These Women Are Breaking Boundaries In Nigeria's Creative Spaces
We speak to five women about their work and contributions to Nigerian society & creative spaces, despite their patriarchal nature.
"African women in general need to know that it's ok for them to be the way they are–to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence" —Wangarĩ Muta Maathai
These words prompt one to think about how terrible a job the media does in sharing the stories of African women. As journalists, our work is based on telling African stories, and the gap of female stories is a very apparent one that needs filling. It's important to have an environment that appreciates fearless and unapologetic women chasing their dreams and breaking the boundaries before them.
We caught up with Toketemu Ohwovoriole, a multimedia storyteller & journalist; Solis, a singer, songwriter, poet, & muse; Lauretta Yemoja, a beauty artist and rapper/singer; Tiwa Pearl, a dancer and creative; and Oyinkansola Dada, an art curator and founder of art gallery Polartics, to talk about their careers.
Photo: Kelenna Ogboso.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? And what made you think it was something you'd want to do professionally?
I can't say I've always wanted to be a writer but as long as I can remember I felt most comfortable expressing myself with words. I'm actually a lawyer, but somewhere between my fourth year in university and law school, I decided I wanted to write. I got my first shot with Red Media in 2015/2016 and they had a publication called 'Party Jollof' where we made fun listicles, memes, things like that. I remember I started the job because I thought it would be fun giving writing professionally a shot and by my last month in the job I realised this is something I want to do professionally and I had no desire to practice law. From then on I started writing for anyone who would pay me to write.
What makes a good story worth reporting?
I think this might be a rather idealistic approach but I think everyone has a story worth telling. What makes it a good story comes it down to what angle it's being told from and how the story is crafted. Words can bring alive the most mundane of things, authors like Chimamanda could write about the colour of the sky every day and people would still read and engage.
So it's a belief I hold firmly to especially when I interview women. I don't think any story is too insignificant to be told. I'll tell a story about a woman with half a dozen degrees who is conquering the world with as much earnestness as I would write an account of tailor's day to day life. One of my favourite writing exercises is using writing prompts. So you take a word or sentence and craft a story from it. Every time I use it it just makes me realise there's a story in everything and everyone.
Photo: Kelenna Ogboso.
Tell us about the writing/journalism community in Lagos?
I think this is an interesting question because six or seven years ago I couldn't name more than a handful of Nigerian writers and journalists whose work that I thoroughly enjoyed and stanned. It wasn't due to a lack of talent in that space but rather a lack of visibility I think. I'll be the first to admit that at that time I didn't think I was doing the work of finding them. It was easier for me to read and engage foreign writers that came on my radar.
Then the first Ake festival happened in 2016 and I couldn't go but I followed it eagerly, it really blew my mind. It introduced me to people like Chinelo Okparanta, Tade Thompson, writers who were doing very important and great work. Last year I was one of the facilitators of a workshop on gender reporting for media professionals. Journalists from all over the country, not just Lagos and Abuja were at the workshop. It made realise they are journalists across the country who are doing the hard work of bringing visibility to issues that we care about, and I'm very passionate about gender issues and gender equality. I remember meeting a journalist from kano and when he spoke to me about the investigative work he'd been doing on uncovering the sex for grades problem in universities across northern Nigeria and the lecturers he had exposed with his work.
How important are writers and journalists in shaping the narratives of communities, especially in countries like Nigeria with a young population?
I would say the media holds so much control unyielding power to do this. One of the biggest things I advocate for is gender-balanced reporting because of how much power the media holds in helping women achieve gender equality. It starts from the most subtle of things, like remembering to use gender-neutral pronouns instead of defaulting to he & him, it's crafting headlines about women in such a way that you can tell that the women have personalities of their own, not just lazy headlines.
