Marcellina Akpojotor amplifies family history in fabric-filled paintings of Nigerian domestic life

After her show at the recently opened Rele, London, the artist reflects on the holistic nature of her process, and how conversation and community got her here.

15 May 2024

During her childhood in Edo State, Nigeria, Marcellina Akpojotor was immersed in an array of visual references owed greatly to her father’s penchant for artmaking. “[Such as] stencilling, calligraphy, painting landscapes, making banners, and making signs on the bodies of cars and yellow Lagos buses,” she tells us. Alongside her father’s artistic flair, she took to the grandeur of Catholic iconography in her church, and while absorbing these images, she began to make her own in the form of greeting cards for school friends. “The paintings and sculptures left impressions on my young mind; at some point I said to myself: I want to be able to paint like that,” she adds.

Throughout the years, though Marcellina engaged in art with her father, the title of an ‘artist’ didn’t ring as feasible. “I saw it as a hobby, something I could do on weekends after my regular job, but after my secondary school education and writing entrance exams to study computer science, I had what I will call: a reawakening,” she tells us. “After conversations with friends I was also encouraged to pursue art. I realised that I wanted to devote my life to what brings me joy”, and so she went on to study art and industrial design at Lagos State Polytechnic.

Marcellina’s early participation in transformative conversations and collaborative art making, are pertinent to her oeuvre. Not only because of the clear road they have paved to her career, but also because every one of her works are a reflection of communal fulfilment, sharing and care. In Diatacheko's Parlour, the family photo album comes to life with delineative effect; a family sat on the sofa in an airy domestic setting with only the mother and a young daughter ready for the snapshot. Here, all other eyes are focused on another toddler, in a moment of abstract fondness. It feels as though this image is one of many flicks taken in a series of moments, but Marcellina’s work resonates for her choice to bring the most natural – although fleeting – moments to her canvas. Throughout the artist’s works, this is not uncommon. The characters feel unrehearsed, and if they are, the first rehearsal is her motif of choice.


Marcellina Akpojotor: Diatacheko’s Parlour (Copyright © Marcellina Akpojotor, 2023-24, courtesy of the artist and Rele Gallery)

Among one of the first artists to exhibit their work at Rele, London, Marcellina expresses the “joy and gratitude” she feels for being able to share her new series of works, after previously exhibiting at the gallery’s other locations in Lagos and Los Angeles. In the midst of sharing her artistic vision with a wider audience, her dedication to domestic scenes that aptly consider posterity, hasn’t faltered. “I’m intrigued by family stories and how they can motivate other generations to take steps that bring about change”, Marcellina shares, “and these stories are often told in private settings”. With ordinary moments being at the centre, we’re welcomed into a generous display told with the very fabrics that resonate with both herself and her characters.

For Marcellina, the process is heavily focused on sourcing. Sourcing memories, sourcing history and sourcing fabric. “I source fabric wastes from tailors in my neighbourhood, particularly African print fabric, because of its history and significance in Nigerian society and its symbol of support and solidarity,” she shares. “This part is very important, it’s like going into the community and getting a piece of everyone’s story,” she adds. Hailing fabric-collection as the start of the “conversation” in her work, she next transfers her sketch onto the canvas before attaching bits of fabric until the image starts to emerge. Through “layering and manipulation of the fabric” comes complexity of the image, and while this is happening, she considers light and shade. As the fabrics bind to create her relatable communal images, she adds acrylic as a final step, to add her final articulation through the manipulation of the fabric’s hues, that to her is a “back and forth until the work feels complete”.

Marcellina’s practice and process has a holistic nature that follows the viewer throughout every scene. We are invited to reflect on our memories, histories and enriching, though mundane moments spent with others. While also pushing our notions of what a representational image really is. The artist attests to challenges that stem from working with the natural colours of the fabric, that we suppose is a result of her care to seamlessly bind these elements together. “Sometimes, after working on a piece for a while, I have to leave it to reassess later, as it usually feels as though I’m not seeing clearly; it’s like the whole thing is getting into my eyes. But I love it. After all, my art is also about problem solving.”


Marcellina Akpojotor: Sweet Holiday (Copyright © Marcellina Akpojotor, 2023, courtesy of the artist and Rele Gallery)


Marcellina Akpojotor: Bloom and Joy (Copyright © Marcellina Akpojotor, 2023, courtesy of the artist and Rele Gallery)


Marcellina Akpojotor: Weekend with Grandma (Copyright © Marcellina Akpojotor, 2022, courtesy of the artist and Rele Gallery)


Marcellina Akpojotor: Love for Country (WOW Day) (Copyright © Marcellina Akpojotor, 2023, courtesy of the artist and Rele Gallery)


Marcellina Akpojotor: Love for Country (WOW Day) (Copyright © Marcellina Akpojotor, 2023, courtesy of the artist and Rele Gallery)

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Marcellina Akpojotor: Good Times (Copyright © Marcellina Akpojotor, 2023, courtesy of the artist and Rele Gallery)

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About the Author

Yaya Azariah Clarke

Yaya (they/them) joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in June 2023 and became a staff writer in November of the same year. With a particular interest in Black visual culture, they have previously written for publications such as WePresent, alongside work as a researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

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