The first time I saw Ofunne Azinge’s work was at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2021 (RA). In a room filled with hundreds of paintings Ofunne’s work stood out as if it was in a gallery of its own.
Akin to many of the other RA visitors that summer I left with a sense of anticipation for her works, if this was only the start, then what next? I decided to message her, ambitiously, I thought that perhaps she could be a part of my first group show, which she gracefully agreed to do. What grew out of that message was a continuation of my admiration for her as an artist and most importantly as a person
In the time between my message and the show she took part in a BBC RA documentary, was selected by Yinka Shonibare as the Coordinator’s Choice for the RA Summer Show 2021 and won the The Arts Club Award, Royal Academy of Arts, 2021.
Prior to the show we met at her studio in Manchester, where she is finalising her MA. We sat down to discuss her life and career, beginning with her childhood.
How was your childhood?
I was born in Nigeria, I am not sure exactly where, and moved to the UK when I was five. Prior to that I lived with my grandparents, my aunt and my dad. Then I moved to England where I was adopted by my aunt. I did all of my primary schooling in Southeast London, moved back to Nigeria for boarding school for a few years and moved back to London and lived with my previous neighbours for two to three years. Finally I lived with a pastor for two years before going to university.
You moved often, was that difficult?
Moving around has taught me how to adapt to different cultures and people, to make friends, to leave friends, it felt like I was isolated and raising myself in different households. Once I left university and became independent it gave me time to reflect on that process.
You mention moving, leaving friends. A lot of your work is based on your friends. The pieces are in some way a snapshot of a friend at a moment of your friendship, which perhaps you could not hold onto when you were younger. Is there a symmetry there within your work?
Definitely, painting allows me to separate myself from a relationship, analysing the aspects of a relationship that are important to me and how these people have influenced my life.
Especially “Dis wan na clone” – it gave me a chance to think about the women in my life and how much they influenced me. How similar we are in terms of experiences as well. Those paintings really gave me a chance to look back at some of my childhood memories and focus on the positives. In that moment, whilst making the work, I suddenly realised a lot of my childhood memories were not as negative as I thought they were, they were actually really positive
You are also a photographer – you photograph people, including your friends before painting them, how does this work, how do you pick the people to capture and how does it evolve into what you create?
There are some people that I even follow on Instagram that I ask to photograph. Sometimes I like how they look, their aura, capturing their personality or who they are. Alternatively I may have photographed them before and asked to photograph them again – now I want them to symbolise something else or channel something else.
Most of the time I am really just interested in people, and interested in the layers that make them. Having moved around in all of these different cultures and different experiences it merged me into this very complex, isolated mind. Therefore I am interested in learning all of their layers too and all of the dynamics that have made them.
There are many layers to the people you paint, including painting people who are close to you and not close to you. Once you draw the initial outline of the person you must get another perspective of your friendship with them, as you are spending a lot of time with that person without the person physically being there. I suppose you build layers of that person which perhaps you did not notice before, such as their facial expressions. Do you find that sometimes, over the course of the painting, it changes your relationship with a friend whilst painting them?
Yes, which is why I am very particular about the people I paint. So far it has been people that I want in my life and that I will know afterwards. People that I have strong relationships with. In the past I have painted a partner. In the process of the painting you spend so much time looking at this person, and building all these layers, which on this occasion made me think maybe this ain’t it.
So now there are boundaries to my work in terms of the people I paint and the relationships I explore. It is a very emotional process as well so I have to be quite careful.
Do you find yourself going back and forth to paintings, or do you have a series of works that you complete and then move on?
Definitely back and forth, it is difficult staring at one thing all the time. I find that when you are bouncing off different things I am like oh this does not belong to you, it belongs to a different painting and I am like thank you for that information. At the end of it you realise all of the works are communicating together in unison.
In terms of materials what do you use to paint and make works on?
I do not have the patience to use oil, I use acrylic, typically on wood.
There is a clear direction that your work is going in, do you think that in the years to come it will be less figuratively based and more landscape based or something like that?
3-5 years ago if someone told me I would predominantly be a figurative painter I would have been like what are you talking about? But I would love for it to be people based, but I would also love to explore still life, but not exclusively. I am still a young artist and I am aware that my paintings are informed by my experiences. I am still experiencing life and as I grow, my work will grow as well. It will change, just hopefully not drastically.
I did so much experimentation during university and for many years I completely left painting, then I realised there are certain types of art I cannot do, such as using clay, I am not really a messy worker. Now I know there are certain things that are important to my practice so even if my work was to change it will still change within a certain context, it is still going a certain way.
