The Visual Artist Inspiring Women to Live Freely Through Her Illustrations

The Visual Artist Inspiring Women to Live Freely Through Her Illustrations

Nigerian artist Renike Olusanya breaks down one of her most striking pieces and tells us how she uses art to empower women.

In 2020, while the pandemic raged on, in substitute for the homeliness and protection being indoors should have brought, for some lockdowns created dangerous situations. Within communities in some African countries, stories of women experiencing violence spread through news channels. Reactions coursed through social media. Answers and justice were demanded from authorities. All of this led Lagos-based artist Renike Olusanya to create the poignant piece, titled She Will Not Be Silent.

Aside from that impactful work, Olusanya’s creations have a compelling beauty and irresistible imagery worked into them. Most of her works sway towards capturing the lifestyle and expressions of women. “I draw women because that’s my reality,” Olusanya tells OkayAfrica. “The women that inspire me, people that I can talk to when I’m down, they’re women”. These women inform the stories behind her creations.

Before becoming a visual illustrator, she was working a 9-5 as a graphic designer, pursuing her art on the side as a hobby. But Olusanya struggled with the lack of freedom to express herself, and in 2020, as COVID-19 was taking hold of the world, she made the decision to make her hobby a full-time endeavor.

Renike spoke to OkayAfrica about what fuels her work.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Take us back to creating your piece, She Will Not Be Silent. How did you create such an impactful work that also went viral?

First of all, when the lockdown happened, it was a huge reality shock to all of us. The last time there was a pandemic, it was way before my parents were even born. It was a shock to everybody. It was a shock to me; it was a shock to friends, family, parents and all of that. And it was also hard emotionally.

Unfortunately enough, there was a wave of sad incidents when the lockdown started. Women were dying, women being raped. I think there were protests in Kenya and another African country where women were being killed. Women being mistreated even in their homes and all of that. It was so heavy. That artwork, I didn’t just think about it and suddenly create it.

At one time, I was just crying every day because of how heavy the thing was in my heart. I think one thing that brought me through the entire phase, right up to when I created that artwork, was that I’m very active on Twitter; I liked how women were always talking about things there.

While we were fighting about our own in Nigeria, we were also fighting for the women in Kenya, it gave me a glimmer of hope. Because even though these bad things were happening, people were trying to find solutions, even if it was through using their voices to amplify those issues on social media.

It gave me a bit of hope. The heaviness on my chest reduced. And that was when I was able to create She Will Not Be Silent. It took me two to three weeks to be able to bring myself to create that artwork. I knew I wanted to express myself. At one point, I even got off social media. Because it was just so much. Because watching those women not get tired of it, unlike me, gave me strength. They kept talking about it; it made me want to create.

That was how I was able to draw what I drew. And that’s why it’s titled it She Will Not Be Silent. She’ll never be silent. These women, even though they are tired, they’ll keep talking. They’re not silent. They’ll keep speaking for change. The entire thing was just so inspiring for me.

You created the book cover for Nicola Yoon’s Instructions for Dancing, a highlight of your career -- what was that process for that?

I think the author noticed my work on social media. How she did, I don’t understand. She wrote one of my favorite books in the world, Everything, Everything. When the creative director reached out to me via email, I almost fainted. They reached out asking if I'd like to create the book cover. I was, like, 'They’re asking me?' I was, like, 'I would be so stoked to do that because I’m a huge fan of this author already.'

I don’t read a lot so imagine for me to know her. That's how much I love her. It was such an exciting and easy project. They made everything so easy for me. They told me what they wanted. I could ask as many questions as I wanted, so it was such a smooth process. I guess that’s what makes the final work so beautiful.

The book cover for Instructions for Dancing.

Social media helped one of Renike Olusanya's favorite authors reach out to her to illustrate a book cover.

Photo: Renike Olusanya

Your drawings mostly revolve around women — women expressing themselves by dancing, moving — why is this?

I’m really into women like that because I’m a woman. It’s what I see everyday when I look into the mirror. When I’m watching a movie, I’m much more focused on what the women are doing and how I can relate to it. When I go out everyday, I’m noticing different things mostly on women, noticing their hairstyle, noticing their fashion, noticing their body shape.

As a creative person, are there things that drain you?

Sometimes when I get too many commissions at a time, it drains me. Money is good; sometimes you need some time to yourself. If I keep working for a long period of time, I get tired. For a short period of time that follows, I don’t want to touch a pencil, I don’t want to see anything that involves drawing for a short period of time. Just for me to get my energy back. There are a lot of artists that say they draw everyday. I don’t draw everyday. I cannot do it. If I draw everyday, I’ll be drained.

Nigeria also drains me. This country drains me; it’s so difficult. If you’re in your house, Nigeria will stress you. Whether there’s no light or something. If you leave your house, Lagos will stress you. If you don’t meet traffic, you’ll meet someone that will scratch your car or a trailer will fall on you. This country drains me and it’s why I’m very introverted. Because that’s my own way of protecting my energy.

An image of Renike Olusanya's artwork featuring a woman and a dog.

Renike Olusanya draws women because they inspire her most.

Photo: Renike Olusanya

What meaning does art give to you?

Apart from the money art brings to me, practicing as a full-time artist in this country is crazy. Art is very therapeutic and clears my head. Sometimes it clogs up my head and sometimes it clears my head. Then art is life. We see everything in art. It’s therapeutic, it’s communicative. What I can say is that art is my life. It helps me think; it expands my reality. If I’m stuck in one place, I can always run myself in another place [through art].

What advice do you have for struggling artists in Nigeria?

I think the first thing is, be consistent. I think that’s something that has helped me over the years. It seems it’s a lot of effort at first, but people are always watching. Always practice and always put your work out there. Don’t think because you’re just getting two likes, it doesn’t mean people are not seeing what you’re doing.

Sometimes artists struggle with visibility, because they think they’re not getting a certain number of interactions on their social media posts, then it means they’re not seeing it. That’s very false. Because people are watching you. Sometimes people refer to some things I did years ago when I think people weren’t watching. It shocks me.

Always practice, always be consistent with your work. Be known for something. People will want to explore different fields or explore different things at the same time. I feel more energy should be channeled towards one thing, then you can now introduce the rest when you master that one thing.