July 5, 2022
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How Three Young Nigerian Artists Are Standing Up to Conservative Gender Norms – Vogue

  • October 29, 2021
  • 5 min read
How Three Young Nigerian Artists Are Standing Up to Conservative Gender Norms – Vogue

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In March, the Nigerian contemporary artist Chidinma Nnoli opened her debut solo exhibition at the Rele Gallery in Lagos. The series of oil and acrylic pieces were solemn and wistful, featuring predominantly female figures surrounded by blooming flowers, Romanesque arches, and religious symbols. One painting, titled When Purple Hibiscuses Fall, featured a haloed figure gazing longingly through a window, one hand resting on her heart. In another piece, Hold Me While We Wait, two young women clinging to each other against a wall are watched by two other figures—seemingly older—through an arched window, one of them holding a pamphlet that reads, “We should all be feminists.”
The exhibition, titled “To Wander Untamed,” was Nnoli’s figurative representation of freedom and the idea of women existing outside the confines of society’s standards. Inspired by the artist’s own experiences growing up in a conservative Catholic home, she describes the portraits as allusions to a patriarchal society where religion is used as a tool to oppress and subjugate women. “This series was born out of a poem I wrote when I was 18 about living in a religious home where it was hard to breathe and where I had my autonomy stifled,” she says. “It’s about finding yourself and breaking free from all that conditioning.” For Nnoli, now 23, sharing personal experiences through her art is part of a broader concern with creating a sense of community with other women who have faced similar circumstances. “I hope people find bits and pieces of themselves in my work,” she says. 
Nnoli is part of a new crop of Nigerian artists working to highlight womanhood in all its diversity and address the issues affecting women in a largely conservative society. In the process, they are challenging reductive notions of femininity, gender roles, and sexuality that are prevalent in the country, each one doing so through vibrantly expressive work.
In Nigeria, the art scene has grown considerably over the last few years, but because opportunities and resources are still limited for young creatives, many artists plan their own exhibitions, sell their art independently, and use social media platforms to give their art an audience. In turn, that audience will often leave comments about much they identify with what they’re seeing.
For Renike Olusanya, 26, a visual artist and digital illustrator, depictions of Black women living freely and embracing personal growth in a hostile environment are central to her work. Whether she’s picturing dancers in motion or designing interesting book covers, she draws inspiration from women around her who are open to experimenting, learning, and changing with their experiences. “So many women are taught to satisfy the people around them without looking out for themselves,” says Olusanya. “It’s important that my art encourages women to fully embrace freedom.”
One of her most important pieces, She Will Not Be Silent (2020), was created in the middle of Nigeria’s lockdown, at a time when the country had seen a surge in acts of gender-based violence targeted mainly toward women. Inspired by other women who defied quarantine orders and took to the streets to protest, as well as the momentum generated by people speaking up on social media platforms, Olusanya created an image of two dancers dressed in white, which she describes as an homage to women all over the country who are creating an impact, no matter how great or small. “The women of my generation are working hard to fight oppression,” she says, “and it’s something I’m proud to be a part of.”
“Women’s experiences in Nigeria affect me so deeply that I want to have conversations about them,” says Chigozie Obi, 24, a mixed-media artist based in Lagos, whose work touches on topics like body shaming, sex work, colorism, and unrealistic beauty standards, and gives prominence to fluid expressions of femininity. “I try to do so with my art, and social media helps me spread my message to as many people as I can, and hopefully encourage people to start a discussion about these issues.”
In a self-portrait she named Heavy Is the Head (2020), Obi documented the process of shaving off her hair, an act that she described as marking the end of her struggle with a confidence bound up in the politics of hair for Black women. Her series Coming Up for Air (2020) featured portraits of women sporting shaved heads and loose-fitting clothes (transgressive in their overt masculinity), and one painting of a mother dressed in short, tight clothes commonly described in certain sectors of Nigerian society as “indecent.” On her Instagram, Obi accompanied the series with captions stating that women have “different thoughts and personalities” and should not have to conform to societal expectations in order to be accepted. “Because of the way our society is structured, people—especially women—are treated unfairly on the basis of their physical appearance or body size,” says Obi. “Creating art that addresses this is my own little way of pushing for change.”
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