You Can Envision Anything
A discussion with Odera Igbokwe
Written by Jaz Papadopoulos
Paintings, collages, sketching, and art supplies cover every surface in this shared studio. The light in the room seems to twinkle, as the shadows of tree branches being blown by the wind flit across the window. Odera Igbokwe is sitting with dancer’s poise, as if on a throne.
“Is that really your fantasy? To fuck elves? Is that it?!”
Their speech surges in moments of enthusiasm before waning into more judicious, subdued thoughts. Right now, they’re in a surge.
Igbokwe (“ee-BOH-kway”) sits in their section of the room, surrounded by paintings and illustrations. One painting shows three Black goddess-like figures looking down upon the viewer, pointing their relaxed hands straight off the canvas. Their hands are encircled in halos of light. Around the figures, squares and rectangles in different shades of blue bend and curve as if they’re flying through the air in droves. Igbokwe has been working hard to get ready for an upcoming group exhibition, Plantains & Pigments, which will open at Vancouver’s James Black Gallery in June 2019.
Their visual artwork is influenced by their love of Sci Fi and Afrofuturism. Yet, a city as expensive as Vancouver comes with an equally affronting commercial art scene. The drive to create sellable work is strong. Igbokwe’s critique of illustration as “elf with a titty” speaks to the hyper-sexualization and prominent male gaze that drives consumable Sci Fi art, often seen in the windows of boutiquey art shops on Main Street.
“Y’all, it’s still just white women as props and not even with their own agency, and men capitalizing off of this fantasy … You can envision anything and it’s like, thin-frail-women-with-headdress porn with good lighting, painted technically phenomenally, but the content leaves a lot to be desired.”
Envisioning, and manifesting, seem to be the driving factors behind Igbokwe’s work. Their website boasts that their works are held in the personal collections of Beyonce and Solange. This came about through sheer artistic grit: the night before going to a concert, or, three, to be precise––Beyonce in 2011, and Solange in 2012 and 2014––Igbokwe pulled an all-nighter to paint a portrait of the artist.
At the show, Igbokwe presented the celebrity with the painting during the stage performance. Now, they take comfort in knowing that their works are hanging in the homes of these stars.
“I can feel my silly energy bubbling up,” they say, standing. “Because of the coffee.”
Maybe because of the coffee (we shared a pot, after they had already had one cup), but also maybe because they just like to move. Igbokwe’s Instagram page is full of energetic videos of them dancing in their art studio, which is tucked away in a house-turned-art gallery-slash-studio space-slash-artist residency centre in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. Now, they stand and stretch without missing a beat.
The building that houses their studio is a derelict mansionesque art project itself, the stairs painted turquoise and wallpapered in florals. Upstairs, there’s an entire room that’s been transformed into an immersive and sparkling outer-space cave installation––stalactites, glitter and all.
Igbokwe’s studio is a little more traditional on the main floor, with it’s gallery-white walls, sepia hardwood floors, and a surprising amount of natural light for such a grey city. The room feels spacious, open, full of room to breathe and move.
Igbokwe’s presence dances between deep wisdom and faerie-like playfulness while discussing their visual art works, which have a similar flowing liminality to them. When they speak, they often interrupt themself with dialogue, as if performing their internal thought process.
Igbokwe was born in 1990 and was raised in New Jersey, as part of the Nigerian diaspora. They received a BFA in Illustration from Rhode Island School of Design and studied movement-theatre and West African dance at Brown University. In 2017, they moved to the Coast Salish lands that house Vancouver to marry their partner, whom they met online after posting a cosplay selfie on Tumblr (which went viral).
They are impish and deeply delightful, simultaneously generous and honest––an impressive line to walk. I entered their studio early in the morning wearing a sleeveless, smock-like knit sweater dress, feeling a little bashful that I had accidentally shrunk it in the wash. In one fluid motion, without batting an eye (but with the effect of a batted eyelash), they grabbed their own sleeveless knit smock dress and put it on.
Igbokwe’s work is heavily influenced by place––or lack thereof. The colourful hazes and shapes that house many of their works seem to reflect the placelessness that comes with the experience of diaspora––an unclarity of where home is. There is a difference between living in a place and committing to home in a place. Further, there is a difference between yearning for the ancestral past and envisioning a realistic future. In recent years Igbokwe’s work is moving towards grasping the potential future and pulling it into the now.
For a long time, their default was to paint “spirits that have this energy of almost indicting the viewer. I am the Goddess and you will be smited!” they say in the imagined voice of a painting. More recently, Igbokwe notices that this type of assertion presents a very limited emotional palette.
“I’m a lot sillier and playful, so I’m trying to inject that into the work now. It’s slowly shifting.”
A current goal is to show more of the environment and a sense of place, even if it’s still abstracted. Some newer works are clearly depicted in Vancouver. One such work, titled Heartwood, depicts trees from Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Park. The figure kneeling in the foreground of the painting has a noticeable likeness to Igbokwe themself. Indeed, they posed as their own reference model, snapping photos with a camera on a timer.
“I felt so strange, up in Queen E Park at 7 a.m.,” they say. “I had this tripod with my partner’s camera, and I’m there pressing the shoot button and running over and posing like ah! and there were people walking by like, “Who is this Black person with these weird outfits on posing in this way?’”
