nwaobiala: Reaching and Reflecting Through Art



Creating art in a seamless blend of collage, poetry, graphic design, photography, video, writing, and more, nwaobiala’s versatility makes perfect sense – the wide array of creative tools important to framing the art’s equally broad significance. Filled with color, symbol, life, detail, and a revealing simplicity, nwaobiala’s expansive and honest artwork centers conversations about everything from gender and sexual identity to generational trauma, mental health, body image, personal development, and more. These are shaped by nwaobiala’s experiences as Nigerian-American, Black, and nonbinary person, identities integral to any engagement with their art and personhood.

I first learned of nwaobiala’s work through Twitter, and I was immediately drawn to their “we are more than bodies” project. The collage pieces convey a bold clarity and intentionality: bright colors and patterns contrast enlarged, overlapping Black body parts, in an attempt, nwaobiala explains, to explore “the internal, intergenerational, and familial conflicts cultural homophobia causes Queer Nigerian Americans.” Each time I see the pieces, I’m prompted towards many different directions – it is truly fascinating, while looking at the pieces, to trace how, why, and from where I understand and engage with body (specifically queer Black folks) the way I do, and how nwaobiala’s choices of symbol, posture, background, and composition guide me (and anyone viewing their work!) to these realizations. For more regarding this project, click here to watch nwaobiala’s recent song-based presentation.

Self-described as an “experimental artist,” nwaobiala (pronounced “wah-oh-be-ah-la”) has also garnered numerous accreditations for their art: a list on their website states that, among other titles, they are “a 2020 Kolaj Institute Collage Lab Artist, a 2019 Createwell Grant semifinalist, and a 2019 top 44 Catchlight Fellow Finalist.” In 2019, “we are more than bodies” was exhibited at the Kioko Mwitiki Art Gallery in Nairobi from December to the end of January.

Our conversation rested upon all of this foundation. We touched on navigating the residual impact of childhood, what artistic expression means for individual and societal life, how Black art engages with external audiences, how nwaobiala’s identities influence their artistic process – and, they also offered an incredible list of Black artists to check out. This is an opportunity to become acquainted with nwaobiala’s work, but, perhaps more importantly, it is an opportunity to interact with some of what informs their approach to life and art. And, for more nwaobiala, make sure to check out their website, where you can find all the art included here.


Why did you start making art? At what point did you start?
I’m Nigerian and in Nigerian culture, art isn’t really a career or path, or a thing they encourage you to do. In my early days, I was really focused on medicine, because that’s what my father wanted me to do: he wanted me and all of his children to be doctors. But I remember when I was going to school in Nigeria, I was really obsessed with quotes. Just finding inspirational quotes from people, and for some reason, words really spoke to me. When I came back into the United States, I landed in this English class that was taught by a Black woman. When I came back, we were on the poetry section of the course, and I wrote a poem about women empowerment. My teacher was the type of person who wanted us to perform our pieces in front of the class, and I did, and I was so nervous, but I got a standing ovation from the class, and I was like woahhh. [laughs] Woah, so…maybe I’m actually good at this.

Around that time, I think I started watching slam poetry videos on YouTube, I was really obsessed with those. I started doing coffeehouses, I started to write more, I started to read more poetry. And then my senior year of high school, I took a TV production class, and that was the first time I held a camera. The first time I learned how to edit. And I was like, wow, this is amazing – so, so amazing. Then, the summer after my senior year, I was going through an awful breakup, I was working, and I decided, You know what? I’m gonna buy myself a camera. And that summer, I just took pictures; I took self-portraits, I took pictures by my favorite pond in my neighborhood. I’d just go by myself and take a bunch of photos. I took pictures of my friend, who’s also a Nigerian creative in the exact same situation as me. And from there, it started blossoming. I started doing poetry and visual art, and – I think it was 2018 – I got into digital collaging, which was really amazing. Just messing around in Photoshop, because it was cold outside and my parents are strict so they wouldn’t let me go outside. I had my laptop, I had Photoshop, and I was seeing other artists doing digital collaging and I started doing that as well. So just expanding the mediums, doing as I like. [laughs]

from nwaobiala’s “we are more than bodies” project

It sounds like one of your driving influences is an underlying curiosity, basically. Where do you think you developed that? What was it about expressing yourself through art that allowed you to channel that curiosity?
Well, because I come from such a strict home, I’ve always had to hide myself. I think that art was just a way for me to stop doing that, for me to finally release these thoughts and anxieties and the pain that I’ve been holding onto. It really started with poetry, but as I got a little bit older and I really started to interact with that trauma, I realized that maybe poetry isn’t the best way for me to go. Especially poetry without therapy. [laughs] I started to think that sharing my trauma particularly on stage to a group of strangers wasn’t as healing as I thought it would be. So, visual art has really been the medium that I’ve been keen on, because I feel like…I don’t know, I don’t have to explicitly tell you what it is. I can show you.

