17-year-old David Uzochukwu is already making an impact in the photo world. We get to know the young artist.
Belgium-based Austro-Nigerian photographer David Uzochukwu has been making an impact in the photo world for a few years now. At just 17-years-old, the award-winning artist has already earned accolades from Canon, Flickr and EyeEm, who named him their 2014 Photographer of the Year. His clients include the Opéra Nationale de Paris and Adobe Photoshop. In March, Uzochukwu will appear in the upcoming mo(ve)ments: African Digital Subjectivities at Yale’s AFRICA SALON.
We get to know the young artist in the conversation below.
Ifeanyi Awachie for Okayafrica: How would you describe your cultural background? What does the label “African” mean to you?
Uzochukwu: I usually say I’m Austro-Nigerian. There are people who refer to me as an “African photographer” — usually those aren’t people who actually know me. I do feel like the label “African” is used to just trivialize. It’s kind of an umbrella term. Usually I say I’m Austro-Nigerian or an Afro-European artist because just “African” is not who I am either.
It doesn’t tell the full story.
Exactly. Especially since I’ve lived in Europe, I wouldn’t want to be labeled African for the sake of people who are completely African and who have their own story to tell.
Are there African photographers, other African artists, or aspects of African culture that have influenced your work?
I know close to no modern African art, but Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s work has been influencing me lately, and both my love for bold colors and my yearning for freedom are very Igbo. I really like her use of colors and space and mood. Her subjects are removed from their scenery, and the colors she uses really accentuate the kind of somber mood she’s going for — melancholic. I feel that. I can relate to that. I feel like “No Place for Nature” and “Marsh Warbler” capture what I love about her paintings. The quiet mood, the use of space, the single dominating color deciding the work’s atmosphere. It’s bold and delicate at the same time.
Do you identify as Igbo? Are there aspects of your upbringing and parenting that were influenced by Igbo culture?
My father is Igbo, and he did try to raise me like an Igbo father would. I don't identify as Igbo though, there's just so much about the culture that I don't know.
How would an Igbo raise a child?
A lot of it has to do with respect for elders. So, that can be a very good thing, obviously, like, you just respect their wisdom and their knowledge and the fact that they’ve experienced so many things that you haven’t yet. But, on the other side, what comes with it is you as a young person often find that your experiences are being devalued and you’re not taken seriously. I feel what comes with Igbo upbringing is often that children or young people are not as respected as they could be, but their feelings are technically just as valid.
My mother did have a more European approach. There was kind of a clash. It’s interesting to look back and see the upsides and downsides. For example, when addressing my parents, when I address my father, I actually never felt quite as close to him as I did to my mother, which is kind of a result of having to treat him with more respect, not necessarily respect that is earned but just respect that is demanded. Even if he does deserve it, that’s not something a child necessarily understands.
Whereas your mother’s approach, the European approach, was to earn your respect?
I feel like that’s pretty accurate. To treat young people like they would another adult, to show them the same respect they would show to adults. Not all European parents are like that way — I know some people who have not been raised that way — but that’s one way [my parents’] methods parted.
Could you say more about how or why Igbo people "yearn for freedom?” What do you want freedom from? Or freedom to do?
All Igbos I know crave Biafra's independence. I've always just wanted to be free to live as an artist, as who I am.
What was it like growing up black in Luxembourg?
I’ve had my fair share of experiences with racism in Luxembourg. The country’s population isn’t very diverse. I only knew a handful of other black kids, which could be hard at times. My childhood was wonderful though; there are worse places to be black.
Did people ever see you as African first? Does that affect interactions you have?
I feel like most people did, actually. Most people that aren’t Luxembourgish are southern European, so you really do stand out as a black person. That definitely affected people’s interactions with me. They had lower expectations and higher expectations at the same time. When they saw that I was able to communicate with them like a normal human being, they raised them. I consistently had to prove myself. They were just trying to make my life harder.“
You’ve said you “want to create work that actually changes something.” What social justice issues do you care about?
How could I not care about a social justice issue? I’m a big defender of intersectionality and I care about anything that keeps someone from living the best life they possibly could. I’m working on whatever I get the chance to work on.
What intersecting identities do you have or care about in particular?
I care about pretty much everything. Usually it’s so hard because people, for example, like white people — people that were confronted with the fact that racism is still a thing — were completely shocked. They didn’t believe me, they thought I was lying — I’ve had horrible clashes with people. I feel this need to bring to people’s awareness that racism exists. If racism is the starting point, there are so many forms of discrimination that can be layered with that, like sexism, homophobia and ableism.
How does that relate to your work?
By portraying people that are being discriminated against at different levels, that kind of helps by telling their story, showing them as multilayered or multifaceted characters. But I really have a lot of work to do, I’ve only recently started to make work about this. I’ve only recently grown aware of the fact that telling a black body’s story is somehow revolutionary in itself today. There’s a distinct lack of black bodies in Western media and art and I’ve found making art with black bodies to fight against that is something very beautiful. My photos show that African subjects of any kind can be just as profound as anyone else. I want to create layered characters, tell black stories, get rid of stereotypes and portray us as humans.
Let’s talk about your self-portraits and your creative process. I notice that in many of your photos, you’re pictured with eyes closed and half-submerged in water or covered in paint. What went through your mind as you made those artistic decisions?
You have to know that coming up with concepts isn’t something that I do very consciously. Looking back on the work I make I can try to somehow interpret the mood I was going for, because I was going for a certain feeling, a certain visual sometimes. I’ve noticed the closed eyes because I have a total of about ten pictures with eyes open [laughs]. I feel like it gives pictures something very soft and very quiet. It’s a moment where the viewer can actually view freely and observe what is going on in the picture. It’s kind of introspective as well. You see someone with their eyes closed and they’re thinking, they’re dreaming; they’re hoping.
What draws you to nature and natural elements?
In a way, just their magnificence. I grew up in Luxembourg for ten years. It’s very rural — there are loads of fields and forests. You get to really appreciate nature. I moved to Brussels two years ago. Ever since then, the one thing that brightens up my week is a beautiful sunrise. I can draw so much energy from real, raw beauty. It sounds very cliché, but it’s true in a way. It’s so calm and so big and it’s been here for so much longer than we have. And it will be. In its grandness, in a way.
Your accomplishments at this young age are extremely impressive. What do you think of your success so far? Where do you see yourself in ten years?
It’s been mad. I’ve been uploading pictures onto the internet for four to five years before anything happened, and then everything happened really quickly. I’m kind of not really trusting the success but making the best of it. It’s been really amazing to have people reach out and tell me stories and tell me that they could relate to my pictures and that they moved them. And I’m really glad I got to meet the people who I got to meet and that I got to show my work in physical spaces, and that I got signed with my agency sometime last year. It’s just really cool — the fact that people believe in you and like your vision and what you do.
Any interest in collaborating with African artists in your future work?
Absolutely. I know very, very few African photographers, which is very sad and which I’m trying to rectify at the moment. There are two African designers I found on Instagram in the past year who I’d like to work with: Loza Maléombho and Kibonen NY. Apart from that, I’m always open to work with African youth; that’s something I’d love to do. Like anyone — you don’t have to be successful or creative, you just got to be you, be honest, share your story with me and I’ll try to make your portrait. I’m thinking about going to Nigeria and working with people there. Obviously I’d also love to work with people with a bigger profile.