As human beings, we’re constantly trying to make sense of our existence, and if you’re Black and/or queer it can be a more harrowing experience due to decades of prejudice. In popular culture, these identities are still largely underrepresented or misrepresented. While our activism speaks volumes and goes a long way in changing prejudiced cultures and perspectives, art has always been a more accessible way to interrogate identity. As a result, Black and queer artists have undertaken the task of bringing the experiences of Black and/or queer bodies to the limelight, while opening our minds to new ways of being. Jessica Udeh is one of them.
While working predominantly with collage art and sound, 24-year-old Jessica Udeh uses her art to open conversations around sexuality, identity and politics. Her art is sublime and sensual in its depiction of Blackness and queerness. The bodies are captured and presented outside of the male white gaze, in an expansiveness that overrides narratives of scarcity. Currently based in New York, Jessica’s art focuses on collaging and soundscaping. Her work deliciously persuades us to embrace our multifaceted selves while refamiliarizing us with parts of ourselves we’ve forgotten or lost. We caught up with Jessica for a chat about her rebellious influences, the focal role community plays in her work and her practice at Chiamaka Studios.
Let’s start right at the beginning, shall we? When did you begin your art journey, and how did it become a career path?
Jessica Udeh: I first began my journey with the violin when I was 9 years old. I played the instrument for about 7/ 8 years. Next thing I knew… I was hovering over an Akai MPK mini. I made my way over to DJing when I was in the 11th grade and I started putting these mixes out on Soundcloud. Ngl they weren’t all that great as far as technique, but I had great taste and people loved them.
I didn’t get into collaging until after I decided to leave my university. I knew I had ideas and feelings I needed to piece together about what I was experiencing, and collaging allowed me to do that. Once I started getting a good response to my visual work, I began brainstorming ways to monetize my work and make it accessible in various forms.
Tell us a bit about your design studio Chiamaka Studios. What inspired you to start it?
Jessica Udeh: For a long time, I struggled with insecurities about being a college dropout and how I was perceived as a neurodivergent artist and woman. I started looking for a way to approach all my creative outlets unconventionally while maintaining a bit of anonymity. That’s when I launched Chiamaka Studios – a virtual art archive and conceptual design studio housing my various works and random iterations.
Who are your artistic influences?
Jessica Udeh: I have always been told I had a rebellious spirit lmao, which makes sense because early on I was exposed to artists like M.I.A, Gwen Stefani, Kelis, Nicki Minaj, Freda Kahlo, and Fela Kuti. These artists, for me, centre transparency, activism, and innovation in their process and what they produce. Those are pillars I strive to represent in the world of my work as well.
How have your various identities influenced your art?
Jessica Udeh: As a queer, African artist I’m constantly trying to find and make sense of centuries of stories and experiences that various groups of people continue to deny existence. Queerness isn’t a new or insidious concept – as most modern historians would say. Quite a few of our religious deities are queer or intersex. I want to reintroduce these stories to the diaspora and share it with those totally in the dark.
For every piece of art you create, what do you hope the viewer takes away from it?
Jessica Udeh: I hope that viewers take a new piece of them from my work. It’s my perspective but the purpose of exploration is for all of us. My work invites people into a never-ending exploration of self that highlights parts of Black existence that most of us are not conscious of.
I want my audience to connect with themselves. I want them to always wonder what something in my work means, where it’s from, and how it applies to their story – past, present, and future, if at all. I aim for people to wonder what it is I’m trying to tell them, what it is I’m trying to tell them about themselves.
Every artist encounters obstacles and frustrations, what are some of yours and how do you manoeuvre them?
Jessica Udeh: Hmm, I have so many frustrations haha: finances, anxiety, ADHD… but I think my biggest frustration has been making sure I’m truly aligned in everything I do and honouring my spirit while navigating all that. There’s an undying need to create and share, and tackle everything I say I will, but I’m also deeply tired all the time. So there’s an unhealthy lack of balance between work and rest onset by fear of the unknown.
On one hand, I exist in full minimalist mode where I force myself to relax and don’t care to do anything I’m not meant to do. Anything outside of rest and necessity is considered extra to me. On the other hand, I’m constantly overanalyzing things to the point where I’m stripping it down to make sure I’m doing exactly what I’m meant to and for the right reasons, and though necessary – it’s honestly a waste of time. Life is lived forward and only understood backwards. So right now, I’m searching for balance and using laziness to combat my overactive and sometimes frightened imagination.
In terms of community, who do you have in mind when you make art?
Jessica Udeh: My work centres LGBTQ+ African youth and people in the diaspora who are searching for a sense of freedom and belonging. I’m creating the work that 14-year-old me would’ve had plastered on her bedroom walls.
Describe your process, post-inspiration.
Jessica Udeh: I don’t have a set process, I honestly just follow my whims. I’m always thinking about creating, but not all days are spent doing so. However, on a day when I catch a wave of creative energy, the bulk of that time is spent researching and finding interesting images. The actual collaging process is quite short for me, once I find an image or element of a story, I pretty much know exactly where I want it to go and the new meaning I want it to have within the larger piece.
What are your artistic goals and visions?
Jessica Udeh: I feel like art is something that when placed strategically and properly amplified can evoke ideas and transform the minds and behaviours of people through its presence in the media and physical world. My work explores identity, sexuality, politics, and the discourse between the three as they relate to my cultural background. I’m hoping to show people, especially Western Africans, a new world absent of xenophobia, sexism, and many other issues that plague our society.
Where do you see Chiamaka Studios in the future?
Jessica Udeh: Right now, my goal is to begin exploring my ideas by working through textiles – sort of like my “Fruits of My Labor” rugs. So I’m working on a new subsidiary called “Last Resort,” a clothing label I’m hoping to launch shortly. So I’ll be pushing that a lot soon! *wink*
What’s your favourite piece that you’ve created?
Jessica Udeh: My favourite piece, hmm – I think I’d have to say “Baecation”. I sometimes take space from my work, either because I’m uninspired or just busy. But I made this piece after a long period of collecting and felt like I wanted to approach my canvas differently. More negative space, not relying on the corners to build or form the main image. I also made it at the peak of my celibacy and I think I was subconsciously voicing my needs lol.