Uzo Njoku: Beating the odds with her artwork

By Brianna Hamblin

Following her dreams of becoming an artist was not easy for Uzo Njoku. A third year at the University of Virginia from Nigeria, Njoku’s decision to switch from being a statistics major to a studio art major almost cost her relationship with her parents. Despite every road block, Njoku has proven that she has what it takes to be successful in the art industry.

Being a Nigerian woman who spent many years growing up in America, Njoku’s art takes into consideration both sides of herself, portraying her personal intersectionality within the colors, shapes, and details of every painting.  

“I’m Nigerian but I don’t just draw things of my culture because I’m also part of this culture too. So it’s kind of like I’m in this space where I’m trying to put both of them together. But my main focus is on women. Women of color.”

Njoku wants her artwork to portray Black women differently than how they are usually shown. In order to do that however, she has to incorporate her studies from classic European art.

“They just look sexy, that’s it. There’s not really a story to them … I feel like we’re way more than our bodies,” said Njoku. “Obviously our parts are already looked at as sexual. But how do you turn that and make it powerful and create a story out of it. The way you do that is by changing the posture. That was done by great artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. They would use forms called contrapposto, which is like changing the body in certain ways and angles … It’s like making your eyes dance around the body in a way.”

Learning details such as this in her classes is what makes her excited to go every day—something she felt she was missing before. Njoku was good at math in high school, so she settled for majoring in statistics. After her first year in college, however, she realized that the people around her also majoring in statistics loved what they were doing. “I just never felt that way,” says Njoku. Njoku says she took a year off of school to figure herself out and painted throughout the year. That’s when she decided on what she really wanted to do. Her parents were not too thrilled with the idea.

“I told them I was going to switch and they thought I was joking. So I switched and they were like, ‘you’re a disgrace,’” said Njoku. Her parents stopped paying her school and phone bills in protest. She was on her own.  

In April, Njoku held her first exhibition in an unfinished store at Barracks. She rented the space, spent three days painting the walls of the store, passed out flyers, bought food, and featured a live jazz band all on her own. It was not a cheap arrangement, but it proved profitable, resulting in $15k that helped go towards bills and future projects. “Me having my first exhibition was a breakthrough because I did everything myself and it made me learn a lot in such a fast time,” said Njoku.

Her next show will be back where she calls home in a gallery in Lagos, Nigeria this December. Njoku feels that showing her work at home will help connect her art to her roots better.

“I’ve been here more time than I’ve been in Nigeria, so I feel like I need a little more grounding,” Njoku said. “I need to do a little bit more research because when I paint I also do research. I’m in the library reading books about the African diaspora, different countries. So I just feel like it’s also good to have a hands on experience over there and just have a main support base back at home.”

Over the summer Njoku had an internship in Charlottesville at the Fralin Museum of Art where she was able to learn aspects of the art business important to know past just the painting side of it, such as curating artwork, arts administration, and the difference between a gallery and a museum. “Galleries are just for selling work. But a museum actually runs in the community … If your work ends up in a museum then you’re doing something right.” This summer she will be doing a residency in Brazil where she will have another show.

Njoku’s future goals are to continue to travel with her art and to go to graduate school, either through the 5th year program here at the University, or at the Yale School of Arts. Many of the artists she is inspired by went to Yale, such as Njideka Crosby, Khinde Wiley, and Kerry James.  

Njoku’s art is constantly changing, she says, as she learns and grows as an artist. After a semester on her own, her parents eventually came around, noticing her achievements. Through it all Njoku remains motivated, not allowing anything to stop her.

“What motivates my art is me being able to express myself. I feel like when you’re creating art basically you’re creating something that’s different from reality,” said Njoku. “Society for a Black woman today is not easy. So I feel like with my art I’m able to create a different reality for black women.”