Every Nigerian knows that one of the things that cement the transition from childhood to adolescence is one’s ability to answer the question “what do you want to be in the future?” Everybody asks you this question; your teachers, parents, the woman next door, and even when you think you can finally catch a break, your friends beg you to sing along to “I am a doctor in my country, everybody knows me well, if you look at me up and down, you will know that it’s true”. There is this pressure to want to be SOMETHING, rather than ANYTHING. Specific answers to this question are the only correct answers while indecisiveness and vague answers are frowned upon and even shamed. Jessica Nwoko however, held a middle finger to this system and said “no, thank you.”
Jessica Nwoko is a first-class student of accounting in the United Kingdom who currently makes an average of 600,000 Naira per painting. Jessica has always wanted to be many things, and it appears to me that she is indeed living her dream.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
My name is Onyechi Jessica Nwoko. I am 21 years old, I recently turned 21. I was born in the UK, I currently school in the UK but I grew up from the age of 4 till 17 in Nigeria so I had the entire Nigerian schooling experience.
You spent your formative years in Nigeria, what was your childhood like?
My childhood was very… a lot was going on in my childhood. When I moved back to Nigeria, I was like 4 and a half. I had family stuff going on so I had to go to boarding school. I was in boarding school from like 4 and a half years till like primary 3. That was a very interesting time in my life. I felt very grown. Looking back, I was not grown at all but at the time, I felt very grown for a 7-year-old. I felt very independent. Then from primary 4 to 6, I lived with my parents, and I kinda had withdrawal from that independence up until secondary school when I opted to go back to boarding school. I think I have always just been looking for independence and having a way to do things by myself.
So, did this desire for Independence inspire your choice of career?
Err… Yes, definitely. I like to do things by myself. I think one thing I like about being an artist is being able to just sit down and decide everything by myself. It can be a very solo experience compared to other types of creative fields where you need to work with different people to get the job done which many artists key into, but when it gets to the creative aspects, I get to do that all by myself and decide everything by myself and I really like that.
How would you describe your art?
I think right now, I’m still so early in being an artist because I only started in like 2019. So, I would say my art so far and what I’m aiming for is kind of less aesthetically pleasing and more about the important things. The things that don’t fade away, I try to find the important things in the mundane day to day things.
So, it’s more about the story that the art tells rather than how it looks?
As a child, did you ever imagine yourself to be an artist?
I think growing up, I had so many passions. I wanted to work in every single creative industry. I remember in my diary, I had a whole list of things that I wanted to be. I wanted to be a dancer, a singer, an actress, basically everything. So, I feel like it is not too far off. I knew I wanted to be creative and I like to work independently.
So, what are you studying right now?
I’m studying accounting at the University of Westminster in the UK.
Let’s unpack that. Why accounting? Especially as you have always wanted to be creative.
Um… I know for a fact that I didn’t want to study anything creative. After my secondary school experience of studying arts for 6 years and seeing other people around me, I knew that studying arts can sometimes kill the passion that you have, and I also believe that I could learn how to do the art I have always wanted to do myself. I didn’t believe I needed any kind of formal study. So, I decided to study something that would be very practical, something I knew that if everything else failed, I would definitely have a job
I have quite a similar story myself and I can totally relate to that. Right now, I am interested in the journey you made up to this point of calling yourself an artist because I know labels can be intimidating. So, how did you get here?
The thing about labels – I’ve definitely struggled with it. I had a point where every couple of months, I would add “artist” to my Twitter bio and then take it out and then add it and then take it out cause I didn’t feel like I was deserving of that title. I learned art in secondary school but I never really took it seriously. I think I just had the basic knowledge about art and the basic skill. At the end of 2019, I had a gap year between my A levels and my university. I was redecorating my house in the UK and I was kinda inspired. I’d been drawing a bit and I thought I was going to go into more realistic kinds of drawings but I got inspired by the painting in my house. So I got a canvas, I painted with the wall paint that I bought for my room; I just painted an avocado on it and it looked really good. I continued from there, and I was learning different techniques, learning new things, but I didn’t think I had made any progress.
In my recent painting, “Crowd in Jos”, I saw the video and I was inspired by the way the light kind of reflected off the roof and I was like “oh I can paint that in like over a weekend’ cause I was a bit free at the time. “Over the weekend” turned into eight months, but I’m not good at letting things go or just disregarding things so I just continued. There wasn’t ever a time I told myself that I should probably stop and try something else. I didn’t think of it as hard work, I just saw it as going little by little. I feel like I can’t even see the true magnificence of it because I never saw it as something that would be a task or hard work.
I’m glad you brought this up. You said you were inspired by a video, what video in particular?
It was around the time when people had started to discover the warehouses where the palliatives were being hidden from the people, which I think is probably the evilest thing out of everything we have gone through as a country. I feel like intentionally hiding those palliatives when people are hungry and dying just shows how intentional the state of our nation is. It is not by laziness or by greed, this is just pure evil that is intentional. So, when people were finding the warehouses, there were other videos from other states, but then the one in Jos was the one that spoke to me on an artistic level. I was like “this is a view. This looks like nothing I have ever seen before” and I just decided. I already had the canvas. I wasn’t sure what I was going to put on it, but then I saw that video and I was like “yeah this is what I’m going to put on this canvas”.
