By Nicanor Gordon
When I interviewed Uzo Njoku late this summer, she had been busy in her New York apartment cranking out pieces for her upcoming show in Abu Dhabi. She was excited but tired, fresh off her first exhibition, A Space Of My Own.
The mixed-media exhibition featured her signature contemporary, bright colors with a heavy focus on Black femininity. While primarily a painter, that title hardly defines her. For her debut exhibition, she presented an experience – creating real-world items based on the depictions in her paintings, allowing patrons to interact with her art in a more tactile way.
Uzo, along with her sister and mother, migrated from Nigeria to the United States when she was only seven. There, she grew up in a majority-white neighborhood. She attended a military boarding school, ironically heavily populated by Nigerian immigrants her age. “They made Nigeria seem so fun, and we felt out of place,” she explains. This drove a deeper connection with the country which, like a good chunk of her life, has bled into her art. “Nigerian art forms gave me a starting point. I used to work heavily with Ankara patterns.”
Uzo is a bit of a maverick in her field. While that first show was a success, she received backlash from collectors who felt she pandered too much to the commercial side of art. “I do prints to maintain accessibility to my work,” she explains. “I do know my originals are getting more and more expensive, so I try to keep the cost of prints the exact same.” She has indeed kept the prices the same since 2019. Collectors and critics have tried to persuade her to abandon this. “They try to tell me no, I have to stop, people are not going to buy the originals,” she adds. Her iconic painting, Good Times, featuring a black woman in a large bucket hat that hides her face down to her smile, sold out instantly despite prints being widely available. “They didn’t think it would sell… It was the first thing to sell out,” she smiles.
Even though the price of her stock is skyrocketing today, it was never easy for Uzo. Her immigrant parents focused on STEM and worked hard to give their daughters a better life than they had. It was an affront when she decided to give up statistics to pursue art. “They stopped talking to me. I didn’t talk to them for months,” she reveals. Reflecting on it, she says she completely understands. “When you have foreign parents, it’s not that they hate art, they just don’t understand how it’s going to make you money.”
Then, Uzo stumbled on her breakthrough work, a coloring book called The Blue Stockings Society. Conceived while working behind the desk at a sports club after failing to get the internship she wanted, she set a hard deadline to make something creative and market it. She posted online about the book, its development and the process of creating it, to drum up anticipation. When preorders opened, she had over 1000 sales. That’s enough to make anyone perk up. And, the coloring book is also nothing short of extraordinary. It features influential women of color throughout history – from Dolores Huerta to Serena Williams. It inspires and soothes, reminding us that women have had their fingerprints on the world, and will continue to do so.
Uzo is quick to point out that she’s not just a coloring book creator but an artist, unrestricted by the medium. But, even that statement might be too constrained. While her dreams of expansion include designing swimsuits and jig-saw puzzles, her mind is on Nigeria. “My life’s purpose is not in America,” she states as a simple, unremarkable fact. “My generation has this idea to go home and try and make money. I’m not there to make a profit, but to give back in a way that is productive.” Her ideas are rooted in agriculture and horticulture. “There’s power in food,” she reasons.
Art has gotten her to this point, and she’s going to ride it further, but it’s clear, she creates to get her to a place where she can make meaningful change.
And as for her parents, that relationship has been mended – it’s hard to have concerns over your daughter’s career when she’s on the fast track to becoming a world-renowned artist.
Oh, and since our interview, this fall Uzo launched her first fashion brand, Movement of the People. Talk about a multi-talented, powerhouse woman.