In this interview with Tobi Oluwatola, female Nigerian painter and illustrator, Stephanie Unaeze, speaks about her work and how COVID-19 has changed the world and impacted her work.
PT: How will you describe your work as an artist. Also tell us more about your background.
Unaeze: My work focuses around exploring themes pertaining to the proverbial self and its place in the society, as the object as well as the subject. Looking at the self through the lenses of personal relationships, societal realities and self actualisation with aims to further understand shared and common realities.
I have a bachelors in Computer Science from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, and a certificate in design from Parsons School of Design. I grew up all over the place, my dad was in the military, so we moved around a lot. I spent most of my formative years in England. I was born in Kano and I am from Imo State. I currently live and work in Lagos.
PT: Your work has been described as “whimsical surrealism” Do you agree with this? How would you describe your work?
Unaeze: There are elements of whimsicality and surrealism to my work. There are also pop art influences, illustration techniques/styles and religious symbology. I would describe my work as honest, it is influenced by what I see, how I feel and what I interact with. I use my art to tell stories, to understand the times, to remember culture, to speak about what I believe in and to connect with people.
PT: You seem to avoid labelling yourself as any sort of artist, would you describe this as an aversion to labels? And if so, what are your thoughts about labels and categorising?
Unaeze: I won’t say it is an aversion to labels; I am creating work that is experimental and has a lot of influences, so it can fall under a lot of labels or none at all. It also depends on the viewer, what they see, what they feel, and what they take away from each piece. I’m not against labels, I think we can have labels but there should be fluidity.
PT: This October, you will be taking part in START International Art Fair located at the iconic Saatchi Art Gallery in London, can you tell us more about that?
Unaeze: START Art fair shines a spotlight on emerging artists and new art scenes from around the world. START Art Fair has helped springboard a wealth of exciting young talents and is now arguably the most international of contemporary art fairs with galleries and creatives from every continent. The event is widely known for showcasing tomorrow’s stars. The fair continues to act as a snapshot of new art from around the world in an intimately sized event with the aim to help navigate critics and collectors through the rapidly growing geographical expansion of the art world. It is an amazing global platform. The Art Fair remains committed to the arts and the artists in these trying times. The Fair is going to be physidigital. Because of travel restrictions, the fair will be hosted both at the Gallery and online through the START website as well as a variety of social media platforms.
PT: Can you tell us more about the work you will be presenting at START?
Unaeze: The work I will be presenting is part of an ongoing series entitled “You Deserve A. Beautiful Life”. This series sheds light on social issues surrounding Nigeria, Blackness and humanity as a whole. Representation is very important to me. I want to showcase black people in a new divine and refreshing light, and look at how we as a society have shaped humanity and provide an understanding of the after-effects of our decisions.
PT: In light of the current pandemic and the lockdown, how has this impacted the way you work and how are you staying motivated?
Unaeze: As an artist, I am used to working in a self-imposed isolation. I find that I work best when I am alone. But it feels so different during a global lockdown. The current crisis has had such an astronomical impact on the world, everything has changed. Humanity was given a chance to self reflect, we have wrestled with empathy, apathy, anxiety and gratitude. Seeing the world become passionate again has really inspired my work, there is so much that needs to be said now.
PT: What is the role of the artist in these times?
Unaeze: Now more than ever, the world needs artists. As Picasso said after World War Two: “I didn’t paint the war, but the war is most certainly in my paintings.” The role of the artist is to understand, react and create.
PT: What are you looking forward to with your imminent career growth?
Unaeze: I am looking forward to seeing my art on a global scale. I am looking forward to pushing myself and making better work with each passing day, working with new mediums and techniques. I would love to collaborate with different brands and artists and explore more aspects of my creativity. I am a very big believer in collaboration.
PT: Besides painting, what other artistic endeavours have you dabbled into? Do you have other mediums that you use to express yourself?
Unaeze: I have a Design degree, I am very interested in sculpture and ceramics. I love reading and I write poetry sometimes.
PT: In terms of exploration, do you enjoy exploring outside of your comfort zone, practising new techniques and expanding on your style?
Unaeze: Yes. It is a must for me, that is how I learn, that is how I grow. I am very interested in moving my art and practice into a more functional art space.
PT: What are your thoughts on art as a commodity and the relationship between art and commerce?
Unaeze: I really like where art is right now, we are existing in a world where everything is rapidly changing, and art is adapting and changing with it. So many modern contemporary artists are existing between that lowbrow and highbrow line. They sell out of galleries as well as online stores. The idea of art as a commodity is very valid, it is created, bought and sold on a daily basis. And for the artist, it is a source of income.
PT: Who are some of your influences? Artistically, fashion, architecture, music, films and cartoons?
Unaeze: Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, Florence Welch, Sue Tsai, Diseye Tantua, Peju Alatise, Kaws, Takashi Murukami, Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, Burna Boy, Kehinde Wiley, Romare Bearden, Ndidi Emefele, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Kevin Okafor, Jordan Casteel, etc.
PT: There is a sense of spirituality in your work – your figures are completely removed from humanity and somehow their spirituality is kind of the subject of your works. How does spirituality play a role in your work?
Unaeze: I won’t say they are completely removed from humanity, rather they are completely immersed in humanity. I am a very spiritual person. I see spirituality and artistic expressions as being one and the same. One of my favourite quotes is from Pope John Paul II. It goes like this: “Artistic talent is a gift from God and whoever discovers it in themselves has a certain obligation: to know that they cannot waste this talent, but must develop it.”