On Wednesday, February 6, a landmark event occurred in McGill student Kosisochukwu Nnebe’s artistic career: the vernissage of her first exhibit at O Patro Výš, a multifunctional space whose goal is the promotion and distribution of local art. Raised in Gatineau, Quebec, Nnebe is a 19-year-old Nigerian-Canadian artist who is currently studying Economics and International Development. Juggling being a full-time student and a visual artist is beyond what most McGill students would consider possible, but Nnebe manages to play both roles.
The exhibit itself is a combination of three series of mixed media works (watercolours, oil pastels, ink and marker) and a selection of sketches. The Floral series are mixed media portraits representing black male subjects against a floral background. Turning Away explores the theme of the perception of the individual of the viewer, and consists of paintings of female figures with their backs to the viewer. Finally, Eze Nwanyi, which means “Queen of Women,” is a series of oil pastel large-scale paintings that represent black women in a holistic and affirmative fashion.
For the artist, Eze Nwanyi was an attempt to amend the biased and normalized view of the beauty, a view that is imposed upon us by magazines and reinforced by social media. “From a [black] woman who has been proven as less attractive by recognized academics, or who is regularly turned into an object of lust, I wanted to create a work of art,” explains Nnebe, referring to a discredited 2011 blog post on Psychology Today. Throughout the history of Western art, the black female figure has always been seen as an inferior, hypersexualized character. As a black woman herself, Nnebe wanted to “take the black woman, strip her down to nothing, and reclaim her image.”
Nnebe emphasizes the political role of her representation of black women. “I think people underestimate the importance of the stereotype within the media,” and how that impacts the everyday lives of women of colour. She refers to Sesko’s and Biernat’s study, “Prototypes of Race and Gender: the Invisibility of Black Women,” which explains how “[…] black women are more likely than black men or white men and women to go unnoticed by others in a group or social situation.” On the subject of stereotypes, Nnebe addresses the persistent tropes of the ‘welfare queen,’ and the ‘angry and emasculating black woman’ and how it influences her in her everyday life. “If I act in a certain manner, the message I may be trying to get across will be lost in others’ representation of me as just another ‘angry black woman’.”
In that sense, Eze Nwanyi, by depicting a black female figure outside of the normal social and media contexts, constitutes a rebellious political statement. Nnebe summarized her political goal as “trying to change the representation of black women in my work [...] trying to reclaim the image of the black woman, reclaim her voice, and give back the dignity and power that she has for so long been denied.”
Nnebe’s Floral series was the artist’s first foray into fashion illustration, representing well-dressed black men in a floral and decorative setting. “I feel as though fashion is the best method of recording the various facets of black masculinity,” she explains. Less overtly political, the Floral paintings give the impression of a young artist practicing her technique. However, there is an undercurrent of gender exploration here, as the flowery backgrounds deliberately undermine her subjects’ masculinity.
Nnebe’s work will be on view until March 5 at O Patro Výš, 356 Mont Royal East.