Nigerian artist Morenike Olusanya creates inspiring images of Black women

Nigerian artist Morenike Olusanya creates inspiring images of Black women

Written by Aisha Salaudeen, CNNLagos, Nigeria

Morenike “Renike” Olusanya spends a lot of her time with her iPad and touch pen, sketching the people and things she finds interesting.

The Nigerian-born visual artist particularly loves to paint Black women. “I’m in Nigeria; Black women are all I see. I love to paint our culture, our fashion and our hairstyles,” she said.

Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial center, Olusanya has always been artistic. “Drawing was a normal thing for me to do as a child,” she explained. “My dad was an artist for a short period, so I saw him draw. I saw my older brother draw too.”

Olusanya, 28, studied creative arts at the University of Lagos and worked as a graphic designer before eventually taking up visual arts as a full-time job during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020.

Nigerian artist Morenike "Mother" Olusanya

Nigerian artist Morenike “Renike” Olusanya. Credit: Morenike Olusanya

Best-selling book covers

Olusanya’s art exists in many forms, such as portraits, dance art and book covers. Some of them are created on a canvas, but she prefers to illustrate digitally.

By combining shapes, lines and shadows on her iPad, she has designed book covers for notable women including Aminata Touré, Germany’s first Black female minister, award-winning American author Coe Booth, and Jamaican-American author Nicola Yoon.

In 2020, she illustrated the cover for Yoon’s book “Instructions for Dancing,” sketching a Black man and a woman dancing tango.

“The book is about a woman, Evie, taking up dancing. She meets a man she connects with through dance,” the artist explained, adding that the cover took her two months to finish.

According to Olusanya, illustrating the cover was a “dream come true,” especially as it became an instant New York Times best-seller after its release in June 2021. “I can proudly say I’ve created book covers for multiple best-sellers,” she added.

Olusanya's cover for "Instructions for Dancing" by best-selling author Nicola Yoon.

Olusanya’s cover for “Instructions for Dancing” by best-selling author Nicola Yoon. Credit: Morenike Olusanya

The power of storytelling

Many of Olusanya’s portraits share a message about what it’s like to be a Black woman in today’s world.

“If I see a phrase, thing or person that I feel tells a story and can be executed into an artwork or picture, I go for it,” she explained.

One of her pieces, “Aminata,” is an image of a Black woman with short pink hair, wearing a sleeveless white dress that exposes her back. “The hair color was inspired by my friend, Chigozie,” Olusanya said. “At the time, I found myself being insecure about all the fat on my back. So I painted that, as you’d notice in the portrait. It was my way of accepting myself. It was also a way of showing that it is natural for Black women like me to have fat on their bodies.”

Olusanya's "Trust."

Olusanya’s “Aminta.” Credit: Morenike Olusanya

Her dance portraits are even more personal. “It’s like a journal for me; I draw them based on what I’m experiencing,” she explained.

For example, “She will not be Silent” was created during the pandemic when there was a rise in cases of violence against women. “The art was inspired by how women on social media lent their voices to support other women who had faced targeted harassment,” she explained.

“It was very heavy for me, but I wanted to create something powerful, something that shows that when a woman is being treated unfairly, there will always be other women trying to help out,” she said.

Olusanya's "She will not be Silent."

Olusanya’s “She will not be Silent.” Credit: Morenike Olusanya

‘People can relate to what I’m doing’

In 2021, Olusanya was included in Leading Ladies Africa’s list of 100 Most Inspiring Women in Nigeria and in 2022, she won the Lord’s Achievers Special Recognition Award: A Lady Making Impact Through Art.

“Winning the award was very encouraging for me. It reinforced that art is my thing, and people can relate to what I’m doing,” she said.

While Olusanya is happy to be recognized for her work, she said the highlight of her career is getting commissioned to create portraits for some of the biggest brands in the world, including Hulu, Dark & Lovely, Penguin Random House, and Scholastic.

For the next couple of years, she just wants to keep creating and experimenting with art. “I want to continue collaborating with bigger brands, hosting exhibitions in Lagos and other countries,” she said.

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