Dawn Okoro on Promoting Black Women and Popular Culture
Dawn Okoro is a Nigerian artist best known for her figurative paintings inspired by fashion and popular culture. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas and a law degree from Texas Southern University. Okoro’s interest in art sprang from her love of fashion illustration, photography, and design. Her work has been featured in Forbes, Drawing Magazine, and The Austin Chronicle and has been presented at the Texas Biennial, New York University, Notre Dame University, Rice University Museum, George Washington Carver Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) in Brooklyn.
Okoro’s work is informed by the composition techniques used in fashion photography. Using oil, acrylic, and pencil, she incorporates photography, collage, and ideas from popular culture. Her work embodies space, movement, pattern, design, texture, and colour, as well as lived experiences and self-reflection, as she critically examines the experiences that shape her everyday life and that of those around her. In this interview with Omenka, she discusses her background, past projects, and latest exhibition.
You graduated from the University of Texas with a major in psychology and a minor in fashion design, earned a law degree from Texas Southern University in Houston, and then went on to become a journalist. At what point did you decide to pursue a career in art, and how would you draw a relationship between art, law, and journalism?
I knew I wanted to pursue art before I went to law school; I just didn’t know how yet. I chose to study law to ensure that I had a career to support myself. I ended up not enjoying law. I started pursuing my art again after graduating from law school.
Law school influenced my art in some ways. Learning to do legal work has helped me become a better researcher and writer. I am currently a full-time journalist and full-time artist. I apply some of the storytelling techniques I learned in journalism to my art.
You identify as a Nigerian-American, but you were born and raised in Texas and have lived most of your adult life there. How has your dual nationality impacted your work, and do you encounter any conflict in presenting your Nigerian roots and identity?
I was raised fully surrounded by American culture, raised by my American parents (mother and step-father). I connected with my Nigerian father as an adult, and then I began to learn about that side of my ancestry. I eventually visited the village my family is from in Nigeria. Through my art, I am sometimes calling back to and searching for my Nigerian side.
Your artistic statement emphasises your use of self-reflection to critically examine experiences around you, which in turn help to shape your work. Please explain how your work has evolved over time and the personal encounters that have informed it.
My work has evolved to include more kinds of media. One thing that helped was being a part of the Contemporary Austin’s Crit Group program. It provided a space to present new work to fellow artists and curators and get feedback. During the programme, I created my first video art.
Your practice embraces painting, fashion, and photography. Kindly take us through your creative process while elaborating on your relationship with each discipline and the role it plays in your process.
I am inspired by fashion and the way it is marketed. I use some of the techniques from fashion photography in my work. I photograph each subject before I paint them. Sometimes I have them emulate poses from fashion magazines. Then I create a painting using my photos as reference.
Your subjects are mostly women. Why is it important to you to highlight the space women occupy in our society? What current issues affecting women do you think need to be addressed urgently on an international level?
It is important for me to highlight the space women occupy in society because I want to see equality. Equality, violence against women, and a woman’s autonomy over her own body are still urgent issues that need to be addressed.
In ‘Deconstructed Vixens,’ you paint women of colour upon a gold background in an installation of 12 paintings that explore how they are portrayed in hip-hop. What did you hope to achieve with this project, and what inspired you to explore this subject matter?
Video vixens are a staple of hip-hop culture. The women are shown in submissive roles while their male artist counterparts are in positions of power.
In my work, I am extracting the vixen from the video and showing her in a different context. I am highlighting the potential for a different narrative.
Gold leaf dates back to ancient Egypt, and it was held sacred. Since in music videos, vixens are often stripped of any value beyond their bodies, I wanted to surround them in gold. So, while parts of them are obscured, they are still held sacred.
In ‘Selfsploitation’ (2010)—a project consisting of research, an informal survey, a series of drawings, and an essay—you examine the phenomenon of “sexting,” a term used to describe texting, posting, or sending sexually suggestive photos of oneself via cell phone or on social media. What major conversations have your drawings sparked, and what are the most devastating long-term consequences for people who post nude photos online?
The ‘Selfsploitation’ project cuts through judgement and gets people to ask why someone would want to share risqué photos of themselves with the world. Ultimately, I learned that for many women, posting the racy photos are a way to exercise autonomy over their own bodies.
These kinds of posts are so common now that I don’t think they do much harm to the women who choose to share them. I can see there being an issue if a woman later changed her mind. It can be impossible to erase anything that’s posted on the internet.
Your most recent exhibition Punk Noir, held at George Washington Carver Museum last year, featured a series of large-scale paintings and wearable art that showcased Black people unabashed and resisting societal expectations. Why did you specifically choose writers, musicians, and artists with ties to Austin (Texas) as your subjects? Were they well known to you or randomly selected?
I chose to paint Austin creatives because they are my friends and people who inspire me.
Why are space, pose/movement, and solid colour central to your oeuvre?
These characteristics are important because they give context and help frame a story.
Importantly, a gestural use of copper in your paintings obscures the body and “alludes to issues of erasure, self-agency, and resistance.” This thrust is further accentuated in ‘Misogynoir/Resistance,’ where you address issues of misogyny and racism. As a young Black female artist living in Austin, what unpleasant personal experiences shape these approaches?
My use of metal leaf or paint to push back against erasure is a reaction to my observations of how Black people, especially women, are treated and viewed. The gestures are a way to relieve some of the frustration.
In your opinion, how relevant is detailed realism in an art world increasingly drifting towards the conceptual and experimental?
I guess that remains to be seen. Conceptual and experimental does seem to be more popular in the art world.
Is there any forthcoming project you would like to share with us?
I will be debuting a new version of Punk Noir at the South Dallas Cultural Center on January 25, 2020.
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