Over the last few years, the Nigerian art landscape has made great strides in showcasing the work of emerging and established artists. From international art fairs like Art X to incubator programmes like the Rele Gallery Young Contemporaries program, the art ecosystem is brimming with talent. Amidst all the joy and jubilation, however, remains an uncomfortable truth that is glaringly obvious: the lack of female representation in these spaces. While we won’t deny the fact that this is changing, with more female artists breaking ground and challenging the male-dominated art world narrative, change isn’t coming quickly enough for us.
To do our part, we’ve curated a list of 7 female artists who we feel you need to get familiar with. These women for us, are THE moment, and many of their works touch on the current climate, tackling subjects like body image, the patriarchy, mental health and sexuality.
Their art is important to us because they ask questions that we might have asked ourselves, say things we may have been unable to say out loud, share the joys and journey of being, and present a landscape for healing.
1. Ayanfe Olarine
Ayanfe Olarinde is an internationally-acclaimed visual artist known for her scribble art and photography. Her work is heavy in mixed media where she combines painting and scribble art to create layered textured pieces. Her work also sometimes features collages that often include everyday objects such as towels, wires and kerosene stove wicks.
Ayanfe’s work features themes such as self-image, mental health, gender constructs and identity formation. She’s currently a resident at the African Artist Foundation (AAF).
2. Chidinma Nnoli
Chidinma Nnoli has a B.A in Fine and Applied Arts from the University of Benin and started out with the intention of being a textile designer. Now, the motifs of textile design haunt her paintings in the most beautiful way. Flower motifs are often incorporated into the background of her paintings, which are usually gloomy and evocative.
Chidinma draws inspiration from her Catholic upbringing. Her art challenges and questions the patriarchal framework of our society, as well as the psychological and cultural conditioning women are subjected to through channels such as religion. Her first solo exhibition, ‘To Wander Untamed’, provided a voyeuristic experience for viewers, with the prominent use of windows, to empathize with the characters.
3. Chigozie Obi
A multi-dimensional artist, Chigozie Obi creates art that centres Black people, especially Black women. The exploration of Blackness in her art touches on contemporary issues that Black bodies encounter, and the unique ways in which they experience these things. The diversity of the Black body is also important in her work, often featuring gender non-conforming people, as well as other stereotype defying portraitures. One of her paintings, Virgin (I), is a parody of the Catholic iconography of the Virgin Mary. Here Mary is a partly unclad Black woman.
Chigozie Obi is a well-accomplished artist and has had multiple exhibitions both at home and abroad. She won the Access Bank Art X Prize in 2021.
4. Chiwendu Kelechi
Chinwendu Kelechi’s art is rooted in pre-colonial Igbo culture but executed in contemporary language. Her Instagram bio describes herself as a “self-taught artist telling Igbo stories” and her work seeks to correct false narratives about her heritage.
Traditional art forms such as Nsibidi, Uli and Mbari influence her art, especially the duality of symbols— where male and female energies coexist. She mostly paints in blue, drawing mythological creatures in white paint. Chinwendu is currently an artist-in-residence at the African Artist Foundation (AAF).
5. Renike Olusanya
Renike Olusanya is a visual artist with a background in graphics design. She’s mostly known on social media for her digital art but also practices traditional art. When she’s not taking commissions for portraits or book covers, she focuses on painting women as their truest, freest selves. An identifiable theme in Renike’s art is Black (female) joy. She depicts her characters in softness, abundance and healing and her colour palettes are reflective of this theme. She has been nominated for the 2021 The Future Africa Prize for Art.
6. Tonia Nneji
Tonia graduated from the University of Lagos in 2016 with a B.A in Visual Art. She has since built a solid career with exhibitions and collectors in Nigeria and internationally.
Tonia paints with bright colours, often incorporating traditional print fabrics into her images.
Also central to Tonia’s art is how she weaves her personal battle with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) into the paintings. Through the characters in her work, she portrays the trauma as well as healing through the power of sisterhood.
7. Yadichinma Ukoha-Kalu
Yadichinma is an experimental artist whose work is delightfully abstract. She studies line, form and boundary, giving her work a geometric appeal. Textures are also important to her practice, which add dimension and depth to her work. As a multi-disciplinary artist, she expressed herself through various media like painting, drawing and sculpting.
Yadichinma’s art probes our existence, examining the parts of our lives that are otherwise viewed as mundane. Through her art, we’re let into the curiosity and the process that birthed the art itself. For Yadichinma, growth and change are the most important aspects of her life and work. Her art has been featured and acclaimed in galleries and journals.