Building off that idea of healing with your art, how has that changed as you’ve gotten older? Are you in a position where you’re sustaining yourself through your art? How has that interacted with the healing purpose it serves?
As I’ve gotten older I’ve really had to ask myself if certain mediums are actually healing me, or retraumatizing me and traumatizing me further. I’m not fully stable on my art, but my poetry was making quite a bit of money…or, not a bit. Okay, a little bit of money. [laughs] But, I would prefer now to do more of exhibiting my visual art and facilitating discussions with people who identify with that art. I think that would be the sweet spot for me now. Even though I’m still open to saying poems, it’s not something that is the first thing I want to do. It’s not the first way I want to express myself, to express my feelings [laughs], my thoughts. Yea.

Was that process of realizing the different anxieties you may have had about the mediums – of transitioning to poetry to camera or visual work – difficult for you?
I think the difficulty really came with moving away from the poetry community. I did have a lot of friends, and I still do. But having to draw that boundary for myself and knowing that this space may not be the best for me at this moment. And then, the income; I’ve allowed myself to say a few poems that I am able to say without retraumatizing myself, per se. But, I’ve decided that certain poems, I just don’t want to say in public anymore. They’re just for me.

Yea! So one thing I’m picking up on is the flexibility you feel when creating your art, essentially. How have you learned to make art?
To me, making art is… There’s a few aspects to it. There’s the research aspect, where I’m seeking out visual art on social media, different mediums, in books. There’s that research aspect, just seeing what other people are making. Seeing how they’re doing it, especially mixed-media. Since I’m part of a bunch of different mediums, how can I incorporate, how can I put them together? So, that research is really important. The other thing is, reading books, reading interviews from artists. Hearing what their process is like, what their thinking is like, how they channel their thoughts into… How they transform it into visual art. That’s also really helpful.

Then there’s the actual creating of it. Building onto my Photoshop skills. I’m starting to learn how to paint, and to draw. Working on those skills, and having to practice brushstrokes, and practice…[laughs] Learning how to measure a face, and a body. There’s that part, the technical aspect you really have to work on. So I feel like there are different aspects to it, in terms of the creative process. And, I enjoy all of them.

…Actually, I just finished a collage and I’m satisfied with it, except for the font on it. I’ve really had to sit with it and realize, is it as bad as I think it is? Is this piece still worth being out in the world? Maybe it’s not the perfect font, but it still works. And, it’s for a client, it’s not for myself. So, just having to do that, a bit of a tradeoff, of not being too hard on myself [laughs], appreciating myself for doing this work and creating, but also having a critical eye as well. So, even if it’s not to improve this particular piece, for the next one, what do I want to see for myself? I know now that for the next collage I do, I want to keep in mind the text and font when I start the piece instead of waiting till I’m done, and then being like how will this font, this text, fit in there? So just those tradeoffs and being kind to myself. [laughs]

from nwaobiala’s digital collaging

Real quick, to follow up on artist influences and books – I see you frequently post on your Instagram different videos of artists and writers speaking, or different quotes. Who are some of your biggest influences? What are the things that influence how you think about the world, and – by extension – your art?
Yeaa, so some of my favorite artists, particularly right now, I would say include Mickalene Thomas. She’s a collage artist, and a very physical one. Painting, rhinestones, she just combines them. And, her pieces are always centered around Black women, so it’s really beautiful seeing her work. It’s garnered so much attention that she has these large pieces of artwork in all these galleries, and it’s so beautiful seeing art that meaningful and important on such a huge scale. It’s really awesome following up with her and reading her interviews.

