‘One thing that I did last year was to reinvent myself.’
Artist Jacqueline Suowari casually drops this into our Zoom conversation; myself in Shoreditch, London, she in her home-studio in Abuja, Nigeria. We may be thousands of miles apart but the time zone is – thankfully – the same, and as she guides me around her studio, her drawings and various moodboards, it feels like I’m in the room with her.
After only a few minutes of talking to Suowari, it’s apparent that such a bold statement is pretty standard. Suowari is an artist of incredible perception and drive – not to mention talent – whose star is certainly on the rise. A professional artist for over a decade, she has garnered attention and accolades in her home country as well as America, having shown in Miami and New York. And this autumn, Suowari will launch her first UK solo show at London City Island’s very own London Lighthouse Gallery & Studio.
Suowari’s large-scale portraits are certainly eye-catching, and they’re even more impressive on closer inspection when you realise that they’re created with a humble ballpoint pen. The detail is stunning, and the figures in the canvases are full of emotion and character, often sporting colourful clothing and jewellery and intricate hairstyles (‘I’m fascinated with hair. There’s something about African hair that is very versatile; we have so many styles and expressions.’) Suowari trained as a traditional painter at the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria, but ultimately felt unsatisfied with the medium. She later turned to her childhood hobby of drawing (primarily on the back of her school science books) with a ballpoint pen, and found that, finally, she could express herself through precise lines and layering.
‘I like to look at each stroke as the human experience,’ Suowari explains of her portraits. ‘One experience, one stroke – and the gathering, and layering, and falling together creates the person and their character.’
Suowari knew she wanted to be an artist from the age of five, and has been a recognisable name over the past 12 years. But despite the ballpoint pen still being the core of her work, the catalyst of her aforementioned “reinvention” is to become a multidisciplinary artist.
Artist Jacqueline Suowari in front of 'Silence Will Uncover You'
‘During lockdown I got ideas about performance, installation, film, sculpture – but I didn’t know how to mix everything together,’ she explains. ‘Coming from a traditional art background and veering into other media isn’t such a common feat, especially where I come from – nonetheless, I have been determined to do it, expressively merging my drawings, poetry, performances and installation art – now birthing a more holistic experience. The Jacqueline Suowari experience.’
The upcoming exhibition at London Lighthouse Gallery & Studio is a new body of work titled The Way They See Us. It comes off the back of Suowari’s successful solo show, Now I Wear Myself, which toured Abuja and Lagos last year. The exhibition was featured on CNN Style and CNN Inside Africa, which in turn caught the attention of people outside of Africa, including photographer and gallery owner, Sokari Higgwe.
‘Sokari and I had a conversation and he mentioned that they were a new gallery,’ Suowari explains. ‘I don’t really care about the name of the gallery, or how long they’ve been representing artists. For me it’s the intention that counts. I’d rather have a small gallery that respects the artist and the work than a big gallery that treats me like a piece of abandoned cloth.
‘I’m happy that I chose to go with Sokari,’ she continues with a smile. ‘When I had a conversation with him, he was like, “I know people are reaching out to you, Jacqueline, but I want to tell you that if you work with my gallery, you’re not going to regret it.” And so far I haven’t had any cause to because it’s been a very clean relationship with clean communication. It’s like a breath of fresh air compared to the kind of experiences I’ve had.’
Bin Dunmuo Tua Owei, 2018
The Way They See Us launches on 1 October and sees 10 new ballpoint pen portraits alongside performance, poetry and installation. This is part of Suowari’s journey into multimedia, something which she explored in Now I Wear Myself. For this exhibition, Suowari – despite having no filmmaking training or experience – made an accompanying short film, Of Lines and Layers, which was nominated for a prize at the prestigious Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards. Now I Wear Myself was a deeply personal project for Suowari, which challenged taboo subjects like depression and shame in Nigerian culture. The Way They See Us is something of an extension of this but with a more ambitious and fantastical narrative. It centres on three protagonists from fictional Nigerian tribes and explores themes of prejudice, identity and acceptance.
Nigeria is home to hundreds of different tribes, each with its own history, status and traditions, as well as over 500 languages. Suowari tells me: ‘I’ve travelled a lot around Nigeria and I realised that each region is almost like living in a different country.’
The tribes in The Way They See Us may be rooted in reality, but they take on more extreme properties with obstruction to their facial features. Some of the figures don’t have eyes, others don’t have mouths and some even have their entire faces blacked out. It may sound like the stuff of a Jordan Peele film, but the underlying themes are universal. Plagues break out in each tribe, Suowari explains, with members having to travel outside of their tight-knit communities to find help from others who are “different” from them.
Work in progress for the upcoming exhibition, The Way They See Us
“I’m happy that I chose to work with Sokari at London Lighthouse Gallery & Studio… It’s like a breath of fresh air compared to the kind of experiences I’ve had.’
Jacqueline Suowari, artist
‘With this new body of work, there is a quirky, scary factor to it, but something that’s supposed to be scary, by the end of the day, ends up being beautiful,’ Suowari explains. ‘The Way They See Us – with this title, I’m addressing differences, perception, and generally what it feels like to be an outsider. Everybody has been an outsider at some point in their life. Not necessarily because of the colour of their skin or their race or their gender – but something has made you feel like an outsider, like you don’t quite belong.’
In this exhibition, as with her previous show, Suowari is keen to connect with young people and encourage them to ‘embrace their uniqueness and to be their most authentic selves’. In our conversation, we talk about ambition and setting goals, something which Suowari has been doing since childhood.
‘You never know what the universe is thinking when you’re setting those goals,’ she smiles. A solo exhibition in London was one such goal set last year, and she, of course, has several for the near future – including a Time magazine cover and delivering more TED talks.
Right now, she is also embracing the fact that her art is changing: ‘I have to be willing to allow that change. The next three years of my life I’m dedicating myself to new discoveries and new realisations of myself.’
Suowari may no longer be (in her own words) ‘Jacqueline the ballpoint pen artist’, but her exquisite skills as a draughtswoman will always be the heart of her work. Her ideology, she explains, ‘stems’ from her drawings: ‘They come from my ballpoint pen. So, whatever I’m addressing, whatever concepts I have, they come from the concepts that generate in the studio while I’m drawing.’
Work in progress. An example of the obstructed facial features in the characters in The Way They See Us
For now, all eyes are on Suowari’s debut UK show this autumn. After months of working in the studio on her intricate large-scale canvases, Suowari acknowledges that she only gets to enjoy her work upon seeing it hanging in the gallery. ‘I almost have an out-of-body experience,’ she says. ‘It’s the only time I get to appreciate the work for what it is. So I myself am looking forward to seeing the installation, the performance, the film, the paintings and having people experience them. I’m really looking forward to doing it with the London Lighthouse Gallery, especially.’
WORDS: GEMMA BILLINGTON
The Way they See Us by Jacqueline Suowari will be on display at London Lighthouse Gallery & Studio from 1-31 October 2022. Find out more by visiting londonlighthousestudio.com