“I want to make art that makes people think.”
Kosisochukwu Nnebe is a force to be reckoned with- as a 19 year old student, she is reminiscent of an older soul, an artist who knows all very well the power of art as a means of self-exploration, but more importantly, its capacity to challenge the perception of normative conceptions of beauty – particularly black beauty. With the prolific success of her art collections in various magazines and publications throughout the Montreal arts scene, and a successful art exhibition earlier this year, her art has become a starting point for a much larger conversation about the misconceptions surrounding the black aesthetic in all its glory.
Kosi’s journey as an artist started back in her high school years, in a predominantly white private school where subtle racism was the norm. With a prevailing lack of black culture, she turned inward and began to question her own understanding of black heritage.
“When I was constantly celebrating a history or ancestry that is not mine I thought ‘how am I ever going to be proud of my roots when I know nothing about it, when there is nobody telling me the beauty or achievements of my own people?’ I realized I had to teach myself”. It wasn’t until she had extensively read up on the likes of Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King Jr that Kosi essentially rediscovered the beauty in her heritage and realized her potential as an artist. Through her art she challenges the status quo, portraying black beauty as wonderfully delicate, graceful, and powerful.
Her artwork is not just an exploration of her own racial identity but also a reclamation of the beauty behind the black aesthetic – it is ultimately a celebration of the beautiful features of black people, going beyond skin shades and hair texture. Our eyes are drawn to the curve of full lips, the highlighted angles of cheekbones, defined muscles and curves, and the diversity in hair texture and pattern. “I just want to show my reality, how I see black women. I want to show the awe-inspiring presence of black men and women – the strength, the complexity, the gentleness and vulnerability. All of these are layers that are constantly being stripped away from us”. Her portraits cause us to suspend our preconceived beliefs about what is inherently beautiful about the black individuals, a thought process that is repressed and rejected in our Western context.
As an artist, Kosi gives voice to a universal and often unspoken understanding of the beauty of black people that confronts prevalent stereotypes. Her floral series, inspired by artist Kehinde Wiley, conveys the complexity and multi-dimensionality of the black male, with watercolour portraits of black men against soft and feminine floral backgrounds – a far cry from the typical image of a hardened thug and aggressor. Instead, Kosi presents us with an unheard of conception: the juxtaposition of strength and sensitivity in the image of the black man.
floral 3, floral 2, floral 1 (2012, 2013)
But perhaps the true exceptionality behind Kosi’s work lies in her striking oil-pastel and acrylic portraits of black women and isolated close-ups of the female body, with gorgeous colorful contrast, shadows and highlights in “Adaeze Pt 1 and 2” and “Nneka Pt 1 and 2”. Her portraits evoke the grace and magnificence of African queens with impressive technicality.
top: Adaeze pt 1, Adaeze pt 2 (2012)
bottom: Nneke pt 1, Adaeze pt 2 (2012)
“I really wanted to emphasize the beauty of the female body, it’s an absolutely beautiful thing, especially when you’re not looking at it from the sexualized male perspective. Everywhere you see in the media, in advertisement, in movies, the woman’s body is beautiful, but only in a sexual way. What I wanted to do was show it as beautiful, but only in an artistic way”.
Kosi’s artwork and presence in the art scene will continue to grow, as her works resonate with people of all backgrounds – and it is no wonder: she gives the public images of black beauty in a contemporary context, one that stays far away from popular mainstream imagery of long hair and fair skin. Her portraits convey an honesty and vulnerability that is unvoiced for the black community, attesting to the seeming ripple effect of her popularity beyond McGill.
Right now Kosi is focused on expanding her Facebook page “Coloured Conversations,” a platform for dialogue between black artists on the effect of race on their art and for the public to discuss what it means to be of colour in today’s society. “I just hope that we can all inspire each other and lift each other through our conversations and art”. Her mission to empower individuals of colour through her artwork makes her more than just an artist or student, but an inspirational young woman who gives the public a much a needed alternative perception of why black is beautiful.
“When it comes to art, it is more than just about you”
– Kosisochukwu Nnebe
WRITTEN BY LINDA SARVI
IMAGES BY KOSISOCHUKWU NNEBE