Another person is Yagazie Emezi, she’s a Nigerian documentary photographer, and I absolutely love her. She’s the type of person to blur the line between… She doesn’t believe that she needs to hide herself in terms of her career. A lot of times when we go into adulthood, we have to surrender so much of ourselves for the sake of a job. We have to hide ourselves, we have to be kinda boring on our Instagrams, we have to make it super professional. And, she kinda blurs the lines of what’s professional and what’s just her living her life. It’s the same thing; she’s a documentary photographer, and she’s also living her life. I love that she does that, and she’s bold enough to do that, and I love her work.

Another person is Tony Gum, she’s a South African artist. She does a lot of self-portraits, a lot of vulnerable work. I love reading her work, it’s super introspective and really intimate.

cecile emeke – I believe she’s from London. And she used to do these short web series. A huge one was Ackee and Saltfish, one of my favorite ones. She’s since now taken it down. I’ve always dreamed of making a web series, and it would definitely look like what she’s made. [laughs]

Then, in terms of writers, I try to listen to quite a few interviews. James Baldwin, of course, he’s always saying things in eloquent ways. Toni Morrison. I read a lot of bell hooks; bell hooks has saved my life so many times [laughs]. And yea, I just keep trying to expand. Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, the greats, of course. Just trying to read more. I’ve been reading a book called Pleasure Activism and that’s been transformative in my life. And, then, a couple of Afrofuturistic… Because, sometimes, I feel like I’m in a space where I’m being super introspective and I’m always thinking these existential thoughts, and sometimes I need to escape those spaces. So I’ve been reading some Afrofuturistic books, like Akata Witch and Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor. And, right now I’m reading Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi. And, oh my god, I love that book so much! It’s so helpful to be able to escape the world sometimes and be somewhere else.

Yea, that’s fire, I really want to get more into Afrofuturism, I need to look into some films for sure…

…But, yea, that’s dope! You putting me onto a lotta of new names. So, I’m curious, looking at all these people who’ve clearly had an impact on your life, yourself, you art. What do you hope for your art to do, in a broad sense? Do you think about a philosophy that guides how you hope your art is received?
The only thing I can hope for is that it reaches the people it needs to reach. That’s the only hope I have for my art. And, I want us to have more conversations. I want us to have more diasporic conversations. Not being stopped by barriers such as land and political barriers. For me to be able to talk to other queer Nigerians that maybe aren’t in the US – they’re in Toronto, or London, or in Nigeria. How can we have more conversations about these very similar experiences that we’re having. So, I really want to have more of those. But, truly, just to reach the people it needs to reach.

That’s interesting, because, speaking of Audre Lorde, I was reading A Burst of Light, and in it she was talking about going to Germany and these places in Europe, where she was meeting Black women, Black queer women, from these very European places, where you might assume there wouldn’t be these things going on. And, she was talking about how important it was to see where they were as far as their own personal development and the way they were thinking about their identities. Extending this conversation, how critical, to you, is the idea of initiating these conversations?
Hmm, how critical… I think we all make assumptions [laughs]. For example, I just came back from Nairobi, Kenya, and I think a lot of people from the states make assumptions about people on the African continent. We just make assumptions about people, and people from the African continent are also making assumptions about people here. I think these conversations are really important to have, so that we understand each other more. We see each other more as people, who still have struggles, who still have joys. Maybe we can take certain things from each other’s societies and cultures. Like, how can we cultivate healthier relationships and greater communities? How can we make communities more broad, so that we’re always looking out for not just ourselves here in the US, but how are we protecting people in the global South, even from US intervention – not intervention, really, colonization and violence. So, how are we connecting with other people? How are we connecting with our other friends, who are across the ocean?

from nwaobiala’s Children of the Diaspora” series

What’s interesting and cool to me – as someone interested in the power that art has – is where does art fix into this conversation about diasporic discussion, but, just in general, of uniting through difference? Where do you position your art within that, and how does that inform some of the pieces you’ve made and projects you’ve worked on?
Yea, so it’s taken me so long to understand what art can do in a movement. Sometimes I feel like I see movements as there’s speakers and leaders, and what can visual art do? And, I think we have a responsibility as artists to reflect our situations, to reflect the future, as well. We have to envision a better future; a more sustainable, more responsible future for ourselves. I feel like art is a catalyst. And, because of social media, because of the internet, we have access to more of these conversations, more of these pieces, to more of these perspectives through art. In particular the visual medium, because many of these platforms are very much visually based. I think it draws people in, and that’s the first step. Yes, you’ve created this body of work, this project, but how do I get people to interact with it? How do I get people to engage? And I think that art is the catalyst for that, it’s the starting point, it’s where we begin.

