Nigerian born first year graphic designer, Vuoni Unuigbe, breaks down exactly what it means to be influenced by black history as an OCAD student.
Tell us about yourself (your background, where you’re from, your program, your year etc.)
I am Nigerian and lived in Nigeria for 10 years before I moved to Brazil. I was there for 4 years and then went back to Nigeria for a year before I came [to Canada] here. I’ve been here for almost 8 years now. I’m 18 and in my first year of Graphic Design.
In your perception, how do you think western art has influenced black history AND minorities in general?
Most of the art that was created during the period of slavery depicted women in crop fields. The women looked nourished and fine but we weren’t looking from their perspectives; we were seeing the perspectives of the slave owners. People might say that exhibiting artwork that showed more realistic depictions of slavery might offend black people. However, showing only one side of the story undermines the importance of it because if you think about it, the paintings don’t portray the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual pain that the slaves must have had to go through. To put it simply, the art doesn’t depict slavery as it actually happened because there’s no ‘right light’ to paint it in.
Has your background influenced your desire to pursue a career of being a creative; how so?
A good amount of the Nigerians I’m surrounded by are into business. My father is an architect and always put pressure on my siblings and I to follow in his footsteps. They all escaped but when it came to me, he was more persistent. To spite him, I was going to go into the sciences but ended up deciding not to because I’m not very good in that area. So, I thought about it some more and in my second semester of Grade 12, I finally settled on graphic design because I enjoyed it when I tried it out at school. I would say that being surrounded by people who aren’t doing very artistic things made me realize that I didn’t want to do what they were doing seeing as I found it to be very boring. Instead, I decided I wasn’t going to go down the same line and would rather do something that I actually like.
Do you feel OCADU has provided a welcoming and open space to discuss issues and ideas related to race? Does your voice feel heard among your peers and professors?
I think so! I’ve only been here for about seven months and so far, it’s going pretty well. I’ve seen some posters around school promoting the 24 Hour Exhibition. I think events like this create an atmosphere for black students to discuss social issues. The fact that they were even allowed to put up posters is really interesting to me because at my old high school, things like this weren’t really encouraged. My school wasn’t racist or anything, I think they were just trying to create an environment where everyone was equally represented even though this wasn’t really successful. At OCAD on the other hand, we’re allowed to discuss issues freely and are given opportunities to integrate our opinions on such subjects into assignments; for one of the assignments in Colour & 2D Design, we were allowed to be really political. I got to express some of my views and the professor didn’t condemn me for doing this. Instead he welcomed it and encouraged people to be more expressive of their political views.
Do you feel, specifically in art history at OCADU, that the past of your ancestors etc. are presented in an equal, factual manner?
I don’t think so. In my last art history lecture, we delved into African art and it was interesting to see things from the perspective of western education. My English professor mentioned to me that Indigenous art and Black history are usually talked about from the perspective of Europeans. In my lecture, the professor talked about how people would see African art and not believe that it was made by Africans and would assume it was made by Europeans, because it seemed too good to be true. In art history, we’ve been learning about European art for a really long time. One lecture so far has been dedicated to African art and even when we talk about it we revert back to art made by Western artists very quickly. I feel that there is not enough representation for non-European art; we should have more than one lecture on African art and Indigenous art and other non-European artworks. I think the time in lectures should be spread out equally so we can all see ourselves represented in history.
What artists are you inspired by, POC (people of color) or otherwise?
My favourite artist is Basquiat. I think most people would consider his art as ugly but the messages behind them bring out their inner beauty. The messages make them more compelling and intriguing. There’s so much going on but the message that he’s trying to convey to the viewer manages to push past the physical appearance of the artwork. To completely understand his art, you need to stare at it for a while. It also helps to understand him as a person because knowing where he was coming from really helps you appreciate it more. Otherwise, you could easily pass by it and think “oh someone shat on a piece of canvas and hung it up”. Another think I like about his art is the colour schemes he uses. His art could easily be mistaken for weird drunken doodles but there are really important messages behind each piece. He inspires me because he was one of the first black artists to really get into the scene and while it is sad that he died early, his art is really appreciated now. A while ago, there was an exhibit at the AGO and I absolutely loved it. Basquiat is definitely my favourite artist.
What does Black History Month mean to you? How would you like to see the world change in the future?
To me, black history month is a time to let your blackness shine to the fullest without feeling the need to feel apologetic. Its existence shows that people are becoming less ignorant and are starting to acknowledge the events of history. This is an improvement but things are not improving as fast as I would prefer but one day we’ll get there. I appreciate Black History Month but sometimes I completely forget it’s even going on but then I’ll see a post on Instagram and that’ll remind me that it’s time for me to be black- blacker than ever. I think representation in forms such as this magazine are really cool but I wish there was more promotion for the month. A subject that I feel is not discussed as much as it should be is black mental health. It is not talked about enough, especially in black homes. While some families have become more open to having discussions about mental health, I know for a fact that sometimes people do not feel comfortable enough to express themselves. Talking about mental health is usually condemned and having a mental illness brings a lot of stigma. I think this is something that needs to change. Black lives matter and as such, Black mental health matters because, if you’re not in a good mental space then you can’t physically appreciate the things around you. If you aren’t your best self then you can’t help empower others. It’s also a time dedicated to reflecting on our ancestors and our past – it allows understand their hustle and how what they did changed our future. It’s a time to embrace your roots and appreciate everyone that came before us.
Looking at the current social and political climate, 30 years from now, there probably will be some sort of radical change and from there things will go one of two ways; Black History Month could excel and be appreciated more in all cultures or it could experience a downfall. In my opinion, it could go either ways, hopefully it will be positive because if he [Trump] keeps doing what he’s doing now and things deteriorate, people will have no choice but to stand up and fight back to create a change. I’ve always hated the quote, “We need to be the change we want to see in the world” but I have to admit that it is true.
Photography by Charisse Fung