A Conversation with Artist Chiamonwu Joy IfeyinwaThe Arts March 12, 2019
“There are so many misconceptions about Nigeria...like we don’t have electricity” says Chiamonwu Joy Ifeyinwa, a Nigerian artist based in Anambra State. “Everything (in the West) is here. But I go online and see all of the horrible things people say about my country. I am trying to connect with the world and show them it’s not true.”
Chiamonwu Joy started drawing when she was six years old. She began with cartoons for school friends and family, though as her passion grew she began looking to the work of other artists such as Chuck Close for practice and inspiration. By her late teens she had quickly graduated from simple drawings to advanced hyperrealism.
“I am a self-taught artist,” she says, “I never took any classes at all.”
As the name hyperrealism suggests, Chiamonwu Joy’s charcoal pieces are true to life and frequently mistaken for black and white photography. Working primarily in charcoal, she depicts Nigerian men, women, and children in traditional dress placed against solid white backgrounds. More than just the subject of a one-off series, Chiamonwu Joy says that she has chosen to make the depiction of her agricultural, tribal, religious, and political heritage the sole focus of her work.
“I kind of realized that it was fading away gradually and I had to do something to immortalize that and keep that going for future generations to come…” she says, “I am trying to preserve my cultural heritage through my artwork (and) preserve my history...that is who I am and that is here to stay.”
Chiamonwu Joy sees her work as a means of bridging the gap between how she was raised (she is a member of the Igbo tribe) and how younger generations are quickly adapting to Nigeria’s rapid westernization. While she speaks fluent English, as do many other Nigerians, she is already seeing the Igbo language fade away as more children are only learning English.
“In our home we were taught to speak our language and when we went to school we learned to speak English. We dressed traditionally and we attended so many of our cultural festivals...I fell in love with it,” she says.
Chiamonwu Joy’s home life plays a large role in her art as well. She lives and creates in her studio adjoining her parents' home, and the models for many of her pieces are actually her close friends and family members.
“...The models I choose for my drawings play a huge part in accomplishing (my artistic) goals,” she says, “To achieve this, I take my time to share my vision with my models, prepare them on what to portray, have fun with them...and if everything works out fine, then I dress and take their pictures referencing the story I want to tell.”
She believes that now more than ever, these stories need to be told as Nigeria is becoming more cosmopolitan and increasingly westernized.
“Right now parents don’t tend to teach their children their mother tongue. Teach their kids where they’re from,” she says, “The language is going extinct. Most Igbo people are gradually turning their back on speaking our mother tongue by practically leaning more on the western lifestyle.”
There is hope however. Chiamonwu Joy says that she has continually spoken and worked with people of her generation and younger who are frustrated by this cultural shift and want to embrace their cultural roots. She began showing her work publicly on Instagram and Facebook in 2014, and went viral on Twitter in 2018.
At that moment, she remembers thinking, “I must be doing something really great..and (then) my art became my job.” As a result, she is now pursuing art full time and selling her pieces both locally and internationally via her website and social media. In Anambra State, she is also working with a community of local artists to support the preservation of their language and culture by organizing shows and exhibitions.
Chiamonwu Joy sees far more work to be done however. Now that she has built a greater following, she is hoping to travel and have her work shown in well-known exhibitions around the world, starting with some new pieces she will be submitting to a show in the United Kingdom soon. In addition, she sees partnerships with galleries and collaborations with local and international artists in her future. While her work focuses on her native heritage, the goal of her art is not only preservation, but encouraging greater understanding and visibility of Nigeria’s rich heritage on a global level.
Note: You can view and purchase Chiamonwu Joy’s artwork on her website. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @chiamonwu_joy
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