At only 29 years old, it’s obvious she’s destined for greatness. She’s been called everything from an “artist to watch” to one of Nigeria’s premier mixed media artists. But if you ask her, she’d tell you she’s a woman in protest. Despite the shiny, retro but fashion-forward sunglasses that are present in almost all of her artwork, she’s making a statement. “Gradually,” she told Intense Art Magazine, “the focus of my work began to shift from exploring landscapes to raising questions and highlighting some of these issues such as the commodification of women in the northern part of my country.” This is the artistic vision of Ndidi Emefiele. Her media has become her means of protest. Her rally cry is as big as the heads of the women she paints and as culturally relevant as the recycled fabric she uses to complete her works of art. Despite circumstances, women, particularly Nigerian women, like herself, are destined for greatness.
Emefiele grew up in a traditional Nigerian family surrounded by her mother and many sisters. Her love for painting developed at a young age as she was already participating in art competitions at only seven years old. But her love and passion for art weren’t widely accepted by many traditional women in her town. “People would question my decision to be an artist and [advise] I went for something related with some prestige attached,” she admitted to Agnes and Lola, an online African boutique. So when she came of age, she studied art at Delta State University in Abraka, Nigeria and eventually went on to acquire her MFA from Slade School of Art at UCL in London, where she’s primarily based now. Despite the expenses, cultural and social differences between Nigeria and London, Emefiele’s fashionable art has gained international appeal while her Nigerian female subjects emphasize cultural relevance.
It doesn’t take long to recognize one of Emefiele’s works of art. They are bold, bright collaborations made up of different textures and fabrics. But perhaps the most jarring and alluring aspect of Emefiele’s work are her subjects: African women with enlarged heads. While the hair texture, color and style may differ, along with the clothing and accessories, there seems to be two constants in every painting: glasses and big heads. At first sight it seems wrong, stereotypical even. But hidden behind these giant heads are profound cultural references and Emefiele’s bold statement. “The exaggerated heads are symbolic,” she tells Intense Art Magazine. “The head is called the ori and it is considered the most important part of the body.” Continuing, she explains, “the head is said to control a person’s destiny.” By presenting the women with enlarged heads, Emefiele’s art defies the odds for Nigerian women. Despite the many obstacles they face, their destinies are great and larger than anticipated. The glasses have meaning too. For Emefiele, they protect the women from the harsh realities of their life, not fully shielding them from fears, vulnerabilities and insecurities, but presenting them with a clear, easier to see path despite cultural, social and traditional distractions. Protected by their glasses and encouraged by their larger than expected destinies, Emefiele’s mixed media art is a tangible example of social justice on and off the canvas. Intrigued by its powerful message and effect, most fail to realize the majority of the materials used in these works of art are discarded CDs, recycled materials and old textiles and fabrics.
Looking to experiment and break away from traditional art forms, Emefiele first started using recycled materials as a challenge in graduate school. But she loved the way old fabrics (including some of her mother’s old clothing) and textiles had cultural ties back to her community so much she started including them in all her artwork. “My art is a mix of several fashion elements. I like to show how the modern woman is evolving,” she told Agnes and Lola. This is especially evident in “The Rebirth of Eva.” A young woman with fierce eyes and thin lips adorns a multicolored and textured scarf that covers her head. Her soft pale blue skin is highlighted by the bright orange, pink, green and blue in the scarf. She’s not smiling, but she’s not fully covered either. A small portion of her chest is revealed through her purple halter top. She’s modernly dressed but the conservative enough to cover her head with a scarf. In another painting, the young female rocks a big pink afro with recycled blue cds acting as her glasses. Her sleeveless red and black polka-dotted dress is hipster-like. She’s sitting on the ground but upright, in front of the camera as if she were just about to say, “I know my worth.” While Emefiele’s range of art is vast, her message is clear. Women are works of art from the way our bodies are shaped to the way we accessorize or choose to wear our hair. It’s all art and Emefiele loves to observe it on and off canvas.
Inspired by fashion just as much as she is art, Emefiele aspires to create wearable art. In addition to launching her own studio (which combines art and fashion), the artist helped design Layo G, a womens luxury brand’s spring 2015 collection. True to her belief in empowering women, the collection was rightly named “She is King” and featured edgy but chic multilayered tops, bottoms and jumpsuits. Everything about Emefiele reads of both modern and retro, London and Nigeria. Her work is a masterful blend between the two, reminding women everywhere of our need to love and empower each other. The obstacles we face are many, but perhaps Emefiele has found a formula to unlocking the great destinies that await us. When asked what book, food, drink and person she’d bring to a deserted island, she responded: the Bible, chicken salad, freshly squeezed orange juice and her sister. It might seem simple, but I’m not sure there’s an obstacle out there than can’t be overcome by faith, healthy energy, vitamins and a reliable support system. With that, we’re all well on our way to futures destined for greatness.
- Sharita Gilmore