We also mentioned before the interview the point of developing as a person. You changed your career in the last few years, you were initially doing art, then you went into law and back into art, finally you decided to do art full time and take the next step. Do you feel that was a very difficult decision to do, a courageous thing to do? How difficult was that decision to make at that time?
The most common thing that most Nigerian parents say is do law for a degree, then art for a masters. As you can do whatever you want to do, as long as you have your degree. But I will say one thing – I often find artists saying that ‘I will just do art on the side’, but then you are not really putting in as much as you need to into your practice. It is easier said than done, but I would suggest putting as much as you can into your practice.
It was a difficult decision at the time, mentally I wasn’t in a place to be prepared for university in general. My first art degree was more of a research-base course, a lot of it wasn’t based on the technical and I did not get to paint as much. I did not understand why I was not functioning well. It was more me hitting rock bottom, my family thought it was the right thing for me to do law, and it seemed the safest option at the time so I switched.
Many people thought I found law hard, but I really enjoyed it, but I could not imagine spending all of my student finance on something I was not going to do for the rest of my life. So I was like let’s end this here and do something I enjoy.
What was your family’s reaction?
At that moment I had hit rock bottom in my mental health. It was a do or die moment. They did not really have a say or an option. I am very strong headed. They couldn’t say anything as I was going to do it anyway.
Do you have something in you that was constantly thinking about art all the time, the desire to make all the time?
This is deep, but with my mental health, it got to a point where it was at its complete lowest, suicidal even. I was in hospital and the one thing that really clicked in my head was like dude, do you wanna die and you’re not even an artist yet? What the hell are you thinking, get up and go – do art now. So I feel like to me, art is really my purpose, completely, and what I am going to do for the rest of my life. Period.
Your last year, especially from an outside perspective, has been quite wild. Being a part of the Royal Academy Summer Show 2021, your work has really been noticed. There is clearly something that you have in your art that is different and captures the audience. What has it been like for you, this big break as such, or your first break in what should be a very interesting career. What has it been like for you over the last year?
I am very spiritual, I feel as though everything sort of aligned for me. Had I of graduated when I was supposed to graduate in 2018 I probably would not have made the work and I probably wouldn’t have ended up at the RA. Everything definitely aligned for me, so I feel like my purpose is set. It was also great as the works on display there were sort of my a-hah moment works. I finally got it – what I have been trying to do for the past five years, so the people in the RA got to see the best of me, it was at the right time.
Once the works were on display did you think people would notice them? Or were you just happy to be there?
I was really happy, I didn’t expect to be in a BBC documentary, I didn’t expect to win an award, I was just really happy to be in a show. My degree show was cancelled and I had these two massive works and I didn’t know where to start. At that point it just felt like you made work to put it on social media and then nothing happens thereafter. Having the works in the RA was amazing, especially the pieces being selected by Yinka Shonibare as the Coordinator’s Choice and the BBC documentary. The amazing thing was that everything was exclusive from each other, the Coordinator’s Choice, the BBC’s choice, the award – all of it was made independently.
Describe the feeling as an artist, what is it like to be recognised in that way?
I feel like amazing is too boring a word to describe it. But it’s fulfilling. All of your emotions go into these pieces, you sacrifice so much to be an artist and to finally be recognised and appreciated is what every artist wants.
Did it give you the motivation to push on? I’ve been noticed now, I have to make the most of it?
In my head I was so thankful that I’ve been recognised now. I’m still young as an artist, so now it’s time to build my career, I’ve got to keep going, I don’t want to lose focus and keep making the same things over and over again just because these one’s did well. I’m thinking long term, what is my focus as an artist and what am I trying to say? What do I want to be remembered for?
Without choosing one thing – what are you trying to say, what do you want your focus to be? If there are a few things you’d like to be known for or shine a light on, to motivate someone in a different way, what would that be?
I recognise myself as a Nigerian British artist. I feel like it is very political for me. For a long time growing up I was told ‘she’s not Nigerian enough, she’s not British enough, she’s not black enough, is she African?’ So to position myself in the diaspora and to say, I am a Nigerian British artist, I am both of them, not exclusive to one of them is important, especially as I have been the only black female artist in all of these universities for the past five years. Even here, there is not a single black person in this building, I have been on my own for a really long time. I was speaking to a curator and he said there was another black artist in a different university in Salford nearby, but he’s a black male artist. I’ve literally been on my own for a good couple of years. There are very few of us who have studied fine art, who are very dedicated to their practices in the way that I am. It is nice to be in a position to shine a light on it.
