of myself and my friends. So, I learnt how to paint by copying Freud for a while. I then looked more closely at his contemporaries, such as Francis Bacon, Leon Kossof, Frank Auerbach.
Besides Freud, I was and still am a big fan of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Barclay Hendricks and Emma Amos.
My style was a mish-mash of everything I liked in a big pot until I gradually ‘killed my darlings’ and developed my own language. Inspired greatly by the School of London painters and German expressionism, but also heavily influenced by my Nigerian heritage and the beautiful wrapper fabrics, as well as from my childhood watching the colour palette of analogue VHS tapes from the 80s and 90s.
What messages do you explore in your work, and why?
I’m a British-Nigerian woman from London with immigrant parents and I grew up in the inner city with many other kids with parents from all around the world. I knew from an early age that difference is not something to be afraid of, rather that there are many similarities within the differences and I want to share that.
I paint people from the African diaspora because I am connected to that diverse culture and also because I want to explore the quiet richness and experiences within our stories. Growing up I was glaringly aware that people that looked like me were not in the paintings on the white walls of institutions, our stories were forgotten or rather neglected. If engaging with art I had no choice but to look at the white figures of the paintings and imagine that this could be me and that one over there my brother or my sister. Now, I no longer have to imagine to see black figures taking up space on the walls because on my canvases I can provide various representations of blackness in all the multiplex and varied ways we live our lives.
What are your current thoughts on the art world, in particular figurative painting as an art form?
I’m super happy with how figurative painting has come back (yet again) and is popular. For many years I’ve heard how boring painting is, how out of touch or how limited the medium is, however the Venice biennale of 2019 looked at the precariousness of contemporary times and featured a wide range of painters, particularly black painters, who stole the show and were the highlight of the biennial. Figurative painting comes in and out of fashion all the time and whilst I don’t particularly follow trends, I’m happy that the spotlight is back, as I find painting to be such a magically wonderful medium. I’m completely biased of course.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
The same advice I give to my students, to trust themselves. That it’s not important about making perfect looking artworks (because you’ll be waiting a long time), just concentrate on trying to connect and communicate with one person with your art in hopes that it can connect to many more. I would also tell my younger self that even though Lucian Freud is great, he isn’t god, Kerry James Marshall and Sarah Maldoror (RIP) are.