Despite moving from Nigeria to America at the age of seven, Uzo Njoku never forgot her roots. She didn’t return to Lagos, Nigeria, one of the largest cities in Africa, until her senior year of high school. Finally reunited with her extended family, she told me that her “memories started flooding back.” She told me about the food, how the physical taste of it in her mouth did not quite match up with the taste in her memories. It tasted differently, but it was surely so much sweeter now that it was real.
Nowadays, Uzo creates art inspired by her unique upbringing between two cultures.
Before majoring in Studio Art, she started making some small paintings to decorate her empty apartment. Uzo told me that people liked them, and she was shocked. Having told me that ever since then she started working on it to improve, her hard work is quite evident in how far she has come since creating mere decorations. Uzo has only been painting for a few years and already has two exhibits under her belt, one in Charlottesville and one in Washington, D.C.
All art is influenced by the surrounding culture, and the product always tells a story that fits its time. Considering the way her art fits into current culture, Uzo considers herself a “contemporary African artist.” While she does not create traditional African art with its simplistic brush strokes and Earth tones, she’s still inspired by this style of traditional artwork. She takes the details she sees and mixes it with European forms of painting.
When asked about her painting process, she responded with, “I am evolving as I go.” Uzo is continuing to take several art classes at the University of Virginia, learning multiple mediums at once. The more she learns, the more her overall process develops. In the past, Uzo would start a painting immediately after getting an idea. These days, she buys literature on contemporary Africa to further educate herself, which, in turn, provides more ideas for her paintings. “Now I do more research, more sketches, sometimes I do gestures of people walking around,” she told me.
Uzo is also inspired by her memories of life in Nigeria and the little parts of the culture that she enjoys, especially the fabric. Uzo incorporates Ankara fabric in her artwork, a vividly colored and detailed fabric that is a huge part of West African culture. This fabric is important to her because “it’s not just plain fabric; it’s daily life.” Because the fabric is formal and high-fashion, it can be reserved for special occasions. The fabric can even indicate social class. Uzo told me that “fabrics are a wonderful way to tell a story,” and the use of the Ankara fabric represents tradition and the way of life in West Africa.
Not only does Uzo’s art celebrate Nigerian culture, but it also celebrates the empowerment of women of color. The mission of her artwork is to inspire powerful women. She explained that the artistic world is dominated by men, and black male painters tend to hypersexualize women of color. She is frustrated by these painters because “they focus on the wrong parts of a woman.” Uzo combats this portrayal by painting women of color in dynamic ways. Uzo uses contrapposto, a technique used by High Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, in which the artist turns the subject’s body in different angles to break the normal barrier of the posture. Doing so makes her figures more appealing. By breaking the posture to fill up space, the viewer’s eyes move around the painting.
To portray powerful women, Uzo gives her figures uncommon poses and captivating facial expressions. She makes her women authoritative rather than sexualized. “They can be naked, but you focus on their poise and facial expression, not their nakedness.” Uzo spoke briefly of the international fight for women’s rights to explain her artistic decisions. “We are trying to get equal rights not just in America, but internationally, and especially in third world countries. Women still have a long way to go. I’m just doing a little bit of my part by creating a story using women of color.”