A lot of gender roles perpetuated today as norms form the core foundations of gender inequality and they've been spread by the media over the decades now. From such a young age women are exposed to stereotypical portrayals as told by the media. It's in how certain professions are portrayed as only a man's profession, it's in how sexual assault stories are reported in such a way that you might think the victim is somehow at fault, all of those things. I feel that every writer, journalist or storyteller, no matter how big or small a platform they have has a duty to apply a gender lens on everything they cover.
Through the year more women have come out to talk about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment using media as their voice. What role do you feel you play as a female writer in helping women own their story and how do you think journalism has helped?
This is something I'm fiercely passionate about. In 2018, when I started at Zikoko Magazine I realized there was a glaring lack of female-focused content in the Nigerian media space and not just any sort of female-focused content but relatable and powerful stories as told by the women who were living through the stories and not by men.
So I started a column called 'What She Said,' it allowed women to share their own takes on everything from sex to politics, in their own words. Week after week I would get emails and messages from women who had a story to share, women who were moved by seeing the stories similar to theirs being told, women who were strengthened just by realising other women out there who were like them and in similar situations as them.
I remember a lot of these stories were on rape and domestic violence and every time I shared one woman's story about any of these issues, half a dozen women would reach out to me either to lend support to the victim or to express appreciation about the story being told. There's a couple of publications doing the work now but it's not enough and we need to keep advocating for the creation of women-focused spaces in the media.
Photo: Kelenna Ogboso.
Tell us about your musical journey?
Music has always been a part of my life, and a part of my spirit and who I am. I've been singing since I was five years old and started writing music around 8 years old. So music has always been a very innate and personal thing to me. Professionally, I honestly didn't plan on starting music when I did. I had definitely started putting myself out there because I had a Youtube channel and I posted freestyles on social media but I didn't have any real plan of taking it professionally. It all sort of happened to me, the universe placed the blessings my way.
What would you describe your sound as and why do you make it?
It's quite hard to describe my music because it doesn't fit one criterion and it lends itself to different genres but I think what I'll describe my music as is 'storytelling,' that's the very basic description of it. To tell a story and have people feel something, whether that's sadness, joy, warmth or comfort. My music is meant to be a solace for people which is a double entendre to my name as Solis which means the sun but also hoping people find peace in my music.
Photo: Kelenna Ogboso.
Since your breakout appearance on Odunsi's Rare project, you've risen as one of the voices to watch from a crop of talented young singers. How important is it to you that more women are represented in music? Have you faced any challenges?
I think it's imperative that more voices of women are heard through radio waves, TV, social media, etc, because women have so much to say. I feel women have been silenced a lot or not taken seriously especially in the entertainment industry, for years it's been dominated by men and I think it's our time. With women there's so much versatility out there right now—rappers, indie singers, rock—the women are really giving everything right now and I think it's really important for the world to listen.
I think for me the greatest challenge has been the pseudo supporters because of the rise of the female movement, a lot of men in industry are jumping on that wagon of 'female support' but it's really all a facade and everything happening behind the scenes is the opposite.
You recently released Ruled by Venus, Unfortunately, a new mixtape. Tell us about that.
I call it my love project because I feel like this mixtape really gives you an insight into who Solis is. It's like an introductory project for my supporters to get to know a little bit and I do that through astrology which is a major part of my life. The project just sort of explores my feelings about love, relationship, friendships, mental health, isolation, longing and all of that.
What can we expect from you next?
You can expect my debut EP when that's done. Ruled by Venus, Unfortunately was just a tester, to get people to know Solis before we dive deep into the music.
Photo: Kelenna Ogboso.
What is Polartics about?
Polartics is a gallery for contemporary art by African artists both on the continent and in the diaspora. It started as a blog for African art, culture, literature, politics, everything. It merged into a gallery in 2018. The mission statement is to work with emerging contemporary talent. With any artists represented within Polartics, I'm always looking to find really exceptional talent, really boundary-pushing sort of talent and also artists that are willing to engage their work critically and show a dedication to their craft.
