Art

The Artist Is Present: Congolese-French Illustrator Nicholle Kobi's Drawings Shamelesly Celebrate the Strength of Black Women

In the latest edition of our series, we catch up with illustrator Nicholle Kobi on the purpose and process of her work.

Nicholle Kobi is a black French illustrator whose work oozes black girl magic. Her drawings celebrate the plurality of black women. In a day and age where we are still not held in high regard, she celebrates our curves, skin color, hair texture, and style.

Born in Kinshasa, Congo but raised in Normandy, France by her father, she has a voice that is both unique and strong.

“I think I have always been an artist. The weird one. The crazy one," Kobi says.

"My oldest memory about drawing was when I was 5. I was drawing on my stepmother's Amina magazines. It was black and white. When she was finished reading them I would draw on the women's faces and change their clothing. I studied art in middle school. Everybody hated art but I loved it. I loved to draw. People see art as recreation. I took it seriously. I went to an art school for high school. We studied 10 to 15 hours of art every week. My father always told me I had to attend Beaux-Arts (one of the most notable art schools in France) in Rouen or Paris. I wasn't accepted into the school but I moved to Paris to study art history, fashion design, and modeling in a preparatory program."

Photo courtesy of Nicholle Kobi.

With her heart set on art but a lack of encouragement, Kobi gave up this dream. She was lost. Her father was in the middle of a divorce and her teachers told her she would never find a job if she continued on the path she was on. She switched gears and studied banking and insurance. In her roles in the business industry, she was miserable. She would work 2 years in companies and grow so weary she jumped ship. She fought her desire to do something something creative as she doodled on her contracts.

In the last company she worked at, salvation came in the form of pregnancy and being put on bedrest. While home, she needed something to do. She REALLY drew for the first time in over 10 years. The mother of two, at the time, taught herself photoshop and graphic design. Her first post on Instagram quickly gained traction and the rest, well, is history in the making.

Kobi is now 4 years into a career as a black illustrator who draws black women in a France that isn't ready for her. “French black people are taught to assimilate," she says. Where African Americans and blacks everywhere but home embrace her with open arms, there she is met with, “You can not openly draw black people. You must draw white people." It is still very much a society in which you must adhere to white standards.

Her peers want to be approved by their white counterparts. They have to love France more than their white counterparts. They must never criticize it. Kobi notes the France she comes from “is not ready to see a group of successful black women. They are not ready to see black love. Seeing a black family means you have a black husband and black children. In a group of white people, you will always have one black friend, not two or three. This is how France has built the black French mentality. On television you will never see a normal black couple but you will see mixed couples." The most successful black bloggers in Paris are married with white men and display their mixed children on their platforms as though they are trophies. Black parents say things like, “Get married with a white guy and you will be good." She is combating the aforementioned. “This is the result of colonization," the artist affirms. She recounts going to a Christmas party with her family and asking for photographs of them she assumed had been taken, later on. To her dismay, the photographer sends her an image of mixed children and is confused when told these aren't members of her family. Her greatest pride is having black children. “My children are the only black children with two black parents, from my generation, at their school," she says.

The French idea of assimilation asks immigrants to abandon their cultures because it holds there isn't unity in diversity. It creates identity conflicts that go so deep it would take a book or three to explain them in a way that makes sense. The above simply scratches the surface of what it's like to live in the country. Art like Kobi's is critical in such a place. Her work resonates with me because I am a Cameroonian woman born in Paris. My immigrant parents navigated through the France she speaks of and on many occasions, my mother has encouraged me to marry outside of my race so as to “be good." I have a friend of Ivorian and Senegalese descent who was born in and spent the majority of her life in France but refuses to identify as French. “They don't accept us. I am African. They will never accept us as French," she says. Surprisingly, the majority of the racism Kobi has experienced in Paris has come from Northern Africans, which is more painful because you wouldn't expect such from them. It is obvious France has a long way to go.

You would think combating an ideology like assimilation has got to take some mentoring, right? When asked what women have inspired her, the illustrator says, “I didn't have any close female figures. My mother wasn't in my life and my stepmother and I didn't get along. I am surprised when my kids say they idolize me." Despite not having a woman mold her into who she is, there was a moment that changed her, “When I was 10 or 11, I was watching a documentary about African American history. I saw a woman on sitting alone on a bus. The man spoke about Rosa Parks. I was so shocked to see this black women on a bus being yelled at by white men. I cried. I wanted to be her."

The artist laughs as she controversially states the French will throw fits when they hear her say, “I love women's history. I recently read a book about Kimpa Vita who fought against Congolese colonization. I love to hear about strong women. Black women are more powerful than they can imagine. I love to learn about black women. I don't care about Simone De Beauvoir. Marie Antoinette doesn't interest me. Coco Chanel doesn't interest me. I am sorry to say this. Black women sacrifice their lives and no one talks about them."

