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Two Nigerian Artists Create New Visions for Brands and Magazines
Two Nigerian Artists Create New Visions for Brands and Magazines
by Chidinma Iwu
Nigerian illustrators Bolu Sowoolu and Adanna Onuekwusi are getting new and unexpected commercial recognition.
Brands, magazines, and agencies are drawn to their unique visions that combine feminist narratives and commercial appeal.
Despite confronting sexism from potential clients who shift their conversations upon learning they are women, both artists continuously push forward to take on international projects and deliver succinctly.
Sowoolu and Onuekwusi are carving strong niches professionally in design, illustration, painting – and even NFTs, all the while building a healthy and sustainable path for the African women coming after them.
▲ Meet Adanna and Bolu
26-year-old Adanna Onuekwusi left a degree studying civil engineering to pursue design. Initially seeing it as a “childhood fling,” she broke into visual arts shortly after graduating high school. The artist and designer did not anticipate that drawing magazine covers and family photos would define her life's trajectory, but it did. “They didn’t look very good but I found that I enjoyed the process,” Adanna says.
Her creative process has danced through many modifications and stylistic changes as she continues to evolve her work and collaborates with publications and brands. This versatility Adanna displays is one reason why her client base is so diverse. In 2020, for example, she created cover illustrations for The Republic, a Nigerian magazine which highlights social, political and economic issues.
And in the same year, numerous designs— business cards, posters, and logos— for the culinary and fashion industries graced her portfolio. From dark and detailed portraits to flat and bright colors, Adanna understands flexibility and maximizes it.
Even as she expands into new design territory, her subject matter retains Adanna's personal vision and experience. “It’s always been about seeing pieces of myself and my background in my work," Adanna says. “It’s like a combination of my interests, culture and identity.”
The work itself is a vibrant collection of illustrations experimenting with lighting, texture and cinematic story-telling. This interest in combining culture and identity towards executing great work drew the organizers of the Edmonton event, 5 Artists 1 Love, where she worked on branding and marketing materials.
Her favorite project is a 3-piece portrait set celebrating traditional Nigerian women’s clothing. “I love drawing characters in traditional clothing, with braids, in gele (head ties), Nigerian food, darker skin tones,” Adanna says.
She pushes at being inclusive through constant representation in her work and hopes more women will break through with brands through art.
“When you can relate to something or you see more of yourself reflected in it, you feel more comfortable reaching out to be a part of it.” These artworks have been a window through which Nigerian brands have invited her to collaborate.
Adanna’s portfolio extends across social work, culinary, the fashion industry, and healthcare. In 2019, for example, she worked as a designer and illustrator for Stollery Children's Hospital. From crafting reports to composing visuals and to illustrating the needs of stakeholders through design.
But the artist and designer often faces the problem of potential clients associating artistic talent with masculinity– they often assume she is a man. “When I correct them,” she says, “the respectful 'Good morning sir' becomes a weird, patronizing ‘Oh, so sorry sweetie’ or ‘Hey dearie’, and then the rest of the conversation suddenly reads like they're taking me less seriously.”
Adanna points to these biases against women as to how artists are defined in the art world. With works of women artists being relegated as 'women's work' carrying belittling undertones, accomplished women are not being acknowledged.
But Adanna points to women like Princess Karibo, Jekein Lato-Unah, Renike Olusanya, Fungi Dube, Temi Danso, Chigozie Obi, Nkjuls, Olusayo Ajetunmobi, Marcellina Akpojotor, Lethabo Huma, Raneece Buddan and more, who are justly getting their flowers.
Like Adanna, Bolu Sowoolu, 25, has experienced a rewarding, yet unexpected career. In 2017, during her third year at Uni studying computer science, a friend referred her for a cartoon commission— that year changed things for her.
Starting with digital art in 2013, Bolu’s work and career have evolved dramatically. Much of her work draws on her emotions and struggles with anxiety and self-worth, as well as appreciations of Black women, but refuses to be confined to one style. Her characters have different experiences and take various forms, often using bold, popping colors.
Beauty and lifestyle creator Shalom Blac © Bolu Sowoolu
For the women-centred and feminist magazine, Bitch Media, Bolu has worked on several art pieces illustrating varying kinds of women with hyperrealism. From "Connie, the Hormone Mistress" in 2020 to a self-portrait in 2021, Bolu's works are finessed to surpass the boxing of stereotypically womanly traits. Her depictions of extraordinary women piqued Bitch's interest and she has gone on to work with them on numerous features.
© Bolu Sowoolu for Bitch Magazine
Bolu thought the magazine was a perfect fit for her, “because other artists and creatives that had their work featured were women from around the world.”
Despite many positive experiences, Bolu, like Adanna, often confronts client assumptions about her gender. “I’ve even had someone say he thought I was male,” she says, “because I was 'just too good'.”
Yet these instances are not holding her back – in 2020, she expanded her practice into making NFTs. In mid-2021, she got commissioned for an NFT project and drew a large following from it.
“My experience being on the project was a bit of a rollercoaster but I learned how to do things better moving forward.”
▲ “In the piece, you can see a girl with a shell sitting by a tortoise— this represents peace and safety. In the background, there are wolves and remains of rabbits— this represents the dangers of the outdoors and my shell protects me from all the potential dangers of being outside.” - Bolu Sowoolu
Last September, Bolu went on to list her projects on the hugely popular Opensea NFT platform and has successfully made sales. Like her early work and commissions for Bitch, Bolu’s NFTs draw on her personal experience. One of her favorites NFTs, “My Shell” (above), is an insight into introvertedness.
© Bolu Sowoolu for McKinsey and Company
Bolu’s work and personal vision of championing inclusivity have also attracted commissions from the trusted advisory and consulting group McKinsey and Company. The commission was for one of Bolu's framed paintings last year.
Bolu doesn't hold back and wouldn't try to fit in standards. Being an avid believer in perfection, she puts in the work to highlight her character's strengths and places them in scenarios that illustrate badass women.
“All my works are vibrant representations of my mind and I don’t leave that out when I’m drawing African women.”
Bolu, like Adanna, wants all African women artists to keep striving for what they do and never let anyone belittle their talent and hard work.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chidinma Iwu is a writer and content strategist who covers stories about the economy, sustainability, tech, internet culture, and women.Her work has appeared in publications like Black Balled, Brittle Paper, Love Happens Mag, The Business of Business & more. She's on Twitter @TheDinmaaa.