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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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Anjel Boris, Question Mark, 2019, Acrylic and posca on canvas, 133 by 7cm. Image courtesy of Out Of Africa and @artxlagos

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We talked to artistic director of ArtXLagos, Tayo Ogunbiyi, about Lagos's unique art scene and what's to expect from West Africa's biggest art party.

OkayAfrica is a media partner of ArtXLagos 2019.

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6 Things We Learned About African Migration to Europe in 2019 From a New UN Report

UNDP representatives presented their "Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe" report last night at Okay Space. Here's what we found out.

Yesterday, Okay Space hosted a discussion between UN luminaries Ahunna Eziakonwa, Mohamed Yahya and OkayAfrica CEO, Abiola Oke about the new UNDP report, Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe. The report examines young Africans who are leaving their homes to make the dangerous journey to Europe for economic opportunities—not solely for asylum or to escape persecution. The evening was both enlightening and sobering, and the main findings may be a little different than what you might expect.

Immigration to Europe from Africa is roughly 90 percent lower than what it was in 2015.

In 2015, slightly over 1 million Africans left for Europe. In 2018, it was just over 100,000. However, the percentage of those who drown on the journey has increased. In 2015, it was 1.6 percent of that million, while it grew to 2 percent in 2018. Meaning just over 2,000 people died enroute in 2018 alone. It is a disturbing factor that, four years on, more people are dying proportionately than when the large migrations began.

Even though most of Africa is rural, most of the youth leaving the continent for economic reasons are from the urban areas.


85 percent of those who the report identified came from urban cities or towns, though only 45 percent of Africans overall live in those urban areas. This means that most of them are coming from regions with "relatively low levels of deprivation." Analysts believe the rapid urbanization of many African cities could be a contributing factor. Benin City, Nigeria, for instance, has urbanized 122 percent in only ten years. These cities cannot actually support the people—and their ambitions and talents—who live there. It plateaus and does not allow for further upward mobility.

Only 2 percent of those who left say knowing the dangers would have deterred them.

This means 98 percent would do it again, despite the knowledge of fatalities and difficulties in crossing. The appeal of elsewhere is greater than death. This realization is crucial for all nations to better comprehend the true elements belying migration, particularly for those that this report is concerned with. Of the 1,970 migrants from 39 African countries interviewed for the report, almost all of them are willing to face death for economic opportunities abroad than stay home. As most of the migrants had relatively comfortable lives at home, they are not migrating to flee death or persecution as with asylum seekers. This prompts great questions and led the report to look at the issue from four angles: home life in Africa, motivations for leaving, life in Europe, motivations for returning.

58 percent of those who left were employed or in school in their home country.

Not only that, in almost every demographic and country, those who left had a considerably higher amount of education than their peers. From Malu, those leaving had an average of five years of education, compared to one year with peers in their age group and two years for the national average. In Cameroon, those leaving had an average 12 years, their peers had seven and the national average of six. Even when broken down by gender, both men and women who leave have about nine years of education while the national average is five and three, respectively.

Though the average African family size is five, most of those who leave have an average family size of 10.

When asked, migrants said their main motivation to leave is to send money home. This information is important as it may impact the motivations for needing to leave. The report reasons that an increase in population may also be playing a role in the motivations to leave. It was also reported that those who go abroad and find work send an average 90 percent of their earnings to their families. Essentially, they are leaving existing jobs to live on 10 percent of their new wage, highlighting that working below minimum wage in Europe is more prosperous.

Though 70 percent of those in Europe said they wanted to stay permanently, those who were working were more likely to want to return to their home country.

Conversely, the majority of those who did want to stay in Europe were not earning anything, 64 percent of them, and 67 percent did not have a legal right to work. Over half of those who did want to return home had a legal right to work. Analysts reason that those who did want to stay would likely change their mind once they had an income. This correlation speaks to a significant relationship between work and migration permanence. It also underlines the claim that migration for this group is focused solely on economic results as opposed to social factors.


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What was most striking about the event, however, was the strong feeling communicated in the space about exchanges between Africans regarding what needs to be done. The discussion did not only surround the facts and figures alone, but also the humanity behind understanding why people migrate. At one point, when addressing the crowd of various influential people on the continent and in the diaspora, Eziakonwa said "What are we missing here? What are we doing by leaving young Africans out of the development discussion? Our programs are clearly failing our African youth."

Later, Yahya responded to a question by stating there was certainly a cultural barrier in which Africans do not often address, listen to or respect the youth. "I can say by looking at you that no one in this room would be given a true say," he said. "This is clearly part of the issue." When asked what can be done by others, the response was to work to change the narrative, to focus on prosperity rather than charity and to provide better access and platforms for African youth to share their stories so that the idea of who migrants are shifts. And so we, as Africans, can better know ourselves.

Check out some photos from last night below with photos from Polly Irungu. Follow and share in the changing of that narrative via #ScalingFencesUNDP and #MyJourney.

Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu

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A person holds an umbrella bearing the colors of the rainbow flag as others wave flags during a gay pride rally in Entebbe, Uganda. August 09, 2014. (Photo: ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

A Lesbian Woman, Who Fled Uganda for the US After a Homophobic Attack, Is Now Facing Deportation

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