Ojima Abalaka’s serene portraits are filled with clues to their subject’s character and culture
The Nigerian illustrator explains how she began illustrating as a form of meditation before a commission from The New York Times turned it into a career.
- Jenny Brewer
- 10 June 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
For Ojima Abalaka, illustration was a pastime that almost accidentally became her job. Born in Abuja, Nigeria, she lived there until she was 17 before moving to Sheffield in the UK to study European and International Law. “Before uni, I had a blog called ‘The ramblings of a dropout’ where I pretended I was a dropout and wrote about it,” she laughs. “I used to do bad sketches to go with them, which is when I first started illustrating.” Returning to Abuja with her degree, her hobby picked up pace. “It was a meditation for me,” she explains, an approach she feels is responsible for her muted, warm colour palette. “I wanted it to be calming. I stuck with those colours because they’re easy to look at, they don’t require too much of your attention.”
The tipping point was when Ojima decided to upload her illustrations to Women Who Draw, an online illustration directory. Soon she was contacted by an art director for The New York Times – a daunting prospect for anyone’s first commission. “Until that point, I was just having fun, I had no idea what I was doing! I didn’t want to get it wrong,” she says. She tackled it by asking her client “a lot of questions” and calling on her peers and people she follows on Instagram for advice. After a few spots for the paper’s travel section, more clients came knocking.
While her early work was “more whimsical and decontextualised,” as Ojima puts it, she has quickly evolved that style on the fly for live briefs – having not had the development time often afforded by attending art school. Now, her strengths lie in portraiture, with serene yet rich depictions of people packed with clues to their character and culture. “I’m really interested in people’s lives and stories – portraits allow you to explore different parts of a person’s identity and the way they occupy space.” In a piece for The New Yorker by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani about the Igbo people, Ojima portrayed both traditional and modern aspects of their culture using aesthetic details.
“I’m not Igbo but I have a bunch of Igbo friends, so I did lots of research into what Igbo people look like today. I didn’t want to get caught in tropes and stereotypes,” she says. One character is wearing coral beads and a red cap, another is wearing a traditional Igbo dress adorned with leopards, called Isi Agu; but there are also other characters Ojima’s age, with a more contemporary look. “I think these are my favourite types of projects, where I feel a responsibility to accurately depict a culture that isn’t necessarily mine but has been entrusted to me. It always feels like there’s something at stake. And I enjoy doing the research, you learn so much interesting stuff.” A similar project for Vox saw Ojima illustrate an article about the popularisation of Ethiopian food in America. “I felt I needed to make my Ethiopian people proud.”
In her piece for WePresent about creativity in Nigeria, while her protagonist’s worried look apparently conveys Ojima’s own sentiments trying to answer the “daunting” brief, “what goes on in your creative mind,” other details draw from other artists in the story. The yellow and black Lagos Danfo bus comes from Mr Eazi’s album Life Is Eazi, Vol. 2 – Lagos to London, and the snail comes from Chiamonwu Joy’s work. In her commission for Medium, tasked with depicting strong, independent Black women in the professional world, Ojima “imagined three Black women looking good and crushing it in their different fields of work. They’re like my own workplace Power Puff Girls.”
Ojima looks to painters, photographers and her illustrator peers for inspiration. French illustrator Araki Koman was one of her early inspirations, and one of the people she asked for advice on that fateful first commission. She also loves the work of Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, with her painting 5 Umezebi St., New Haven, Enugu a particular favourite; American painter Barkley Hendricks, especially Lagos Ladies (Gbemi, Bisi, Niki, Christy); and photographer William Eggleston, all for the way “they represent ordinary people in their daily lives”.
Photography remains a key influence on her illustration, “a lot of my illustration work borrows from it,” so much so, Ojima is also currently working on a photo project about the people who rely on walking around her home city – which isn’t pedestrian-friendly – as a means of livelihood. Titled Wakabout, you can see her sensibility come through in the photographs, which are tranquil but with a deep personal story to tell. The artist is also keeping busy with a personal illustration project called RnB Girls, inspired by Nigerian pop songs named after women and imagining the narrative of the songs from the viewpoints of those women. “Who are these women? What’s their side of the story? What are these musicians not telling us?” she ponders. Visually they draw from the style of urban characters in Nigerian films from the early 2000s, presented as album covers showing the women “in control of their own narrative” – an apt metaphor for Ojima herself.
Ojima Abalaka: Creative Mind for WeTransfer