The photographs Oscar Ukonu takes as part of his visual research phase are striking on their own. His finished works, which replicate these images through meticulous ballpoint pen drawings, are jaw-dropping. Oscar’s insanely intricate, hyperreal illustrations aim to depict the “richness and diversity of the African experience,” he tells It’s Nice That, through portraits that adopt the concept of Afrorealism as “an iconography of individual and cultural aesthetics”. The use of the humble ballpoint pen casts his subjects in an ethereal blue glow, at once unbelievably realistic and otherworldly, and allows the artist to celebrate every pore of skin and strand of hair in detail.
The 27-year-old artist says he has been drawing all his life, “so design and art have been with me for a very long time,” yet it was only when he attended architecture school that he developed his hyperrealistic drawing skills. There he remembers doing a lot of pencil drawing, then later progressing to rapidograph ink pens, extra fine pens that are often used in technical drawing. “I thought I could find something that writes better than these ink pens,” he continues, “so I spent a lot of time looking at different mediums and drawing tools”. In 2014, after much experimentation, he circled back to the everyday ballpoint and “it just clicked”. The medium, it turned out, allowed Oscar far more flexibility for expressing himself on paper than any other implement he’d tried. “This helped develop my core hyperrealistic rendering skills and has further defined my work to what it is today”.
Each piece takes Oscar around 200 hours just on the drawing stage, a self-professed “practice in time and patience,” though he says he still likes to have fun in the process. Before drawing, his creative process begins in earnest by writing or sketching out ideas, followed by photoshoots to inform the illustrations. Oscar says he usually takes around 100-200 reference photos for a piece – showing his painstaking attention to detail isn’t limited only to the drawing phase – and once he has them all ready, he takes a week or two to decide which set of images to work from. “During the drawing process, I work with multiple photographs from these photoshoots, exaggerating or dumbing down some details,” he explains. “This is very important in my work because it liberates the emotions or moments from the frozen mechanics of photography, setting off a unique direction for the piece.”
Picking out his favourite recent works, Oscar highlights Give Us This Day Our Daily Breath, a haunting portrait of a young boy praying. The piece was made in 2020 in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, as “an attempt to interrogate the realities and living experience of being a Black male in America and in some other countries of the world today,” Oscar says. “In the title, 'Breath' subtly highlights the fear in young African American men today, as the need for safety seems to cast a shadow on their need to prosper. This piece is a reflection of the fear fuelled by the fatal shootings of unarmed Black people during routine events like traffic stops, walking home from the store, going for a jog and many other things people do every day.” Its title is taken from the Lord's Prayer, a text recited by Christians around the world, yet also alludes to George Floyd's fateful last words. Remarkable in its stillness and how it captures light and tone, the piece exemplifies Oscar’s ability to create magnificent, poignant work with a modest tool.
Oscar Ukonu: Blue Boy (Copyright © Oscar Ukonu, 2019)