“I hope my work changes at least one person’s perception”: Ngadi Smart on her vibrant and context-driven illustrations

Having finessed two disciplines, the Sierra Leonean artist talks us through her illustrative creations specifically – a colourful counterpart to her more photojournalistic photography.

9 June 2021

Why stick to one medium, when you could work in two? Ngadi Smart, an artist based between London and West Africa, just does that as she flits from photography and illustration with finesse and readiness. “They are mediums that are different, but seem to collide,” she tells It’s Nice That. “In my photography, I tend to document cultures, subcultures and intimacy: I like to incorporate ideas on how people self identify and choose to present themselves in front of the lens, and recently, I have photographed projects on African sensuality and sexuality.” More recent pictures have taken shape as documentary and photojournalistic, meanwhile the illustration work seems to reverberate with themes of identity, and search to “dissolve the concept of minorities as an ‘other’.”

As for her illustrations, Ngadi has spent a lifetime drawing, despite the fact that “hardly anyone” in her family is creative. To great lengths that she’d spend her younger years “obsessively” penning to paper, crafting stories and characters in multiple drawing pads that she’d have on the go. After a year at a foundation course in Art and Design post-school, Ngadi had a sort of a realisation from one of her art teachers: they’d told her that her work always bared a high level of narrative, and that she should pursue illustration as a degree. “Recently, I also found old photo albums of photos I took from my childhood; I would always photograph and document everything me and my sister were up to as kids,” she continues to tell It’s Nice That. In 2014, Ngadi initiated an illustration photography project which involved capturing strangers (through both mediums) or acquaintances in their homes, “and that was the project that got me back into photography as an adult.”

The two mediums work hand-in-hand, besides from the obvious aesthetic and methodological contrasts. Her illustrations, in particular, are incredibly full of colour. Lines and swatches of multicoloured hues are splashed onto the page, almost with a Basquiat influence for its messiness and artistry. In these compilations of hers, Ngadi pulls inspiration from a few key pillars: “My illustrative work is usually motivated by the representation of minorities, social issues such as racism, and well as feminism and gender roles. I like to deconstruct mainstream society’s preconceived views of what the definitions of ‘normal’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘right’ are.” This equates to a subject matter drawn without binaries, featuring “gender ambiguous characters” each with “interchangeable stereotypical male or female characteristics.” By doing so, Ngadi aims to normalise non-binary identities and the fact that gender is all but a social construct. “I also draw a lot of Black people, as we (and minorities in general) are still underrepresented especially in the illustration world.”


Ngadi Smart: Sunday Lovin, published in Gay Times Magazine (Copyright © Ngadi Smart, 2021)

Besides these intentions, Ngadi has always nurtured an interest in fashion; a passion spurred on my her parents and their love of dressing up during the 1970s and 80s in Sierra Leone. She’s particularly drawn towards the beauty and theatricalities of clothing, and used to adorn her bedroom walls in Côte d’lvoire with fashion editorials and advertising. Nick Knight and Steven Meisel circa 2000 was also a key reference for the young artist, “as well as the dramatic and camp side of Jean Paul Gaultier’s adverts,” she adds. “Which makes me chuckle because you definitely couldn’t see that looking at me then.” But these inspirations – along with 90s fashion photos – certainly have a place throughout the artist’s entire portfolio of works, where the draping scarfs, patterned dresses and stripy turtlenecks are just as important as the context. Not to mention the “African barbershop signage”, plus colour blocked and painterly backdrops that give a more modernised feel to the aesthetics of Microsoft Paint.

On the topic of her recent pieces, Ngadi talks us through a series of four editorial illustrations commissioned by the Dutch magazine One World Magazine, which took place not long after George Floyd’s murder. One piece accompanies an article by Gary Younge titled What Black America Means to Europe, navigating around the topic of “how many in Europe are convinced that ‘things are better here’ for Black people in Europe than in the US, while this ignores both Europe’s colonial past and its own racist present,” says Ngadi. “The image is a silhouette of chained Black hands lifting up towards the Euro flag.”

Other works include commissions for Guardian Books, as well as Guardian Weekend; the latter involving three winning stories from the newspaper’s essay competition for young Black writers aged 16-21. One of Ngadi’s illustrations sat alongside a piece titled I liked girls: I was going to be condemned to hell, written by 17-year-old Anna Mukhtar, “who wrote about their struggle as a queer Muslim person.” The illustration is of a young Black girl, decorated with hints of Islamic and subtle Pride symbolism.

Behind the colourful facade of Ngadi’s illustrations, there’s a whole world of meaning that’s hidden deep within. But these messages aren’t to remain uncovered; she hopes her audience will be inspired to learn more about them. “I hope my work changes at least one person’s perception,” Ngadi concludes, “and frees someone from what they’ve been socially conditioned to believe.”


Ngadi Smart: Hair series (Copyright © Ngadi Smart, 2021)


Ngadi Smart: Real Friendz Side Eye, published in Mastercard Foundation (Copyright © Ngadi Smart, 2021)


Ngadi Smart: Ivorian Fashion Illustrations, for Vlisco&Co (Copyright © Ngadi Smart, 2021)


Ngadi Smart: Lil Kim, for The Clit Test (Copyright © Ngadi Smart, 2021)


Ngadi Smart: Waiting (Copyright © Ngadi Smart, 2021)


Ngadi Smart: Androgyne Series (Copyright © Ngadi Smart, 2021)


Ngadi Smart: Gary Yonge on What Black America Means to Europe, for OneWorld Magazine (Copyright © Ngadi Smart, 2021)


Ngadi Smart: Ishmael Beah's Little Family Novel, Panel 4, for Riverhead Books (Copyright © Ngadi Smart, 2021)


Ngadi Smart: Koa Beck Reading past feminists, I understand how writing things down can be a political act, for The Guardian Books (Copyright © Ngadi Smart, 2021)


Ngadi Smart: Valerie Ntinu on her interratial relationship, Why I Understand Black People Disapprove of my White Partner, for OneWorld Magazine (Copyright © Ngadi Smart, 2021)

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Ngadi Smart: The Love Series (Copyright © Ngadi Smart, 2021)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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