In 2020, as the pandemic raged, replacing the friendliness and protection that being indoors should have provided, some lockdowns created dangerous situations. Within communities in some African countries, stories of women experiencing violence have spread through news channels. The reactions spread via social media. Answers and justice were demanded of the authorities. All of this led Lagos-based artist Renike Olusanya to create the poignant piece, titled She won’t be silent.
In addition to this impactful work, Olusanya’s designs have a mesmerizing beauty and compelling imagery. Most of his works tend to capture the lifestyle and expressions of women. “I draw women because it’s my reality”, says Olusanya OkAfrica. “The women who inspire me, the people I can talk to when I’m depressed, are women.” These women tell the stories behind his creations.
Before becoming a visual illustrator, she worked a 9-5 as a graphic designer, pursuing her art on the side as a hobby. But Olusanya struggled with the lack of freedom to express herself, and in 2020, as COVID-19 took hold of the world, she made the decision to turn her hobby into a full-time pursuit.
Renike spoke to OkAfrica about what fuels his work.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Take us back to creating your piece, She won’t be silent. How did you create such an impactful piece that also went viral?
First of all, when the lockdown happened, it was a huge reality shock for all of us. The last time there was a pandemic was long before my parents were born. It was a shock for everyone. It was a shock to me; it was a shock to friends, family, parents and all that. And it was also hard emotionally.
Unfortunately, there was a wave of sad incidents when the lockdown started. Women died, women were raped. I think there were protests in Kenya and another African country where women were killed. Abused women even at home and all that. It was so heavy. This work of art, I didn’t just think about it and suddenly create it.
At one point, I was just crying every day because of the heaviness of the thing in my heart. I think one thing that got me through the whole phase, up to when I created this work, is that I’m very active on Twitter; I liked how the women always talked about things there.
As we were fighting for us in Nigeria, we were also fighting for women in Kenya, that gave me a glimmer of hope. Because even though these bad things were happening, people were trying to find solutions, even if it was by using their voices to amplify these issues on social media.
It gave me some hope. The heaviness in my chest has diminished. And that’s when I was able to create She won’t be silent. It took me two to three weeks to be able to bring myself to create this work. I knew I wanted to express myself. At one point, I even quit social media. Because it was so. Because seeing these women never get tired of it, unlike me, gave me strength. They kept talking about it; it made me want to create.
This is how I was able to draw what I was drawing. And that’s why it’s titled She won’t be silent. She will never be silent. These women, even if they are tired, they will continue to speak. They are not silent. They will continue to speak out for change. The whole thing was so inspiring to me.
You created the cover of Nicola Yoon’s book instructions for the dance, a high point in your career – what was that process for that?
I think the author noticed my work on social media. How she did it, I don’t understand. She wrote one of my favorite books in the world, Absolutely everything. When the creative director contacted me via email, I almost fainted. They asked me if I would like to design the book cover. I was, like, ‘They’re asking me?’ I was, like, ‘I’d be so happy to do this because I’m already a huge fan of this author.’
I don’t read much so imagine I know her. That’s how much I love him. It was such an exciting and easy project. They made everything so easy for me. They told me what they wanted. I could ask as many questions as I wanted, so it was such a smooth process. I guess that’s what makes the final work so beautiful.
Social media helped one of Renike Olusanya’s favorite authors contact her to illustrate a book cover.
Photo: Renike Olusanya
Your drawings revolve mainly around women – women who express themselves by dancing, by moving – why is that?
I really like women like that because I’m a woman. This is what I see every day when I look in the mirror. When I watch a movie, I focus a lot more on what women do and how I can relate to it. When I go out every day, I notice different things, mostly about women, noticing their hairstyle, noticing their fashion, noticing their body shape.
As a creative person, are there things that exhaust you?
Sometimes when I get too many commissions at once, it wears me out. Money is good; sometimes you need time for yourself. If I keep working for a long time, I get tired. For a short period of time that follows, I don’t want to touch a pencil, I don’t want to see anything that involves drawing for a short period of time. Just to get my energy back. There are many artists who say they draw every day. I don’t draw every day. I can not do it. If I draw every day, I will be drained.
Nigeria is exhausting me too. This country exhausts me; it’s so difficult. If you are at home, Nigeria will stress you out. That there is no light or something like that. If you leave your home, Lagos will stress you out. If you don’t run into traffic, you’ll run into someone who will scratch your car or a trailer will run into you. This country is exhausting me and that’s why I’m very introverted. Because it’s my own way of protecting my energy.
Renike Olusanya draws women because they inspire her the most.
Photo: Renike Olusanya
What meaning does art give you?
Apart from the money that art brings me, practicing as a full-time artist in this country is crazy. Art is very therapeutic and clears my head. Sometimes it clogs my head and sometimes it clears my head. So art is life. We see everything in art. It’s therapeutic, it’s communicative. What I can say is that art is my life. It helps me think; it expands my reality. If I’m stuck in one place, I can always run to another place [through art].
What advice do you have for struggling artists in Nigeria?
I think the first thing is to be consistent. I think that’s something that has helped me over the years. It seems like it takes a lot of effort at first, but people are still watching. Always practice and always put your work out there. Don’t think that just because you only get two likes doesn’t mean people aren’t seeing what you’re doing.
Sometimes artists struggle with visibility, because they think they’re not getting a certain number of interactions on their social media posts, that means they’re not seeing it. It is very wrong. Because people are watching you. Sometimes people refer to certain things I did years ago when I think people weren’t watching. It shocks me.
Always practice, always be consistent with your work. To be known for something. People will want to explore different areas or explore different things at the same time. I think more energy should be channeled into one thing, so now you can introduce the rest when you master that thing.
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