It’s fascinating to hear you say that, because I think it’s exemplified in many of the projects you’ve worked on. The “they/them” piece you did with Jabari, I think, does what you’re describing. In a project like that one, how important is art to being a catalyst for yourself?
I think those pieces with Jabari really serve as a snapshot of this moment in time. This amazing memory, where Jabari… They knew I was queer once they saw me. [laughs] And that was really the main reason why they took me in. And, just being able to have this relationship with Jabari, and knowing that, we are connected. I can trust my queer community anywhere, to take me in and take care of me and to be there for me. Being able to be with Jabari, having them as a muse, and being able to talk with them about a variety of things… I remember I was going through a breakup when I was there, and just being able to talk with Jabari and create a short film piece with them was an intimate experience. It made me feel really vulnerable, because sometimes when I’m sad I tend to isolate myself. But, instead, I kinda brought Jabari in and then we made this piece. The “they/them” photos were just like a fun day, we were celebrating Virgo season [laughs], Jabari’s birthday. I had moved in maybe a week or two prior to, and I think that day we were going to a queer party. So, it was just exciting to be able to be part of their life, and for them to bring me into their community. Through Jabari, I was able to meet so many, so many queer people in Nairobi. Went to so many queer parties and events and art things. So, just being able to connect with people who are going through similar experiences as me. And, of course, we share similar pronouns, we’re both trans nonbinary, so that was really important to me to meet other people like me, and for them, too. [art shown below]

from nwaobiala’s “they/them” project

And, one of the other conversations that builds on what you were describing, is how in your art, you utilize the themes present in your life – whether it’s queerness or gender identity – and link those conversations to parental influences, intergenerational trauma, and stuff like that. How have you seen your own thinking change through your art, and that journey, if you feel comfortable describing?
My art really freed me. I definitely used to think like my parents, and particularly when I was studying back home in Nigeria, I carried a lot of that mentality with me. And, all of it was fear, all of it was suppressing my feelings, from sexual, to romantic, to my love for art and my drawing to it. And, when I started to accept art in my life, everything changed. I became more of myself, I found more joy in it, I felt more alive. I could finally imagine something beyond what my parents believed was the only way out, the only way to live. That’s something that systems of oppression, from racism to colonization, really teaches our parents – particularly immigrant parents – that they’re not allowed to dream. They’re not allowed to have an imagination, they’re not allowed to see themselves… You can be worthy outside of academic institutions. It’s not a defining factor. So, I feel like my art just freed me from everything my parents have taught me. I started to undo everything, I started to become more joyful. I started to pursue my joy actively. And, that means so much to me because I see my parents are unhappy, I see a lot of adults in unhappy situations.

I’m really thankful for us to be in this age of the internet and social media, because now I’m exposed to more, and I feel like I have more access to opportunities. So I can’t fully, you know…. In some ways, I’m trying to navigate to a place where I can forgive my parents, and that’s just a whole journey on its own.

Nah definitely. I’m also curious about how unraveling these intergenerational traumas lead to questions of raising the next generations. Could you elaborate about how you think through futurity, with raising young people, education, and all that?
I volunteer at this creative hub for Black and brown youth, and it’s amazing. But, my interactions with them so far are that so many of them are queer! So many of them, at such a young age, have accepted themselves. They’ll come in, and will tell me their pronouns and have these conversations with me. So, I think our set of people are really helping to pave the way so it’s easier for them. That’s what we just have to keep doing each generation: making it easier for people to be their full selves, to be whoever they want to be. We don’t have to be what everyone else thinks we should be, what our parents expect us to be, because that’s not how we were born into this world. We were born into this world as blank slates and we’re just… Whatever your spirit calls you to, that’s what your spirit calls you to, and that’s it.