I feel it's important to cover issues like gender, sex, identity, themes like that. Those are the kinds of themes I want the artists in our roaster to represent. Just an adequate representation of youth culture I would say. Most of the artists I work with represent this in their work. The aim is to represent these artists and introduce them to a wider global audience and this is via art platforms, art fairs as you might have seen we're showing at 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London, October which is the biggest Art Fair for African art and we're also going to be showing at Christie's. This is a very exciting time for us. We hope to show at bigger art fairs and help to build careers of artists in Africa and diaspora.
In regards to curating, we aim to make sure that every exhibition we do is an experience and this isn't done only physically it's also done digitally and it's something we've learnt to deal with. Using the digital space to push boundaries within the art so as to connect with younger collectors and sort of educate them, make the art space open to everyone.
What do you think about the art scene in Lagos?
I think there's a lot of talent and a strong sense of community which is great. The younger generation has a smaller scene so they depend on each other a lot and that's good. Everyone is promoting each other. There's also a strong entrepreneurial spirit which I really like. No one is waiting for some gallery anymore to be able to do their work, they just go for it and curate exhibitions on their own independently and that's amazing.
I'll say the connection to the outside world needs to be fostered more so that artists can get paid well for their work. I think inserting yourself as a Lagos artist in a global and wider conversation about art will show your work to a larger audience and ghat way you can demand more for your art.
Photo: Kelenna Ogboso.
What impact do you think about the idea of digital galleries challenging physical ones and how can they play a role in pushing the art ecosystem in Africa?
I think the art world will always need the physicality even if there isn't a permanent physical space, it will always need that sense of community via face to face and physical contact. I guess with art it's not just about seeing the work, it's also about the community being built and the conversations being had around the art and we can't fully replicate that digitally.
The digital space helps create a more democratic system, the barriers to entry are lower, you don't have to think about a lot of things. Being a young gallery and showing predominantly digital helps us stay flexible because we were able to understand our knowledge of managing a website as opposed to taking on the burden of setting up a physical space although we do physical events like pop-ups and art fairs.
Digital galleries are helping create a pan-African feeling because any artists from Africa and around the world can see what the gallery is doing via the digital spaces being curated. The art industry isn't known to be very accessible and I think digital galleries will help with that. Also as a younger gallery that wants to connect with younger collectors it's attractive to be able to offer a seamless digital service, to be able to go online, look at the work and get a feeling that the art is good for connecting. It's an innovative approach and much more sustainable.
How has COVID impacted your operations?
I think it's the same as everyone else, can't have physical shows but we've always primarily been online anyway so it wasn't really that much of a change. We've had to cancel about two exhibitions but that's pretty much the negative, we've still been able to connect with collectors and sell pieces. It created a sense of community, there were a lot of online connections being made.
Which artist are you raging about right now and you feel the world should know?
I'll say Ekene Maduka, we're presenting a solo booth of her work at 1-54 Art Fair. That's what our focus is on right now and her work is really amazing.
Photo: Kelenna Ogboso.
You're a make-up artist and also a rapper, two very interesting spectrums. Which came first, and how did you get into both?
To be honest, music has always been in my DNA, it's been there from day one, music has always been my first love. I had my first studio session in 2010, back then I was in ss1. For make-up, I never really planned to do it because my love for it came from the fact that I was good in fine arts in Secondary School, I was really interested in colours especially landscape colours. I started doing it professionally in 2016 but music has always been there, I've been doing music for about 10 years.
Your make up company Visage De Couleur has worked with the biggest names in Nigerian industry, how have you grown your career as an MUA so fast?
I started doing collaborations when I started makeup. I was lucky to start working with stylist Daniel Obasi, we became a team and worked on a lot of projects together... Before I knew it the work we did together had gone far and wide. Around 2018 Visage De Couleur became a household name, and I got into a lot of artists and video shoots, from Santi, Davido, to Wizkid, and I also worked on Beyonce's Lion Is King project.
