Mixed Media Artist Jamilla Okubo Creates New Mythologies for the African Diaspora [Interview]
Bathing her subjects in vibrant color and mesmerizing patterns, Jamilla Okubo forces her viewers to reckon with the women staring back at them. With Kenyan and Trinidadian ancestries, the Washington, DC, artist works to create a new mythology for the African diaspora, one that marries cultural tradition with modern interpretations of identity.
Combining pattern design, illustration, and painting, Okubo creates mixed-media works that draw on her experience in integrated design and fashion. Inspired by kanga cloth, a “talking” textile that relays messages derived from Swahili prophets, Okubo creates original patterns that inform her paintings, fashion, and performance-based work.
“The gestural strength of [my] imagery and symbolism is a platform for restoring agency and reclaiming the oppositional gaze,” she says of her work. Grounded in figurative expression, Okubo’s paintings reveal her search for personal and collective identity: “I wanted to speak to the complexity of being a Black woman and reclaiming agency of our bodies, spirituality, and ancestry,” she explains in an interview with It’s Nice That. “[My work] explores visually expressing the range of emotions in our human experience: longing, angry, joyous, and tired, but yet defying reality with our vibrancy, confidence, and style.”
Jamilla has also illustrated a variety of books by Black authors, including Moses, Man of the Mountains by Zora Neale Hurston, The Unfortunates by J.K. Chukwu, and Tales of East Africa: Folktales From Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.
In Today's Q+Art Interview…
Jamila Okubo discusses her favorite James Baldwin quote, expressing appreciation for her cultural heritage, and the upcoming release of her illustrations via a book repackaging project.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Jamilla Okubo: Art/Work by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
JO: History, mythology, and vernacular of the African diaspora.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
JO: Mirka Mora.
What are you trying to express with your art?
JO: A sense of self, empowerment, appreciation for my cultural heritage and the world around me.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
JO: How to pursue my art career.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
JO: Finding hobbies outside of my art practice and art making.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
JO: Being grounded in my art practice, enjoying the process of making art, and being able to share it with the world.
What role does the artist have in society?
JO: One of my favorite quotes by James Baldwin is: "If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don't see.” And that is what I see as the role of the artist.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
JO: Working at Anthropologie in NYC, hahaha. But it paid my school fees and helped me survive during school.
What’s your relationship with money?
JO: It's complicated.
Have you ever turned down an opportunity? Why?
JO: Yes, it took me several years to get to a point where I felt confident enough in my practice to say "no" to jobs that didn't align with my values and my goals. When I first started freelancing, I said “yes” to all projects if I had the time for them. But now I like to take a few projects at a time that really align with my values and nourish my creative practice.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
JO: I am currently working on illustrating book covers for this book series repackaging project. I'm looking forward to it being released sometime this year or next!
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
JO: I eat pretty healthy, exercise regularly, and do things that make me happy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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