I ran a photography workshop with a friend, and I made sure at the beginning of the workshop, we would go around and say our names and our pronouns. For a lot of students, it was the first time that they were asked, What are your pronouns? We would have to do that at the beginning of every single session. Just normalizing that, making people feel like you have to ask, you can’t just assume who people are. You ask, you inquire, you engage with them. I think if we lead by example, show the youth that you can be respectful of people, that differences in identity doesn’t make someone automatically a bad person [laughs], or anything like that. People are people and they deserve to be respected.

we are more than bodies 6

we are more than bodies 5

from nwaobiala’s “we are more than bodies” project

Last couple of questions – I want to touch on the “we are more than bodies” project you exhibited. What did this project allow for you to do personally, tying back to how visual art allows you to express things you may not need to say explicitly?
Yea, so “we are more than bodies” was the first time I pursued, like, a real project. I wrote a proposal for it, and it was the first time I sat down and was like, Okay, this is something I’m super interested in, something I’ve been having conversations with my friends about, and I want to tell the world about it. I want other people to know about it. I want other queer Nigerians around to be able to connect with it. Because, it’s something we’re all experiencing, but there’s no literature on it. There’s not a lot of work about it.

I think the conversations I had with people were probably the best part about it. Being able to interview people, hearing their perspectives, and even their growth from being that scared child having been raised in a homophobic, maybe religious family, to becoming this person who has accepted themselves. Or, some haven’t accepted themselves, there was also that – there was a lot of fear involved, I remember, in the interviews. But, at the end of a lot of interviews, my interviewees would tell me how important the project is, and that really affirmed my path and my life purpose. Cause sometimes, I don’t know… I applied to a lot of grants, and didn’t get them, so sometimes it makes you feel like, is this as important as I feel like it is? People aren’t really believing in it, but conducting that project and being able to talk with people made me realize that their stories are important, they need to be told. If you’re having these conversations and the same things keep coming up, well maybe there needs to be some type of meditation on it, some type of reflection. Some type of work that goes with it.

Right, and as a follow-up, how have you engaged with the idea of audience and viewing these pieces? The external engagement with your art?
It’s been cool seeing how people engage with the art, as well. I pulled some quotes from interviews and put them on Instagram, and a few of them really resonated with people. There was one person who was out to his family, and just the confidence he found in himself. [art and story shown below]

“Being a Queer Nigerian in America and in my family before I accepted myself was the worst imprisonment ever. Think about three different people in one body. One of those three different people keeps trying to kill the other. But to kill the other you have to kill all three. To kill all three, you have to kill me. I wanted to kill that part of me so bad. But I would’ve had to take myself with it…It’s funny, I thought coming out would be the hardest thing in the world and it was hard to say those words but once I came out, I didn’t care that auntie and uncle were looking at me. Keep looking! Worry about why you are a cab driver, driving a lexus truck—You’re trying to live up to a mentality. Don’t worry about my sexuality. Because at least I’m proud enough to be myself and say it!”

 – from nwaobiala’s “we are more than bodies” project

And, I think this is a huge thing with our parents: They are so concerned about their reputations, they will say, Oh, what will people say? As if you’re supposed to live your life for other people.

Then interactions with the audience and people consuming it, cause it was exhibited in Nairobi, Kenya, and I was kinda wondering, how will this go? [laughs] Just the perspective of it: queer Nigerian Americans. How will people be able to interact with this work? But, we have very similar experiences happening all over the world, and it was evident with those pieces, and the conversations I had with people who read some of the interviews and the excerpts. … It’s just amazing to be able to speak to people, and tell them about the intentions behind the work, and what I’m really trying to show. That we are more than our bodies, even though we have to inhabit these bodies and move through the world. We are more than that, we are divine, we are love – the driving point behind the project. And, we deserve to love without fear.

Word. Last question, what makes you feel most free?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s art, but particularly in the form of live music. I love going to intimate, live music concerts, where I can just feel the instruments moving through my body, and we’re just letting go. In these moments, we’re dancing and we’re singing, and our ears are popping because the music is so loud. Just those moments where we let go of control, where we let go of the gaze. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Of course, there’s the white gaze, the male gaze, and I feel like there’s so many external gazes that we’re always having to interact with, we have to comply with, change ourselves for. But, in those moments, when the lights are dim, and music is playing, it’s just passion. It’s feeling, it’s vulnerability, it’s everything. You’re just feeling everything in those moments, and that’s when I feel the most free.

this conversation took place on january 23 2020. thank you nwaobiala for your patience. and, for your edits!