Meet the Artist: Uzo Njoku
Uzo Njoku was born in Nigeria and currently lives in New York City. She works in oil paint, acrylic, and collage to create colorful paintings and design products. We’re proud to feature her in the latest group of artists in our Black Artists Print Shop.
What is your background as an artist?
I’m from Nigeria and moved to America when I was seven so I’ve gone through the whole immigration process. Coming from an African family, they’re very heavy on STEM fields, so initially I was in college to study statistics. After my first year, I realized I was different than the other students. You saw kids who were in there that you could tell really loved it. I knew that even if I went forward and got a degree, I would eventually leave.
Up to that point after my freshman year, I never really painted much. I started creating mimics of David Hockney and things like that and people loved it. I always tell other artists that ask me “How do I start?” to practice and create different sets of artwork that you see. It will force you to explore that style, see where you’re making mistakes, and explore color theory as well. Before I knew it, I joined the art program. Oddly enough, my first jump into notoriety was not even my artwork, but a product—a coloring book. It was a coloring book that touched upon women of color from all over the world. Exploring femininity and powerful women. That helped me, I was on the TV and news. Then I had to try and bring it back to the artwork.
I graduated with my bachelor's after I went to London my senior year. Before that, I was a heavy painter. All I did was paint, paint, paint I went to the University of the Arts London. It was a very different scene. Everyone was multimedia. They did so many other things. They were pushing against the realm of just being on canvas. That was such a key component in my life to push into more product-based things—creating more accessibility, not just creating the one original but creating different prints that you want to keep in your home.
I didn’t get a fellowship so I was stuck in DC and nannied and did odd jobs working in an art store. Then Covid hit. I lost my job and I’m just in my apartment… What do I do? It forced me to put my all back into the art business. How do I create an art business, how do I create accessibility, how do I create products that people want? It doesn’t just have to be a frame or a canvas. Before I used to say that I’m only a painter, but now I’d say I’m a painter, I’m a product design fanatic, and I’m a pattern maker because a lot of my artwork is based on pattern making.
How has the past year affected the subject matter of your work?
I haven’t really shifted in my subject matter. There are some people who have focused on the whole idea of Covid and the political things happening, but I want to be creating something that is a nice distraction from all the mayhem. Continually trying to create something that’s beautiful, something that’s eye-pleasing. Colors that contrast and capture you with gazes.
How do you bring your identities into your work? How do you bring collective identities into your work?
The main thing when you see one of my paintings shouldn’t be the color of her skin. The main focus is the gaze. The gaze and the color should hit you first. I don’t want you to come and look at it with assumptions. With identities, I have different people reach out to me and they have different ideas of what they’re looking at. I try not to push my own idea of what I want it to be about.
We’d love to hear about your approach to color and pattern.
Color theory is so important—understanding complementary colors and how it works. When I first started painting, I would paint brown skin, but my colors were still very muted. I used to take a lot of High Renaissance classes and I noticed there was lighter flesh against darker backgrounds, so I said what if I made darker flesh and brighter backgrounds? I started exploring that whole idea. In exploring patterns, some can be more rigid, some can be very fluid. I had to find a way that the body is not swimming in the pattern, but it’s up in front.
When it comes to color theory, David Hockney was a huge influence for me. I really enjoyed David Hockney in his later periods because you can definitely see there was a change in the color palettes that he used. It was a lot warmer. Colors can really evoke a certain time, too.
Color creates a mood. Yellow is a light mood, a hopeful mood. Or in product design, looking at an Oreo package: why do they use blue? What are they trying to evoke? I take so many things in. I feel like my work is more warm in tone vs. cool. Sometimes I try to play it up.
Bodies and figures are such a large part of your work, too. Who are they? Where does that inspiration come from?
Sometimes, I can be in public and I’ll just stop someone. I’ll tell them I think they’d be great in my artwork and leave it up to them if they want to partake. If I’m somewhere traveling and I don’t have the time to take them into a studio, we’ll do quick photographs. So, the majority of the time they are real people. Some of the time they are women who are not comfortable with parts of their body and they ask me to change who they are slightly, so unless you know them, they wouldn’t be immediately recognizable. Some people try to create someone who is very familiar, but I try to create someone who you’re not focused on whether you know her or not. You’re just focused on knowing more of her story. It’s difficult when you play with too much familiarity in artwork. You don’t want to make it too personal. There’s a fine line.
Can you tell us more about the two pieces in the Print Shop—Ghana Must Go and Under the Udula Tree?
Under the Udula Tree is a very famous book which I haven’t read. People told me about it when the artwork was out there. Udala is a native fruit in Nigeria that you can’t find elsewhere. I am Nigerian and my tribe is Igbo. I remember I was back home and I saw this wallpaper in my grandmother’s kitchen and it played with these little oranges. I thought what would happen if I used udalas? I started playing around with the ideas of greens and blacks and bringing the woman in. I wanted her hair to fill in the space and make her lips pop. She’s just breathing the air. She’s taking a break, she’s taking a breath and that’s kind of what the village is like when I visit my grandmother—that sigh of relief. You’re at peace.
For Ghana Must Go, it’s a little bit more progressive. You’re stepping into something new. The fun part is that it can face any direction. It can be turned around different ways. Whichever way she’s stepping, she’s still very grounded. The equilibrium is still there. Yes, you can take a foot forward, you’re not exactly sure where it’s going to go, but it’s still taking that foot forward. The bag [she’s carrying] is known throughout Africa as a bag to travel with. The pattern is very unique to that region. Whenever you see that bag, they are traveling, they are moving forward.
Do you find a lot of inspiration from your home in Nigeria?
Yeah, some of my pieces are influenced by home and sometimes it’s just something quirky from my memories. There’s one piece called Catching the 8AM Train and, there’s this cover I saw from the New Yorker in 1998 during a crisis period and they had a man in a living room with his dog and I wanted to create my own version. Let’s modernize it, let’s give her a phone and a cat in a modern bathroom. Sometimes I do like to touch upon my heritage and it can be interesting being stuck between two worlds. I did spend most of my life here, so I sort of dance between both cultures and there’s so much content to choose from.
Learn more about Uzo at her website and Instagram page.