Addis Okoli: Nigerian artist creates powerful paintings

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Opened Door, 2016, oil on canvas

Addis Okoli is a Nigerian artist based in Abuja, whose powerful representations of black women have impressed me. Her use of vibrant colours and collage techniques creates works of a pulsating dynamic.

On her mixed media canvases the artist displays moments of ordinary day life, busy streets, markets, merchants, polo games, wandering people, wonderful sceneries of urban life and captivating landscapes.

Over the years she has developed a distinguished style of painting that is easily recognisable. A synthesis of delicate and precise fine painting in the modulation of her figures faces, mixed with expressionistic broad brush strokes for the background and surroundings. In the use of colour she is close to modern expressionist painters, whose focus was to present intrinsic emotions, rather than naturalist representations.

Okoli studied fine and applied art with a major in graphic design at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Then later on she achieved her master’s degree in fashion design from University of Southampton, UK.

I met the artist on a visit to Abuja in 2012 and have since been stunned by her work, time and time again. In 2016, I came across her oil painting called “Opened Door”. It features a young woman or girl whose hair, neck and shoulders are covered by a pink shawl or hijab. She is wearing a matching long-sleeved dress. Only her face featuring a shy expression is visible from the side as well as her right hand, in which she is holding a pen. In her arms she is clutching a book close to her body, almost protecting it. The objects she is carrying suggest that she is a learned woman, a student maybe — definitely with the ability to write. She seems to be well aware of the preciousness of what she is holding, of the privilege that comes with knowledge.

Behind the figure of the girl the artist kept the diffuse background in dark colours, whereas to her side and at her front the colours brighten in shades of light yellow, blue and pink. The title “Opened Door” suggests that there is a pathway in front of her, at least metaphorically. Knowledge opens a door into a wider world with more opportunities. The darkness is left behind.

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Dilemma, 2016, acrylic on canvas

Another work that really struck me was the painting “Dilemma” of the same year, 2016. It is a square format with a confidant, strong woman in mid centre. She is wearing a jacket or cape that is not closed at its front, so that her stomach and half of her breasts are visible. The woman is wearing a mid length necklace with red and silver pearls. The artist used a collage technique to incorporate various African fabric styles into the decor of the woman’s clothes. A popular hair style for kinky curly hair, Bantu Knots, crowns hear head. She looks straight ahead, seemingly lost in thought; but this woman’s posture and attire bursts of confidence. She is proud and strong, not revealing the dilemma she is caught in.

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Through It All, 2019, acrylic and paper on canvas

Another mixed media collage that stuck with me is a work form 2019 called “Through It All”. In contrast to the previous work mentioned, the woman displayed here is far removed from the onlookers gaze. She is lying on a couch, with arms crossed behind her head. Is the woman simply relaxing or is she sleeping off exhaustion? Maybe she has been through a lot as suggested by the title. In this painting the artist has used colours more sparsely than in the aforementioned works. The paint is applied on a layer of newspaper that serves as the paintings surface. Most parts of the couch are left in the typical black on white writing of a newspaper’s appearance. Only the figure of the woman stands out in her blue top and ochre skirt, which reveals one of her thighs. The words of the paper partly shine through the thin layers of the paint. A newspaper lying on the figures stomach, correlates with the background and the painting surface, blending together fact and fiction.

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Before Dusk, 2019, acrylic on canvas

“Before Dusk” is a work from 2019, which I find alluring because of the perspective and due to the eye contact the protagonist of the painting makes with the viewer.

The spectator seems to look down on a woman walking by with a bucket of water on her head. She has probably been fetching water from a well or a stream to carry home. The figure is holding the bucket with both of her hands directing her head upwards and looking straight into the viewers eyes. She is dressed in simple attire. A yellow sleeveless shirt, a pink wrapper around her lower body and slippers on her feet. This seems to be her everyday task. The ease with which she carries the heavy bucket suggests that this is part of her routine. The bucket, held in white and different tones of grey acrylic colours, looks disproportionally huge compared to the woman’s body. This is due to the illusionist perspective, which suggests the bucket is closer to the viewers eye. The background of the painting, seemingly the floor on which the woman is walking, is brimming with bright colours. Yellow, blue, pink, read and green specks are arranged as diffuse patches giving the figure the opportunity to stand out.

All the figures in Okoli’s work are a mirror of her surroundings. They are magnificent figures of people of dark skin, reflecting the country and continent of her origin.

In the last couple of month Addis Okoli was of course also struck by the impact of the global pandemic that hast forced so many to change their way of life and their perspectives. As a way of dealing with this new situation, the artist began a series of works that swerve around that topic.

Read the interview she gave me, in order to learn more about her thoughts on these works and her work in general: (

Find the artist on her Instagram account @addisokoli.

Pictures: Courtesy of the artist

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