Words by: Victoria Taylor
Caroline Chinakwe, a self-taught mixed media artist and mother of three, hails from Lagos, Nigeria, and was raised in the UK. After spending more than two decades as a designer and stylist in the fashion industry, she made a transition to the world of art in 2019.
Caroline’s art aims to highlight the splendour of black culture while representing her own black beauty by combining African and Western influences. Her artwork is a mix of photography, acrylic paint, and digital techniques, producing an astonishing blend of colours, textures, and finishes.
In response to the pandemic and the 2021 global demand for racial justice, Caroline founded Chinakwe, her own brand that promotes diversity and cultural representation in public spaces. Her objective is to create pieces that captivate and enchant viewers while inspiring admiration for the beauty and diversity of various cultures.
In this interview, we explore Caroline’s creative process, her sources of inspiration, and the factors that compel her to challenge the boundaries of conventional art forms.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in art?
I was born in Lagos, Nigeria from the Igbo tribe and raised in the UK from the age of 6. I studied fashion design at the prestigious London College of Fashion and had the privilege of working in various roles within the industry for over 25 years. However, my heart grew heavy as I witnessed the constant misrepresentation of black culture, particularly with black models in the fashion and beauty industry. It was then that I knew I had to make a change.
I knew nothing about the art industry. My knowledge of art started and ended with whatever they taught me in secondary school and the museums I was reluctantly dragged to. But one day, I had to create a flyer that promoted a fashion event my friend and I were putting on. I had this adventurous idea of how I wanted this image to look but wasn’t sure how to create it. I was having this conversation in the car with my daughter, who was about 18 then, and being the Gen Z that she is, she said, “Oh mum, there’s an app for that,” and that is how it all started. I had no idea that that conversation would ignite a passion and start a whole new career for me. To now call myself a full-time artist and be so passionate about it is just beyond anything I would have planned for my future 5 years ago.
How would you describe your artistic style and the themes you explore in your work?
My art is a fusion of various styles, including Pop Art with the use of pop culture images and bold vibrant colours and Afrofuturism which looks at the unique and futuristic depiction of black art. I address themes of culture, social justice, the idea of beauty, and race. As a black female artist, my work is inspired by my personal experiences and the world around me. I strive to represent and honour different cultures in my pieces, challenge society’s narrow definition of beauty, and explore themes of race to empower the black community.
Addressing these issues as a black female artist is essential as art has the power to spark conversations and create change. By using my platform to highlight these themes, I hope to inspire others to take action towards creating a more just and equitable society.
Are there any artists or art movements that have influenced your work?
The Pop Art and Black Art movements, such as Afrofuturism, have heavily influenced my work as an artist, even if it wasn’t intentional. I draw inspiration from the bold colours and energetic vibe of Pop Art, while also incorporating the powerful themes of identity, culture, and social justice that are central to black art. The fusion of these two styles allows me to create visually striking pieces that convey important messages.
Artists like Kehinde Wiley, who fuses classical European portraiture with contemporary black culture, and Bisa Butler, who creates vibrant quilts that celebrate black life and culture, are major sources of inspiration for me. Additionally, the work of Pop Art icon Andy Warhol inspires me to experiment with different mediums and techniques and to incorporate everyday objects and images into my art.
Are there any projects or pieces that you are particularly proud of?
One piece of my art that holds a special place in my heart is “Let go of your past” from my debut series “This is me.” It perfectly encapsulates everything I am as an African woman born in Lagos, Nigeria, and raised in London, one of the most diverse and dynamic cities in the world. This piece is a visual journey of my 25-year experience as a fashion designer and stylist, representing my love for my country and culture, and how the influences of being brought up in London have impacted my art.
It also touches on my personal journey forward in life, the societal issues I am passionate about addressing, and the changes I want to see for future generations. I am incredibly proud of this piece as it not only reflects my unique identity and experiences but also serves as a reminder of the power of art to tell stories and inspire positive change.
How has your art evolved over the course of your career?
As a self-taught artist, I have always been passionate about exploring different techniques and mediums in my work. The beauty of being self-taught is that I have been able to experiment freely and without boundaries. Digital technology has allowed me to push my vision even further, and I love mixing traditional and digital techniques to create unique pieces.
It’s interesting how the perception of digital art has changed over time. Traditional art skills have always been regarded as “real art,” while digital art was seen as less legitimate. However, times have changed and millennials are embracing and investing in contemporary digital art. This gives me hope as an artist who works with digital media, and I am excited to see where this trend takes us.
What do you hope viewers take away from experiencing your art?
Although my art addresses deep societal issues related to race and culture, I want the colours to invite you in and put a smile of hope on your face, reminding you that we all have the power to create positive change. Through my art, I seek to challenge society’s narrow definition of beauty by celebrating the beauty of diverse races, genders, and body types. I strive to create a sense of pride and empowerment within the black community and inspire others to become agents of change in creating a more equitable world. Addressing these issues as a black female artist is essential because art has the power to spark conversations and create change.
Are there any upcoming projects or exhibitions that you are working on and excited about?
Yes, I am currently working on an upcoming project that I am very excited about. As a young Igbo girl raised in the UK, I had little knowledge of my parents’ tribes and their traditions. However, at the age of 25, I discovered the book “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe and was immediately captivated by the protagonist Okonkwo’s character and the roots of Igbo culture.
