I am a Mother, a Visual Artist and Financier. My name is pronounced REE-WAH, and is a Maori word for Happiness. I was born and raised between Nigeria and England and my heritage is a mixture of both. My heritage-inspired art has been featured in fairs, museum and over 20 solo and group gallery exhibitions across Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. Recently, my work has been rolled out across NBC’s Law & Order: Organized Crime, ABC Network’s Blackish and The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). Previously, I was selected as one of the artists to create the athlete profiles for the Nike Women’s World Cup 2019. My works have been acquired by notable collectors including Beth Rudin DeWoody, CCH Pounder and the Bentata family and also forms part of corporate collections including AXA XL.
When did you develop interest in Art and was your background pivotal to this development?
Formally, my journey began in the autumn of 2016 when I was living in Johannesburg but informally, it began much earlier than that. I’ve always had a relationship with art. Growing up, my father encouraged my creative drive and his expansive art collection from West Africa, provided further impetus for my development. I’d always doodled and sketched but it wasn’t until 2016 that I truly discovered my artistic style and began to create consistently and in earnest.
My heritage and culture strongly influence my practice. Because of this, I label my work “Igbo Vernacular Art” because I believe I have created an original body of work that exists outside formal academic or Western dialogue. At risk of sounding pedestrian, my art is drawn from life itself and deeply anchored in the place and culture from which it was derived. Igbo Vernacular Art concerns itself with an expressive aesthetic that is more commonly associated with Contemporary Art; form, composition and narrative. Vernacular dialects are anchored to a particular land, in the same way, my art features a vocabulary that is built on a strong sense of place and is situated in a location and a history – that of the Igbo people of Nigeria.
What are some of your first memories of art?
As I already mentioned, my father is a big collector of African art, you name them - Enwonwu, Anatsui - and he’s got them. Growing up, I was surrounded by paintings and sculptures. This probably fed my subconscious creative inner child and I remember my childhood home as being somewhat like a gallery, with spotlights illuminating paintings, sculptures artfully placed etcetera.
By the way, my dad doesn’t have my work in his collection - hopefully he reads this article and corrects this faux pas with alacrity!
Your artworks are quite aesthetically captivating, and they stimulate the mind. I'd like to say it is a fine mix of ancient and contemporary African art. The texture of the skin in your artwork is also really unique. What is the motivation behind your creativity and expression?
How a culture survives depends on its people’s capacity to learn and transmit it to succeeding generations. Post-colonialism, we imported Western practices and customs. Through my art, I would like to provide viewers with an understanding of who we are as a people, educate about our rich legacy and educate a wider audience on the symbolic practices of our forebears before it is lost entirely. This is one of my biggest motivators. Regarding my subjects’ skin. When I think of this in a bit more depth, I believe that I subconsciously drew this from my Anatomy module that I studied as part of my degree in Physiology & Pharmacology. As an aside, I am not formally trained as an artist, self-taught, I have a combined honours degree from UCL but I was too fabulous for lab work so I changed direction upon graduation. Back to the subject matter, particularly with the hands and feet, one can almost see the skeletal structure beneath the surface, in my paintings. As for the colours, I knew that I didn’t want to limit myself to purely brown or black skinned subjects. I love, love, love colour; colours help convey moods, auras and expressions. In this way, my subjects can speak so much more to their audience, depending on the colour variants I choose.
What have been some of your proudest moments in your journey so far?
I am fortunate enough to have many, many proud moments.
Last year, I was recognised by the Lagos State Governor, His Excellency Babajide Sanwo-Olu, on International Women’s Day 2022, as one of the EKO 100 Women, for my trailblazing work across finance and the visual arts.
My television features in Law & Order, Oprah Winfrey Network’s All The Single Ladies, was a major one for me, quite surreal. The commission for AXA XL’s headquarters in London was another. My collaborations with Burnett New York, with Nike. Forming part of Beth Rudin de Woody’s collection was another. Truth be told, every time I see my work in a collector’s home, it's a proud moment. Every time I see my work showcased in an exhibition or art fair, it's a proud moment. Every time a collector or an admirer tells me how much they love my work, it's an incredibly proud moment. So, I can’t really say! I am immensely grateful every day for this divine gift that I have been given and I relish the ability to share it with others so each time there is some appreciation of my work, I feel grateful and proud.
What does an average day look like for you?
2:30pm: School run
5pm: Home and play time with my third full time job and greatest masterpiece to date, my son, Jerome
7pm: Studio time
10.30pm: Time to rest the weary bones
Depending on the day of the week, I practice yoga after work which is essential to my wellbeing.
During the weekends, I have a standing lunch date with my son or drop him off at play dates. These activities aside, I hardly ever leave my house during daylight hours and focus solely on working in my studio. I have studio lamps that emulate sunlight but naturally, nothing quite compares with painting with natural sunlight. Come evening time, I let my hair down with friends because I need to decompress.
I run quite an orderly little machine of life and have to artfully manage my time to ensure I don’t drop the ball in any arena, where I can help it.
What project are you currently working on and what’s next for you in your creative journey?
I am currently working on an experiential exhibition centered on Igbo women, “otu odu Society: Titled Women of onicha”. This project is a cultural immersion experience in celebration of black heritage, opening on Nigeria Independence Day and running for the entire duration of Black History Month 2024, in the UK. It will be a sensory exhibition that encompasses the visual, aural and tactile, to enable a viewer to feel “transported” into another place & time. The aim is to give viewers a first-hand experience of the initiation ceremony to become a member of the prestigious society; a cardinal institution of Igboland, the Igbos being one of the three main tribes of Nigeria. This will be my most ambitious undertaking to date and I’m very excited to be on this journey.
As I mentioned earlier, the premise of my practice is to highlight Igbo culture in all its regality and beauty. For Igbos like myself who grew up in obodo oyibo, the foreign land, I sometimes feel a bit removed. With my artistic practice, I have come to learn so much about our traditions and customs, be it coming of age, engagement, marriage. I wish to pass this knowledge on and archive our history, using visual arts, so that it can be passed on for generations to come
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