Jacqueline Suowari ” The Black Ballpoint Pen is Magic”
Born in 1990, Jacqueline Dogun Suowari is a Nigerian artist who works predominantly with a ballpoint pen. Her journey began at a tender age with her mother storing up all her scribbles and drawings in a folder.
After experimenting with several media including pastels, charcoal, and acrylics, she found her artistic voice using the black ball-point pen. Obsessed with subtle facial expressions, she achieves contrast and clarity to bring her models to life. Strongly figurative, her work revolves generally around gender, language, and identity.
She has participated in select group exhibitions in her country and has been featured in notable publications including Chukwuemeka Ben Bosah’s The Art of Nigerian Women, which chronicles some of the leading artists in Nigeria today.”
In this interview with Omenka, she discusses her medium significant exhibitions in her career and forthcoming projects.
Tell us about your artistic background. How does it influence your creative process and the way your ideas evolve?
I was born with art; it’s like an application that has always been running in my system.
My mum was instrumental in my early growth. Throughout my childhood, she stored up all my scribbles and drawings in a folder. When I grew older, I quickly realised that this (art) was something I wanted to do.
I love to draw, and I am ever fascinated by lines and strokes and the contrast of shading. As a teenager, I made many ballpoint pen drawings, and though I did them with blue instead of black; I always loved the contrast. I quickly realised that the ballpoint pen wasn’t a traditional art medium for drawing when I got into the university to study art, so I abandoned it for pastels and charcoal pencils. I found the contrast with charcoal pencils quite satisfying, but it always blurred my strokes or lines. One day in 2011, while creating new drawings for an exhibition, I decided to try out a black ballpoint pen, and the final result was amazing. I loved the contrast and clarity of the strokes. I had finally found a complete way to express my passion. I was finally content with a medium.
As you probably can tell, I majored in painting. I was painting traditionally for about four years after art school, but I wasn’t quite satisfied. Firstly, painting didn’t have the kind of strokes I liked. Secondly, the contrast in colour was never enough for me. And thirdly, I needed to create a style that ‘ministered to me’ (for lack of a better expression). Finding solutions to my dissatisfactions through processes of experimentation led me here, this place where I now identify as a ballpoint artist.
As for ideas, I have always been fixated on human beings—features, gender, expression, communication, language, and identity. The themes in my work generally revolve around these parts of my human experience and the best ways I am finding to portray them.
Your work also embraces different media, including pencil, pen, ink, spray paint, and acrylic. Which is your most preferred? How have your themes varied over the years, and why?
At the moment, my most preferred medium is a black ballpoint pen followed by acrylic paint.
My themes have always evolved and revolved around the human figure. In the beginning, I was obsessed with subtle facial expressions, but through the years, emotional expression, experiences, language, and identity have become a constant for me.
Your 2018 series ‘Unchained’ features several pieces: Enchanted, Flowers for Ada, The Virgin, Sunny Side Up, Of Burdens and Triumphs, Bliss, Fatima, What If, Girl with the Blue Scarf, Waiting to Exhale, Breathe, and Shakara. Kindly elaborate on this series, giving an insight into its beginning, uniqueness, and significance to your overall oeuvre.
My ‘Unchained’ series (2017) has become like a milestone in my current practice. Earlier, I mentioned how I was dissatisfied with my creative process, and how I had to begin experimenting with representational ideas and styles that spoke to me. I knew I needed to break away from the traditional methods of painting that were prevalent at the time. I wanted to create a style that was unique to me but was easy to relate to. So I went on a journey of research and discovery. One day in 2011, I came across a painting by Njideka Akunyili-Crosby and was awed by the several layers of detail and combination of media—collage, painting, textures, and photo transfers.
I love contrast, but normal painting of the skin in colour can lack the amount of contrast that speaks to me. The solution for me was to start painting figures in black and white. I did a few paintings with my new rendition, but they became boring as soon as I finished them. I knew I desperately needed to infuse colour, but I didn’t know how. Finding Akunyili-Crosby at the time was the answer. I began doing coloured photo collages on the clothes of my figures, especially with photos that relate to the themes I was addressing.
I got bored again with this new painting technique. Then I remembered: I love to draw!
I began participating in exhibitions, showing drawings and paintings in my new style, which had become black and white with a touch of colour.
In 2014, I had a mental shift. As an artist, you constantly read that you should create from the inside out, find what appeals to you and centre on it, as opposed to following bandwagons or trends. I did my soul searching and decided I was going to just draw. In the process of making the decision, I had to first fight off the “but you’re a painter” and “drawing is not as valued, it’s just a means to an end” voices in my head—things I had been hearing from society. The decision was a hard one, but I stuck to it.
I realised that, for me, the black ballpoint pen is magic in a way that no other drawing material was. Then I developed a layering process of shading, which has become one of the most important features of my work. I use it as a metaphor for experience—each layer representing the new experience that joins the collective web of experiences that form your character and present reality.
My ‘Unchained’ series is particularly significant to me because it was the official launch of my almost four years of experimenting and representing my subjects in an unusual way, with unusual backdrops using a ballpoint pen, acrylic, and ink in a way I’d never seen done before.
I was never a patient artist, but I learned the patience of layering processes from studying Akunyili-Crosby’s work. I learned the art of just working through the different phases of creation and doing so patiently until the work comes alive—when I successfully capture the essence of my subject and when I add colour to the composition. It’s exhilarating.
You participated in Art Basel Week, Miami, in 2018. What was the experience like and would you say it has been the most defining moment of your career?
You know that feeling when you’ve wanted something to happen so deeply and passionately that when it finally is happening, it’s like a dream? That’s just how I felt and still feel about it. Seeing my works hanging on the white walls, taking on a life of their own, left me in awe. Then, there was also the great feedback from the audience, which I deeply appreciate. It was awesome. And yes, it was a defining moment in my career. It was the first time I was exhibiting my work on a platform where thousands of people—an entirely new audience—could access and experience my pieces within a short period of time.
Is the process of selecting your models random? Are they well known to you, sharing a part of your history? And in what manner do you want your audience to interpret your work?
It’s not random at all. I work with many people—photographers, professional models, and friends. I know a lot of them—their philosophies, their ideologies, their experiences, and their honest body expressions. These factors are important in the many notions I try to portray, they inspire me.
Sometimes, while going about my normal life, I find someone with unique features that can relate to my theme and the story I’m telling, and I ask them if they’d like to feature in my work. Most of the time, they are excited to.
Then, there are also times I’m scrolling through my feed on Instagram and a photograph will make my heart skip. If it’s deep enough and if I can connect to the image being portrayed, I’ll contact the owner of the photograph.
In the themes I choose to explore, I am pushing the ordinary concept of portraiture and figure painting from ‘Oh! That’s a beautiful person’ to ‘What’s this person’s story? Why does he/she have that hairdo? Why is this person wearing these clothes? What’s on their mind? What’s their influence?’
In a sense, I am tasking viewers’ minds, making them ask and answer questions that create a dialogue between their own stories and that of the person in the work.
People who are close to me always tell me how I am constantly finding connections to things that don’t seem connected but in fact, are. I believe, no matter where we come from, our personal experiences permeate the walls of gender, race, religion, and culture. I choose themes that centre on these contact zones, or links in experiences that we share, and the issues surrounding them, presenting them in a way that, while standing in front of one of my pieces, you begin to see the similarities between you and the person on the wall. And suddenly, you realise that even though you’re staring at a stranger and have a different ethnicity, gender, or religion, you have the same story.
Can you divulge any upcoming project?
Well, I can tell you what I’m currently researching and working on in the studio: the impact of body language and identity on] communication.
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