For my new series of work, I knew I wanted to create something that spoke of my culture in a way that would help me educate my children about where they come from and the history behind our rich traditions. One day, I found “Things Fall Apart” tucked away on my bookshelf, and that was the inspiration needed. I am excited to share this project with the world and showcase the beauty and complexity of the Igbo culture. I’m planning to launch the new series in May 2023.
Can you speak to the role that art plays in your life, and how it intersects with other aspects of your identity and experiences?
Art is now a significant part of my everyday life and allows me to express myself creatively while exploring different aspects of my identity and experiences. My cultural background is a frequent theme in my work, and I draw inspiration from it in my series “This is me,” “Colourism,” and my upcoming collection which delves into my Igbo culture and traditions. As a self-taught artist, I’ve developed my own style and techniques through trial and error, which has also contributed to my personal journey of self-discovery.
How do you think art can be used to promote social change or address important issues in society?
Art can be a powerful tool for promoting social change and addressing important issues in society. It has the ability to raise awareness, challenge stereotypes, and spark important conversations. As an artist myself, I believe that art can be used to educate people about important issues and bring attention to underrepresented communities.
Art can also provide a platform for marginalised voices to be heard and their experiences to be validated. By creating art that addresses social issues, artists can bring attention to these issues and create a sense of empathy and understanding among viewers.
How do you balance the creative and business aspects of being an artist?
As a full-time artist and a single mother of three, balancing the creative and business aspects of my art practice can be extremely challenging, and this journey has really taken me to the edge of self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and uncertainty about the journey I was taking. It’s really not easy being a full-time creative and trying to make a good living out of it. However, I have found that setting clear boundaries and priorities is key.
I went through an early phase of doing too much, saying yes to everything, and because I was a self-taught artist and didn’t have any connections in the art world, I felt I had so much to learn and prove. So, I did everything that came my way and nearly had a breakdown. Now, I dedicate specific time for creating art without any distractions or interruptions and then allocate time for the necessary business tasks such as marketing, networking, and financial management. I also prioritize tasks based on their importance and urgency.
In addition, I have found that building a support system of other artists, mentors, family, and friends has been crucial in maintaining balance and perspective. It’s important for me to remind myself that being a good mother and a successful artist are not mutually exclusive and that finding a healthy balance between the two is possible with hard work, dedication, and support. My support system provides me with valuable feedback, encouragement, and a sounding board for ideas and challenges.
Despite the challenges, being a full-time artist and a single mother has also taught me the importance of self-care and resilience. I make sure to take breaks when needed, prioritise my mental and physical health, and stay flexible and adaptable in the face of unexpected obstacles.
Can you talk about any challenges or obstacles you have faced as an artist, and how you have overcome them?
There are many challenges faced being a black female artist, such as the lack of funding, support, and representation. When I first started as an artist, I struggled to find a gallery willing to showcase my work in my local community of NW3. Despite Hampstead being full of art galleries, I found very little support and a reluctance to take a risk on showing black art. Frustrated with this lack of representation, I formed a group with three other black female creatives and started the community interest group Camden Black Creatives (CBC).
Our vision was to bring visibility, diversity, and inclusivity to the community and to support minority artists. Our first mission was to have a gallery space for black creatives in Camden, particularly in Hampstead. We approached the borough of Camden about our goal, and they were very supportive. In 2021, they helped us acquire a temporary space on Hampstead High Street. The pop-up gallery was well received by the community, and CBC continues to work with Black creatives and the borough of Camden to bring more diversity and visibility of creative works to the public.
How do you see your art evolving in the future?
This is a question I don’t think about, I just want to take each collection at a time and adapt my work to how I’m evolving as a human being, Black woman, mother and as an artist.
I hope I keep evolving as I continue to explore different techniques, themes, and mediums. In the future, I see my art becoming more experimental and pushing boundaries. I am always looking for new ways to express myself creatively and to challenge myself as an artist.
I hope to continue to explore themes of identity, culture, and social justice, while also incorporating new concepts and ideas that inspire me. Additionally, I am always looking for ways to incorporate technology and digital media into my work and hvs already ventured into web 3 with my NFT collection for Women of Tomorrow. I definitely believe technology will become increasingly important in the art world. Ultimately, my goal is to continue to grow and evolve as an artist while staying true to my unique vision and voice.
Are there any other forms of creative expression that you are interested in exploring in the future?
I would love to have space to try everything, from sculpture to film and dance, as a creative I love expressing my ideas and in my past life I’ve worked in music, drama and fashion before now finding my space in art. I still think all those doors are still open to me and I just need the space and time to give to each of those creative practices my attention.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists looking to pursue a career in the arts?
My advice would be to first understand that this is not an easy journey, and sometimes your passion can end up being your pain. Don’t be lazy and think things will come easy just because you’re talented. You will probably work harder than you ever thought you’d need to, but being a creative, whether it’s in the arts or any other creative discipline, is such a blessing and it’s in your DNA. So go for it with everything you have, find your tribe to collaborate with, learn from, and gain support from, and always stay true to yourself.
In conclusion, exploring Caroline Chinakwe’s work is a journey worth taking. Her art is a powerful tool for promoting social change and addressing important issues in society, while also providing a platform for underrepresented communities to be heard. To stay up-to-date on her latest creations and exhibitions, you can follow her on social media or visit her website. As an artist, Chinakwe’s dedication to exploring new techniques, themes, and mediums is inspiring, and her advice to aspiring creatives to work hard, collaborate, and stay true to themselves is invaluable. Don’t miss the opportunity to discover this talented artist’s unique vision and voice.