So are you always inspired by life events or your imagination?
I am inspired a lot by live events. I don’t think I have painted anything from imagination. I always have a reference or if I have something on my mind, I will create a reference that I can look at and then put it on my canvas the way I want. I kinda always have a reference. I also have some other paintings that are also from live events from things that have happened (like) in Lagos, so yeah. If clients come and they describe what they want, I will go out and I will find a way to make a visual for them to see what their painting would translate to before I start it.
Okay, so my next question has two parts. First, how do you manage your time being a student and second, how did your Nigerian parents take the news of you being an artist?
Okay, that’s a great question. As for time management, I am not good with time management even outside of this. I am not good with attention, so I feel like I just kinda panic my way through things. I panicked my way through my school stuff and prioritized my painting and if I see that school stuff is intense and I haven’t been prioritizing my painting, then I panic over that and I go and I paint. At this point, I’ve finished my first year of accounting and I have a first-class, so I do think I am doing things well enough.
Thank you! Yeah and I also finished the painting and it came out well so I think right now, the way I do things is working for me. Um, the part about my parents, they always saw it as a side thing, like a hobby or something that maybe I’m a bit good at. I was always told to prioritize my education, and I could have this on the side when I graduate and start an accounting career but realistically, I don’t think I ever want to start an accounting career. To give credit to my dad, he was very invested in the painting, always asking me if I had finished it, that I needed to focus on it and finish it. So I think he saw the potential and didn’t just think it was some sort of hobby. My mum too was quite interested in it because it looked good even before I finished it. So when I finished it and put it up for sale and my dad started seeing articles about me on opera news, then I think it kinda became less of a hobby and more of a prayer point – something to be included in morning prayers as the career path that I have chosen so yeah I think they are very on board with it right now.
That’s hilarious! I love that your parents appreciate what you do, and this leads me to my next question. As someone with both Nigerian and British experience, do you think there is a discrepancy between the way Nigerians appreciate art and the way the British do?
I do believe that there is a discrepancy between the way the people in the UK appreciate art and the way the people in Nigeria appreciate art. I think art is very broad and the UK has had time, and I would say a good standard of living for them to appreciate the more mundane parts of art that don’t speak on a political level or that don’t speak on a level that involves a lot of skill. But if they see art, especially fine art, there is more appreciation that can go into that. I feel for Nigerians, there is a big appreciation of art but I don’t think fine arts is at the top of that appreciation list. I feel like the art that we see in clothes, in like our surroundings, in music, I feel like Nigerians do know how to appreciate the arts in that regard. This painting that I just completed – crowd in Jos, was bought by a Nigerian so I do think Nigerians buy art.
And is art lucrative? How much do you make on average per painting?
I would say I am very fortunate to be making the amount of money that I make from my art. Truthfully, I have only ever sold three paintings, with each one being sold for 5 to 7 times the amount that I sold the previous one. Right now I would say I average N600,000, but this could go down as I make smaller pieces, or go up as I gain recognition. I am currently selling prints of my last work, which I think is important for artists in terms of having their work accessible to more people.
Are there any artists that you look up to?
Um, Some current artists that I do look up to are Nigerian artists. I look up to Slawn a lot. He is probably one of my favourite artists. I like the way he expresses himself and his art in general, it speaks to me. I love looking at his art and making out what they are and the things he has painted before and also Anthony Azekwoh is another artist I really like. I like seeing where he started, I like seeing his process and the things that he comes up with. He is a digital artist, so that is different for me but I appreciate the kind of things that he does.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to go into art but doesn’t know which one is best suited for them? Asking for myself
I think the best way to figure out exactly what you like is to see as many different types of art as you can, even if it’s just opening google images or Pinterest and searching “art” or googling the different types of art and looking into each of them. I feel like when you see a lot of different types of art, you know the ones that you like and the ones that you’re not that fond of and the ones that you can see in your mind, the ones that you see yourself starting to create in your head.
Thank you for that! What does the future look like to you? In the art of course
While I had long term goals and dreams at the beginning of this journey, the more I manifest some of my goals, the less I obsess about the future. My future as an artist feels safer than I thought it would feel at this point, but I do see myself painting mundane things and making them look spectacular for a very long time.
The Nigerian art industry dates back hundreds of years ago and remains a thriving one. Unlike many industries, art doesn’t necessarily require formal education for anyone to thrive in it, and this is what has propelled women like Jessica Nwoko on their journey to becoming artists. Personally, what intrigues me the most about her story is the uncertainty of her future that she allows herself to feel. Feeling uncertain about your future as a girl is scary and feeling uncertain about your future even as a woman and artist sounds scarier. Still, Jessica is thriving and that is all that matters; the ability to define yourself by the present and not what you hope or are expected to be. That said, I want every little Nigerian girl to know that when asked the question “what do you want to be in the future?”, it’s okay to not know.