Kobi is pushing forward despite the challenges she must face. To her, the most difficult aspect of doing what she does is, “To keep creating. To be creative. There is an evolution in my art work from where I started to today. If you are afraid to try new things, you will be old fashioned. People look to creatives to surprise them, especially black ones." With work that embraces black women, there leaves room for the inclusion of men. She reveals, “Before I came here, I started drawing a group of black men. I look forward to finishing it but it needs to be perfect."

In the near future, Kobi hopes to open a studio in New York, work on an animated series, and launch a capsule clothing collection.

She may or may not have already inked deals with two major greeting card manufacturers. Shhh…

Catch Nicholle Kobi on the second half of her art exhibition tour, keep up with her on Instagram, and her pieces are available for purchases here.


Audrey Lang is an alumna of Northeastern University and a Boston-based merchandiser who's enamored with all things fashion, art and Africa. Keep up with her on Instagram and Twitter.

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This Afro-Feminist Marching Band Is Challenging Negative Stereotypes of Black Women In Paris

30 Nuances de Noires is fighting the erasure of black women in public spaces one march at a time.

If you stroll through the streets of Paris and its suburbs and stumble across a parade of black women wearing shiny outfits, singing and dancing, consider yourself lucky: you've just come across the Afro-feminist marching band '30 Nuances de Noires' (30 Shades of Black).

The band was created by dancer and choreographer Sandra Rose Fanchine. Tired of the erasure of black women in the public space and of the negative stereotypes associated with them, Fanchine has brought women (and a few men) together in this project. Professional and amateur singers, dancers and musicians, they have all accepted to embark on this journey and use their talents to launch this much-needed conversation in France.

Sandra Rose FanchinePhoto by SEKA photography

The band's musical coordinator, Célia Wa, is a flautist, singer and composer. When Fanchine invited her to take part in the project, she was very enthusiastic to have the opportunity to play alongside other black female musicians and take part in something that portrays black women in a positive light and in a flamboyant way. She was also keen to play alongside other black female musicians and coordinate them, outside, in the public space, where music is accessible to everyone. But it wasn't easy going. "It's hard to find women who play wind instruments" she explains. "But especially black women. So, we decided to incorporate a few black men musicians—men who understand the meaning of the project and support us. They don't try to dominate the space, they wear dresses and headwraps, they really blend into the group."

Célia WaPhoto by SEKA photography

Wa hopes the project will encourage many young girls to become professional musicians by showing them that being a fulfilled woman, having a music career and a family life, is possible.

Awori is the singer of the band Kamiawori, and a singer and dancer in the parade. She accepted Fanchine's invitation to join the band because she realized a brass band made of women—especially black women—was something unique that she wanted to be part of. "Throughout history, women had been forbidden to play wind instruments because blowing into those instruments was assimilated to a sexual act", says Kamiawori. "As a result, nowadays, the majority of people playing these instruments are men, so the fact that Sandra was looking for black women only was really appealing to me".

Earlier this year the band had the chance to travel to French Guiana to do a performance with black Guyanese women. This is the kind of future she wants for the project. "I want us to go to places in France where there aren't many black people, as well as to the former French colonies and the French overseas territories," she says. She hopes the project will start conversations everywhere, and empower black women to talk about their issues in their own words and organize their own emancipation.

AworiPhoto by SEKA photography

***

Read on for our conversation with Sandra Rose Fanchine. This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Can you tell us about yourself and your background?

I'm 51 years old, I was born in Martinique and grew up in Côte d'Ivoire. I'm a hip-hop dancer and choreographer. I first came to France 22 years ago to study graphic design but along the way, I found hip hop and started dancing out of passion. With my background in graphic design, I knew I was going to be a choreographer eventually, I was convinced I could use hip hop beyond its performance aspect, bringing my visual artist's knowledge to it and using it to promote a narrative. So, when the age of maturity came, I became a choreographer. My first work considered the social construction of femininity, and I then created a piece which dealt with the memory of the black body. 30 Nuances de Noires is my third choreographic work.

Where did the idea of "30 Nuances de Noires" come from?

It came from my professional frustration as a black woman. When I was looking for a job after my studies, my graphic design work was very culturally influenced by my life in Martinique and Côte d'Ivoire. I was proud to show the aesthetics and the colors, to me it was beautiful but it wasn't seen as such, it was seen as something unworthy and my work was always devalued.

I also had to face that devaluation in my personal life. I wanted to partner up with a black man, but I could see that black men didn't value me, didn't give me space and in general chose to have solid relationships with white women. I am light-skinned so I used to pass black men's colorist filters, but this privilege stopped as soon as commitment was mentioned. I looked around me and saw a pattern in the way black men treated black women, in the way people in general treated black women, how we were looked down upon. I wanted to create something about that topic.

