The visual artist inspires women to live freely through her illustrations – 71Bait

In 2020, as the pandemic raged on, some lockdowns created dangerous situations as a substitute for the coziness and protection that the indoor space should have brought. In the communities of some African countries, stories of women experiencing violence spread through news channels. Reactions ran across social media. Answers and justice were demanded from the authorities. All of this prompted Lagos-based artist Renike Olusanya to create the poignant piece titled She won’t be silent.

Aside from this stunning work, Olusanya’s creations have an irresistible beauty and imagery woven into them. Most of her work tends to capture women’s lifestyles and expressions. “I draw women because that’s my reality,” says Olusanya Ok Africa. “The women who inspire me, the people I can talk to when I’m feeling down, are women.” These women tell the stories behind their creations.

Before becoming a visual illustrator, she worked as a graphic designer from 9-5 and pursued her art as a hobby on the side. But Olusanya struggled with a lack of freedom to express herself, and in 2020, as COVID-19 swept the world, she made the decision to turn her hobby into a full-time project.

Renike spoke with me Ok Africa about what drives their work.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bring us back to creating your piece, She won’t be silent. How did you create such an impactful work that also went viral?

First of all, the lockdown has been a huge reality shock for all of us. The last time there was a pandemic was well before my parents were born. It was a shock to everyone. It came as a shock to me; It was a shock to friends, family, parents and all of that. And it was emotionally difficult too.

Unfortunately, at the start of the lockdown, there was a spate of sad incidents. Women died, women were raped. I think there have been protests in Kenya and another African country where women have been killed. Women are even abused in their homes and all that. It was so hard. This work of art, I didn’t just think about it and suddenly created it.

I used to just cry every day because the thing was so heavy in my heart. I think one thing that got me through the entire process of creating this artwork was that I’m very active on Twitter; I liked how women were always talking about things there.

While we were fighting for ourselves in Nigeria, we were also fighting for women in Kenya, which gave me a glimmer of hope. Because even though these bad things were happening, people were still trying to find solutions, even using their voices to amplify these issues on social media.

It gave me a little bit of hope. The heaviness on my chest lessened. And that was when I was able to create She won’t be silent. It took me two to three weeks to bring myself to create this piece of art. I knew I wanted to express myself. At one point I even got off social media. Because it was just so much. Because seeing how these women didn’t get tired, unlike me, gave me strength. They kept talking about it; it made me want to create something.

So I could draw what I drew. And that’s why it’s called She won’t be silent. She will never be silent. These women keep talking even though they are tired. You are not silent. They will continue to speak for change. The whole thing was just so inspiring to me.

You designed the book cover for Nicola Yoons dance instruction, a high point in your career – what kind of process was that?

I think the author noticed my work on social media. I don’t understand how she did it. She wrote one of my favorite books in the world Everyting everything. When the creative director contacted me via email, I almost passed out. They contacted me and asked if I would like to create the book cover. I thought, ‘You’re asking me?’ I was like, ‘I would be so excited to do that because I’m already a huge fan of this author.’

I don’t read much so imagine if I knew her. I love her that much. It was such an exciting and easy project. You made everything so easy for me. They told me what they wanted. I was able to ask as many questions as I wanted so it was a smooth process. I think that’s what makes the finished work so beautiful.

Social media helped one of Renike Olusanya’s favorite authors reach out to her to illustrate a book cover.

Photo: Renike Olusanya

Your drawings are mostly about women – women expressing themselves through dancing and moving – why is that?

I really like women like that because I’m a woman. I see that every day when I look in the mirror. When I watch a movie, I focus a lot more on what the women are doing and how I can relate to it. When I go out every day I notice different things, mainly about women, their hair style, their fashion, their body shape.

Are there things that drain you as a creative person?

Sometimes when I get too many commissions at once, it gets to me. money is good; sometimes you need time for yourself. If I work long hours, I get tired. For a short time after that, I don’t want to touch a pencil, I don’t want to see anything that involves a short time to draw. Just so I can get my energy back. There are many artists who say they draw every day. I don’t draw every day. I can’t do it If I draw every day I get drained.

Nigeria is killing me too. This country wears me out; It is so hard. If you are in your home, Nigeria will stress you out. Whether there is no light or something. When you leave your home, Lagos will stress you out. If you don’t hit traffic, you’ll hit someone scratch your car or a trailer will fall on you. This country sucks me dry and that’s why I’m very introverted. Because that’s my way of protecting my energy.

An image of Renike Olusanya's artwork featuring a woman and a dog.

Renike Olusanya draws women because they inspire her the most.

Photo: Renike Olusanya

What is the meaning of art for you?

Besides the money I get from art, it’s crazy to be a full-time artist in this country. Art is very therapeutic and clears my mind. Sometimes it clogs my head and sometimes it clears my head. Then art is life. We see everything in art. It’s therapeutic, it’s communicative. What I can say is that art is my life. It helps me think; it expands my reality. If I’m stuck in one place, I can always move to another place [through art].

What advice do you have for struggling artists in Nigeria?

I think the first thing is to be consistent. I think that’s something that has helped me over the years. It seems like a lot of effort at first, but people are always watching. Always practice and always get your work outside. Don’t think that just getting two likes doesn’t mean people aren’t seeing what you’re doing.

Sometimes artists struggle with visibility because they think they aren’t getting a certain number of interactions with their social media posts, then that means they aren’t seeing it. This is very wrong. Because people are watching you. Sometimes people reference things I did years ago when I don’t think people were watching. It shocks me.

Always practice, always be consistent in your work. Be known for something. People will want to explore different areas or explore different things at the same time. I think that more energy should be put into one thing, then once you’ve mastered that one thing, you can put the rest into it.

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