Jamilla Okubo is an interdisciplinary artist exploring human experience, history and identity

The Washington-based artist talks us through her recent body of work, currently on show at Mehari Sequar Gallery.

29 April 2021
Reading Time
4 minute read

At first, you might think that Jamilla Okubo’s works are digitally crafted for the textures, colour palettes and details are deceivingly flat and smooth. Well, Jamilla is an interdisciplinary artist based in Washington D.C. who flits between the analogue techniques of painting, pattern design and illustration. That’s not to say she doesn’t utilise digital processes at all though, for she usually tends to work on an iPad before transferring her compositions and colour palettes onto the canvas. Either way, she’s always telling a story, and underneath her perfectly positioned layers are narratives of personal development, history and identity.

Jamilla’s has a degree in Integrated Design with a focus on Fashion – surface pattern design, to be specific. She graduated from Parsons School of Design, and during her studies, she began dabbling in painting and illustration on the side. She illustrated several children’s books and ended up illustrating for publications and collaborating with brands such as XDevoe, Gorman and Christian Dior. Her works, in a wider context, have now been featured in the pages of O, Oprah Magazine, as well as on covers for An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Oneworld Publishing House), and Den Omättliga Vägen by Ben Okri (Modernista Group AB). She’s also shown pieces in venues such as The Torpedo Factory, Social & Public Art Resource Gallery, Milk Gallery, Weeksville Heritage Center and Super Wonder Gallery. Her most recent (and current) is an exhibition at Mehari Sequar Gallery, based in her hometown of Washington.

Titled I do not come to you as a myth, I come to you as a reality, Jamilla’s exhibition is a reflection of herself, “and the range of emotions that I was feeling during the pandemic”, she says. “I wanted to speak to the complexity of being a Black woman and reclaiming agency of our bodies, spirituality and ancestry. This series explores visually expressing the range of emotions in our human experience; longing, angry, joyous and tired, but yet defying reality with our vibrancy, confidence and style.”

These themes have always been central to the artist’s work, having turned to her medium to learn more about her African-American, Kenyan and Trinidadian heritage. She originally grew up in Clinton, North Carolina, and is constantly inspired by her own personal experiences. Her creative flair is something that came naturally and was certainly helped by the fact that, during her primary school years, her mother was working on an MA in photography. Jamilla would accompany her mother to the classes and would enthusiastically get involved with the group projects. “She’d also take me with her to the darkroom while she developed her photographs,” Jamilla tells It’s Nice That. “I think it’s safe to say at the time I was her muse.” Observing her mother at work had an undeniable impact on Jamilla, and it wasn’t long until she realised how she wanted to grow into an artist too.


Jamilla Okubo: I do not come to you as a myth, I come to you as a reality, on view at Mehari Sequar Gallery (Copyright © Jamilla Okubo, 2021)

Jamilla’s usual day consists of a ritualistic matcha latte and jazz playlist to start off centred and focused. Then, including research, mood boarding, email correspondence and admin, her days tend to be somewhat consistent. She heads to the studio and begins painting, pattern work or illustration; when it’s the former, she launches into a theme and starts collecting her inspiration points. Oftentimes she poses for her own references, before sketching, scanning and playing around with the compositions and colours on the iPad. “Other times, I create small painterly studies of the composition with acrylic paint to test out different colour palettes,” she adds. Once she’s happy with the piece, she brings the work onto a canvas and starts laying the paint, finishing with adding in the patterns and collage.

Within her most recent body of work, patterns play a definitive role throughout. These are typically Kanga cloth and patterns that relate to the African diaspora, while elements of African folklore, popular culture, Swahili proverbs and quotes from the Qur’an make wide appearances. There’s something quite supernatural about her compositions, especially within the portrayal of her subjects – where the beaming yellow eyes and horns nod to the imagery of the devil. Even the fingers are decorated in a luminous yellow shade, implying that the subjects may have characteristically long nails or even claws. In other pieces, the tones are more playful and soft, with pastel hues paired with the patterns of her heritage. It’s a wide and detailed exploration into identity and the result of an artist’s quest to learn more about herself.

“Blackness and spirituality are visually exaggerated,” she continues of the concept behind her work. “The woman and main character mirrors and expresses a sense of self and affirmation of her spiritual self. She symbolises a visual representation of Black women globally and the emotional toll of post-colonisation.” With this in mind, Jamilla’s main goal is that her audience will reflect on the deep-rooted topics running throughout her mixed-media creations. “I hope that people take the time to sit with the work and reflect on how it makes them feel,” she says, “how they relate and how they contribute to the emotional toll that Black women feel on a daily basis.”

Jamilla’s I do not come to you as a myth, I come to you as a reality is on show at Mehari Sequar Gallery until 6 May 2021.

GalleryJamilla Okubo: I do not come to you as a myth, I come to you as a reality, on view at Mehari Sequar Gallery (Copyright © Jamilla Okubo, 2021)

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Jamilla Okubo: I do not come to you as a myth, I come to you as a reality, on view at Mehari Sequar Gallery (Copyright © Jamilla Okubo, 2021)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.

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