Photo by SEKA Photography

Why did you choose that name?

I chose that name to criticize the movie 50 shades of Grey, which from a feminist point of view is a sexist and misogynist movie, that glamorizes violence against women. Moreover, black women, in the global conception related to sexuality and sentiments, are continually eroticized in a very specific way: animalization, exotification and fetishization. I chose to reclaim these stigmas, just as Audre Lorde writes about in the chapter of her book Sister Outsider named "the use of eroticism, and the use of anger: the response of women to racism."

How did the people around you react to this project?

At first, I wanted to do a piece about sexuality, love and the neocolonial aspects of interracial unions but I faced a backlash from people in the cultural institutions and people in the hip hop industry. Whenever I talked about my project I was completely shut down and called a racist.

After all that rejection and denigration, I went back to university and studied gender studies for two years, and around the same time I became an Afro-feminist activist. In the meantime, the project evolved. I used to work at festivals where there were many brass brands and I already wanted to create a marching band with hip hop dancers so I just mixed the two ideas: highlighting black women's issues and creating a marching band.

After equipping myself with the relevant intellectual tools, surrounding myself with other black women and realizing we were all going through the same things, I was capable of demonstrating the systemic nature of what I was talking about and the barriers fell. I was finally in the right place at the right time. I found the artists very easily, the first musicians I met brought other musicians, the first dancers brought other dancers, it all happened very organically.

Photo by SEKA Photography

What type of women were you looking for?

I was looking for women who were strong enough to embody and address those issues unapologetically. They had to be capable of dancing on the streets with an attitude that says "I am standing up straight, I am black, I am glowing, I am shining and you will look at me and ask yourself how you really see me because I am not all those stereotypes you believe I am." Naturally, it first attracted feminists, women who were already aware of those issues. The women who later joined us and weren't aware of those issues are now more conscious and politicized.

What are the musical and aesthetic inspirations behind the project?

I really wanted visuals inspired by the aesthetics of the 70s and 80s because the dances present in the parade—locking and waacking—emerged at that time. For the musical aspect, I looked for songs that talked about black women and their issues: sorority, colorism, equality and resilience.

Photo by SEKA Photography

How do you see the project evolving in the future?

I want to do a world tour, I want us to dance with Beyoncé and Solange, I want to take this message of empowerment everywhere there are black women who need to exist, shine, go outside and assert their presence in the public space. Because of harassment, sexism and prejudice, it's still pretty complicated for women to simply exist. I consider myself lucky because I can see that the band does what I wanted it to do: it really empowers black women and seeing that happening gives me a lot of strength to take it further.

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Seyi Shay. Image provided by the artist.

Seyi Shay's 'Electric Package' EP Is All About Love & Positive Vibes

We talk to Seyi Shay about her new EP, an intimate mix of different afrobeats blends topped off by Gqom.

Talented Nigerian singer and songwriter Seyi Shay recently dropped her brand new music project, the Electric Package EP Vol. 1.

It's her first project in three years, since the release of her debut album, Seyi or Shay, in 2015. The EP, an intimate mix of different blends of afrobeats, contains six tracks, topped off at the end by the Gqom brand of South African house music.

The project features artists from different corners of Africa, including rising singer King Promise from Ghana, Afropop songstress Vanessa Mdee from Tanzania, and rapper and producer Anatii from South Africa, giving it a pan-African outlook.

However, she didn't forget her fellow Nigerian acts, as seasoned highlife singer Flavour, young Afropop superstar Kiss Daniel, and fresh act Slimcase are also on the bill.

Several DJs were also involved in the project, hosting different songs in mixtape fashion; DJ Spinall, DJ Consequence, DJ Neptune, and DJ Cuppy from Nigeria, Vision DJ from Ghana, and DJ Tira from South Africa. The songs were produced by Killertunes, DJ Coublon, Krizz Beat, Lush Beat, Anatii, and Chopstix.

We caught up with the singer to discuss Electric Package. Read our conversation below.

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Photo courtesy of Nike.

OkayAfrica & Nike Present: Naija Worldwide

We're linking up with Nike to celebrate Nike's fire Nigeria kits and to send Team Nigeria off to the 2018 World Cup with style.

Partner content from Nike

We've teamed up with Nike to bring the Naija spirit to the world with "Naija Worldwide," an epic bash to celebrate Nike's triumphant Nigeria kits as we send Team Nigeria off to the 2018 World Cup with style!

Join us on Saturday, June 2, from 3:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at The Well in Brooklyn as we mark the occasion with music by DJ Tunez, DJ Moma and DJ Moniki. The vibe also includes art by Laolu Senbanjo, Nigerian cuisine, and a surprise performance by one of Afrobeats' finest.

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