It’s all about representation, and having a voice for your heritage, both sides of the coin. Your work does have a British and Nigerian perspective. If someone from Nigeria, or Africa, or someone from a minority views your work, is there a feeling that you want to evoke there?
Actually – at the RA – I went with my aunt and she brought a friend with her. The way they interpreted the work was a bit of an emotional moment for me. They were looking at my work and they looked at it through the eyes of someone in their generation and they started to tell me about the Kellogg’s cereals, when it came to Nigeria etc, they loved it, but the way they saw it was very different to the way I viewed it.
Sometimes it humbles you, as I paint from a privileged place in a sense. I was painting it from the perspective of the End SARS protest, when Nigerians were protesting (2020).
I felt I was painting from a place of privilege, other Nigerian artists were painting in a far more brutal sense as they were actually in that position, whereas I was watching it from the comfort of my bed, that’s not something I can help. This perspective is shown in the way that I paint the work and responded to the situation, but that representation is also necessary as there are Nigerians in the diaspora who are affected by it too.
At galleries, there has been a higher percentage of figurative works in recent years, even more recently there has been a bigger representation of black people within those paintings. Do you as an artist see that happening more, or do you think because there was nothing before, it feels like there is a lot, but in reality, it is still a small amount?
Yes, it feels like there is a lot, but still a little amount. It feels as though when galleries are trying to show representation they take paintings with black bodies in them but they are not necessarily by black artists, it’s not to say that is a bad thing. At the RA show even as an example, a lot of the artists that were included in the show were white, but many of the paintings within the show were of black bodies. But there is also the idea of context, the context behind the figures as well, is that missing when a white painter is painting black figures, do they have the additional context to relay that? So are black artists really being represented? Or are we using black bodies in galleries to represent diversity?
I feel like in some galleries, they don’t even believe in the artist or the work, they just put it in a gallery because it is part of the times. Can you tell when that’s happening?
I feel like especially now as my work is gaining attention and you have all of these different conversations and you’re giving your work to people where you can tell they don’t actually care about the artist or the context behind the work. It is emotionally draining for the artist as we put a lot into the work and it takes a lot for the work to get to a complete state. So yes, it is very emotionally draining.
I was watching The Price of Everything, the documentary about the art market. Showing the art market versus the artist in the studio – and it is two distinct things. We need to acknowledge that the way we are in the studio and the way that art is sold is draining, it’s very draining, it goes from being an emotional thing to being completely commercial.
That is why I think there is such a vacuum for a gallery between the two that bridges the gap by creating a relationship between the artist and buyer. In my opinion work should be in a home, or somewhere where it can be seen, enjoyed and discussed. A lot of work being bought now is bought to be placed in a cupboard somewhere to grow in value. It must be difficult as an artist to know your work is being sold to someone who does not really care about the work at all. For instance a buyer who hasn’t been asking questions about the work. The artists need the money, so it is a difficult choice. It is difficult dilemma as an artist may only have one buyer. Is it obvious when that’s happening?
Yes, it’s frustrating, but there’s nothing you can do, you need the money, it’s quite sad, especially as you know that people who would have an emotional connection to it cannot always afford to buy it.
Final question, which we ask all artists at Subtitle. For other artists who have or have not been to art school. What is your advice to forge a career in art and putting yourself out there?
Firstly, experiment as much as you can and as much as your environment allows you to. When I was not in art school I used everything I could find at home to make work. Secondly do not wait for people to find you or contact you, contact them. Try to find and go to as many private viewings as you can, and try and speak to people. I will say this, when you go to speak to people don’t use social media as your opening point of conversation. Some people came up to me in the RA and were like follow me on Instagram as the first thing they said to me. Don’t do that.
Finally – sell yourself, believe in yourself and be confident. If people in the arts don’t reply the first time or respond, perhaps not on the same day, but email again, as they get a lot of the same applications. Try as much as you can to stand out and have a CV no matter how small.
Ofunne is an artist that defines perseverance, finding positivity in the midst of hardship, and coming out the other side stronger than before. She is someone that will blaze a trail, for herself and others behind her, bringing joy, nostalgia and a vision of the future through her works.
Most importantly as her platform grows I am confident she will take other emerging diaspora artists with her, creating conversations that need to be had. She should be celebrated as much as she should be admired, now and in the years to come.
Charlie Spot 2022