When Igbokwe speaks, it is punctuated with sounds like ah!, oh!, and woohoo! With each exclamation, they strike a small pose. A moment of tiny performance, a pop of colour in the conversation. It seems like a little thing, but it is makes for a remarkable moment. This is not the ah! of relief, an easy exhale, or leaning back into a comfy chair. Each ah! is a quick moment of pumped breath, tight abs expelling air with force––the ah! of an Aha!
These pops perfectly encapsulate the sense of innumerable potential meanings and ways of being that are so fundamental to Igbokwe’s paintings. They give the impression of flexibility in this world, new possibilities in each moment. Each ah! opens up one more layer of depth, of magic, of possibility. Little instants driving towards the manifestation of a more magical world. Ah!
Igbokwe rejects the idea that painting themself into their work means much in terms of personal manifestation, though the paintings as a whole do reach into the future in hopes of creating a new world. Rather, their personal presence in Heartwood was a means to an end. They don’t always have the time or money to find others to model, so if they fit the piece, they do it themself. This has its own limitations, because Igbokwe only has one body, and representation of different bodies matters to them. Again, they intend to show all different ways of existing.
Afrofuturism is more than just Black people in Sci Fi. Igbokwe cites heavy influence from Missy Elliott music videos, and certain other music videos from the 90s, wherein it’s difficult to tell where the performers are, or are meant to be. Are they in the 90s? Are they retro? Are they in 2040?
The genre is undeniably revolutionary. Yet, something cannot be revolutionary if it exists solely in the future. It needs to be attainable in the now, too.
“It’s funny because (those music videos) are Afrofuturism, but they existed then … that was Black people presently, despite envisioning the future,” they say.
It is clear in speaking with Igbokwe that they have a unique ease in their capacity to imagine and create worlds. Their work not only features original deity characters, but also popular Sci Fi characters, such as the Sailor Moon cast, re-envisioned as Black.
As a child, they remember being very creative. They loved singing, dancing, music, and drawing. They found they had the most agency through drawing, because they didn’t need a special room to draw in. They didn’t anyone to drive them to a class. They could just do it.
Though their practice straddles illustration and painting, they aren’t concerned with fitting into one category over another.
“I think a question that a lot of artists and creatives struggle with sometimes is ‘What am I? Am I even an artist? An illustrator? A painter?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t care.’ I’m gonna go what I do. Words are here to serve people. I’m not here to serve words.”
“Even if it’s a painting, it’s still imaginative realism,” they add. “But I call myself both, I don’t know. If anything I’m just a Black artist who’s struggling, either way.” This is especially true in Vancouver, a city known for it’s exorbitant rent prices and commodified art scene. A mere block away from their studio, a new condo/bougie taqueria/arts space is under development. Across the street from that, over two dozen murals that were painted in a parking lot just got torn up.
According to Igbokwe, our traditions are our birthright as diasporic artists. This isn’t necessarily an easy journey of rediscovery, but with self-directed generosity and kindness, they believe it’s an attainable project.
“Maybe the people from that nation will look at you and be like ‘Girl, what are you doing, this isn’t correct’ BUT you also have the weight of the diaspora on your shoulders, so it’s okay!”
“Learn as much as you can,” they say, “You didn’t choose this life so if you want to try and reclaim that, it’s going to be a journey and just know that you’re trying to do that out of respect and to reconnect in your own way and build something new from that.”
Next on the horizon for Igbokwe is a three-artist group show, Plantains & Pigments, which will run in June 2019 at the James Black Gallery in Vancouver.
Akem’s most recent series, Mythic Textures, boasts strong use of colour, texure, and storytelling. Edge’s work has themes of mystery and opulence. In this exhibit, all three artists will “explore reclamations of shared Nigerian heritage, find the magic and fantasy within the African diaspora, and alchemize the power of Afrofuturism.”
In addition to their shared identities, all three artists share a style of illustration and draw from similar influences. The works are not identical, though. Each artist is unique, but complementary to the others.
Each artist will be showing pieces from their pre-existing portfolio, as well as some new work specifically made for the show. Igbokwe’s goal is to produce three new pieces in the theme of the show.
Three pieces sounds like a reasonable goal, especially knowing that Igbokwe’s regular painting cycle includes finishing one piece per month. However, this doesn’t take into account the sheer quantity of work they produce beyond this goal. In 2018, they created one painting per day for Black History Month. Their February 2019 goal was not to produce quite that much, but to create a small series focusing on hair and texture. These pieces will be gathered into a book and be available for purchase at VanCAF, which will take place in May 2019.
At the end of our conversation, Igbokwe and I read through the very first interview they had ever done, for Lightspeed Magazine. Their quotes were incredibly bright-eyed and witty, and as we read through it, present-day Igbokwe couldn’t help but laugh at their former self. One choice line from the interview reads, “I am black, queer, and non-conforming to the gender binary (I don’t bake, eat, or serve gender rolls).”
“I love that person,” they say, reflecting on their former self. Yet, they know that former self was also so charmingly assertive because they were coming from a place of survival, living with less agency and celebration than they currently do: at the time of the Lightspeed interview, they were facing a lot of homophobia in their day to day life.
This is why agency and manifestation are so central to Igbokwe’s work: they are the skills that helped them survive, and brought them to the place they are currently at. Both their portfolio and their life are proof of the potential of dreaming up one’s own future.
“It’s fantasy for a reason,” they say. You can envision anything.”