We first came to know your work from the project you did Redesigning the cast of Sailor Moon. Since then you have become one of the prolific black illustrators around the web. Since your project have you noticed a change within your field?
I had started that project in 2013 and finished in 2014. There are palpable changes this year (like..now Sailor Moon Crystal is wrapping up its third season). But I have also noticed more and more public conversations in the illustration world about representation and diversity.
Sometimes I question if it’s me living in an echo-chamber…reading my own tweets and finding more kindred spirits who are dedicated to battling underrepresentation. But ultimately I think the medium and audience is growing. And with that diversity comes people who hold illustration up to a higher, more accountable, more inclusive standard. In short there has been more and more conversations regarding representation for African & Afrodiasporic creators, women, LGBTQ people, and all the wonderful intersections in between.
Let us jump in to your latest project Melanin Mythologies how did this project come about? What was your motivation?
First I should describe what the project is! Melanin Mythologies is a crowdfunded art project where I am creating illustrations, paintings, and character designs that center the african diaspora in Fantasy and Scifi. The project originally began with me continuing the “Odera Redesigns” series, but recently the content has expanded to create more original works inspired by Nigerian and Afrodiasporic deities (specifically Orishas and Odinani). Every month supporters can pledge a monetary amount and get rewards in exchange (access to the images, process and tutorials, custom drawings, prints, etc).
As for how the project started–I had an idea for a patreon brewing, ever since finishing the “Odera Redesigns Sailor Moon” series. But then I would brush it aside and say that my audience wasn’t big enough. And then in February 2016 I started to think of ways to honor black illustrators and painters, so I did a daily countdown of all my favorite artists of the african diaspora.
The entire process was very healing and informative. I got a better glimpse into the future and a thorough reflection of the past. And at the end of the process the canon of black illustration and visual language was staring back at me. I kept thinking to myself, what ways can I honor and celebrate the african diaspora in illustration all year around? In what ways can I honor myself and my contributions to illustration? Are there any dream projects of mine that I am holding back on?
With those questions and a push from my mentor’s Art Business Bootcamps, Melanin Mythologies was born.
Your illustrations are not only beautiful but they also have a story and message behind them. What stories and themes are important for you to convey in your work.
It’s funny to hear that, because I used to think my illustrations lacked strong narratives. But more recently I have embraced that story and concept don’t have to be too didactic.
As a creator, there is the constant theme of reclamation and transformation. We live in a society where people can try to confine you, your ideas, and your identity to a binary or preconceived narrative. So alot of my work is the presentation of my realities. Where the default is simply a reflection of me.
As for the images specifically?
I always remind myself that Fantasy is an opportunity to truly dream, envision, and create new realities. So no matter what the story, I am constantly asking whether the image is empowering and who is allowed to thrive and exist in these worlds. So in terms of content there is an overarching theme of resilience, agency, and intersectional magic.
“Fantasy is an opportunity to truly dream, envision, and create new realities.”
The majority of illustrators and artists within Africa do not have access to formal education in the arts. Keeping this in mind, what advice would you give them if they are interested in becoming an artist like yourself?
Formal education can grant you certain privileges such as an environment that centers learning or access to certain networks and resources. But I think what has stayed with me, even before that formal education, has been dedicating my time to learning and self-improvement and then seeking out others who are similar.
One of the best resources for me has been the internet. Not only is it jam packed with tutorials to learn about drawing, painting, and illustration. But it can also help you find kindred spirits and genuine connections.
As a child, I was very quiet and to myself. In highschool I didn’t have alot of friends, or involve myself in lots of extracurricular activities. But I was lucky enough to have internet access. So in my free time I was constantly taking in information, creating things, or sharing and getting feedback from online art forums and communities. I guess you could say I carved out a space to learn and grow on my own, and then the formal college education amplified that to the max.
Speaking of education, the majority of illustration tutorials and education does not take into account African and Afri-diasporan culture how did you circumvent this challenge? How did you develop your own style?
I circumvented this with a bit of naivety and a whole lot of passion.
I remember being so absorbed with improving my craft and technique, that I could distance myself from the void of African/Afrodiasporic people. I knew that every class had a lesson I could learn. Eventually I got to a point where I could be a voice for myself rather than looking to people who had zero context about my identity.
As for my own style, I never really worried about it and I just let it develop organically. However in the past year or two, I have been more conscious of stylistic choices and experimenting with different mediums and limitations. I think that impetus came from the conflict of speed and deadlines and me naturally wanting to paint, layer, and refine for hours on end. So recently I’ve been trying to develop my quick hand and then merging that style with my more refined/time consuming illustrations.
I also look at some of my absolute favorite illustrators and painters, and none of them really look like each other or even my own work. But the uniting factor was unbridled suspension of belief. No matter if they were super realistic or more abstract you could get lost in their creations without question.
This is a common question, but we find the responses interesting, where do you find your inspiration? Who would you say has had an important influence on your work?
The boring answer is a looooooooong list of artists like Yoshitaka Amano, Klimt, Erte, Wangechi Mutu, The Dillons, and so forth.
But if I had to name a specific person or entity that had a major influence on my work, it would be New Works/World Traditions. New Works is a dance/experimental performance group from Brown University. There were more concrete things we learned and practiced like West African Dance and Floor Barre stretches. But more importantly the lessons I learned there, the connections I made, and the spaces we crafted all unlocked my creativity in a way that I didn’t know existed. It kept me in a constant flow of creative and experimental energies. It leveled up my ability to be spontaneous. And it changed me from just an image-maker to an alchemist that would pull from every fiber of lived experience. I learned so much about illustration at Rhode Island School of Design (my alma mater), but I guess you say that New Works taught me how to literally, metaphysically, and mythophorically draw from life.
If I delve in deeper then I constantly ask myself to go back to when I was a child. What work made me ecstatic and joyful to create. And how can I recreate that feeling in my own work? So alot of my overarching inspirations have had that context. As a child the most memorable inspirations were Sailor Moon, Final Fantasy 9, Afrofuturist 90-00s r&b videos (e.g. Aaliyah – We Need a Resolution) and the illustrations showcased at the ending theme of Outlaw Star by Hikaru Tanaka.
Most recently I have creating a fantasy world inspired by my love of classic j-RPGs. But the entire lore and mythos center the African Diaspora. So those deities such as Oya and Obatala (and the music and dance that go with them) are obviously a big influence. And then contemporary tumblr fashion and photography from african people living and thriving in their truth definitely inform the less esoteric aspects of my work.