It can sometimes feel like we grew a bit fast but it was a lot of patience and I didn't get into makeup for quick money. That's another thing when you get something for quick money you end up losing your passion and interest. Makeup has been art for me, it's been beauty art. I actually don't call myself a Make-Up artist, I call myself a beauty artist.
Photo: Kelenna Ogboso.
How's being a female rapper in a male-dominated industry? When can we expect a project?
Being a female who raps is a very bold move to me. Most of the time I'm in the studio I'm the only girl. Not that women don't do music but in every studio I'm in—I do a lot of genres so I get to work with a large range of people in the music scene—it's mostly men.
It's been challenging due to the fact that most times when I'm in the studio and I say I'm a rapper I always get weird stares of doubt and then I play my music and everyone is surprised I'm the one. It's been a lot of disbelief from men and women as a woman who raps. It's a male-dominated industry but I still get more support from men than female rappers. It's been a beautiful journey so far and I can't wait for what is to come in the next five years.
I should have dropped a project by now but due to some technicalities I've had to push it and I don't want to give a specific date but I'll say you should expect something in October.
How did you get the name 'Yemoja'?
The name Yemoja was given to me by a bunch of kids in Badagry at Marina close to the point of no return, there's a beach around there I always visit. I was sitting on an abandoned boat I typically go to when I'm trying to write or meditate. I'm a Cancer, I'm drawn to water, I've always been drawn to it. It's life and I believe water is the essence of life, we're mostly made up of it.
So the kids walked up to the boat and rocked it to get my attention because I was listening to music and I turned—kids are drawn to me––and they said 'You resemble Yemoja' which is the goddess of water, fertility and motherhood, according to Yoruba mythology the seven seas were formed when her water broke and she gave birth. The kids felt I embodied that and I felt honoured since then that name stuck to me and I started noticing similarities. I don't believe in coincidences. The way people bear the name of saints––in African culture saints are the Orisas—I feel we as Africans can adopt names of Orisas and be proud of it.
What drives you?
Pain really drives me, when I get rejected, when I get the stares of doubt. Not everyone believes in me, not everyone understands my process and that drives me. I'm trying with my music to actually turn people's emotional/psychological situations around. If I can do that, that's success for me. I'm driven by my purpose, my music is going to be a healing aid to everyone that hears me. My music has power in it, my voice has healing and I see myself as a healer through my music. My whole creativity is way bigger than me, there's a higher purpose for me and I'm releasing this every day.
Photo: Kelenna Ogboso.
When was your earliest memory of falling in love with dancing?
When I was little, I loved dancing, going to parties to dance and win presents. I found out it was what I was born to do when I went to the Maltina dancehall competition in 2010. I was exposed to a lot of other dancers at the show, and I was a bit surprised because I didn't feel fear. I felt more confident. I was amongst the top finalists, and being part of that out of 500 people made me realize it was what I wanted to do. Dancing to me is another way of expressing who I really am, it's freedom.
Tell us about the dancing scene In Lagos, and how you've risen through to become one of the top young female dancers?
The scene in Lagos right now is way better than how it was when I first got into the game. When I first came in it was a mess, no one rated the dancers and they were always treated like props in the industry. When I came in, I took it upon myself to make sure I had an impact in changing that narrative and I feel I'm one of the dancers that helped make dancers get more ratings in the creative scene.
Photo: Kelenna Ogboso.
What limitations, in general, do you feel the scene still faces compared to the global world?
A major problem is the income, compared to what my other friends earn in the UK or US, we're facing the complete opposite here, it's really low.
What tip would you give to other dancers trying to get into it professionally?
Well, to any female dancer the best advice I can give is 'don't expect it to be easy cause it's not'. Do not get distracted, do not lose hope, and have a direction. Keep going, remember why you started and you'll definitely get there. You'll have days you feel like you're not doing enough but it's just a phase.
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