How Johnson Ocheja is setting the standard for self-taught contemporary artists

We sat down with Johnson Ocheja as part of The Creative Lane, a series of features in which we set the stage for creative people of colour all over the planet, guided by question prompts but not interrupted by word counts or time limits, letting them share personal stories and lessons in the purest, truthful, and most inspiring form.

After a degree in statistics, Nigerian contemporary artist Johnson Ocheja decided to utilise YouTube videos and other online resources to teach himself pencil drawing and painting. Only a few years have passed since he began this journey and he already has several highly recognised, international shows on his profile, including The Wilderness Within by PRIOR Art Space Berlin, and SHOW UP! by Red Arrow Gallery at Nashville Parthenon. He chats with Tope Akintayo about how he kick-started his creative journey, the challenges he is facing along the way, his responsibility as a Black artist, and the prospects he has for the near future.

Boy with the Gold Staff (2021) © Ocheja Johnson

How the Creative Journey Started

My journey into art started in primary school. I had a notebook dedicated to my drawings. I got on my parents’ nerves a couple of times because I was always drawing, even at the wrong times, especially when I was supposed to be reading. Ironically, when I got to secondary school, I stopped drawing and participating in any artistic work for a long time.

Sometime in 2017, I visited a friend and saw his younger brother making art. I asked him if I could learn, and he said yes, and went ahead to make a statement that stuck with me to this day. “I used to look up to you,” he revealed to me how he used to watch me draw during our primary and early secondary school days. So what happened to me? I stood back, but I couldn’t reply.

He asked me to pay some money for the training I’ll be receiving from him. I did not have any money to pay him. However, I asked him a few questions about art, which he politely answered. And then I went back home and began practising on my own. With this experience, you would think that I have learned my lessons and would now be consistent, but that was exactly contrary to what I did. I practised for just a few months and stopped. It wasn’t until 2019 that I finally got myself together and started being consistent. That was also when I decided to take up art as a full-time career. 

From 2019 up to 2020, I was into pencil drawing and hyperrealism; however, I desired to work with colours all along. Using pencil drawing, my style would have to be realism, which requires a greater time commitment, sometimes running into weeks to finish a piece. Now imagine I want to tell a story with my art. The time commitment is unreal and unscalable. I had to transition into a method that does not require as much time commitment, which was painting. That was why I transitioned from pencil drawing to painting.

The first time I tried painting, the face came out quite well. Also, the entire process was fast, it took me only about five hours. When I think of it now, I think that 5 hours was a bit slow because now that I am very familiar with the domain of painting, I am now able to work faster than that.

Officially, my journey into painting started in December 2020. I didn’t bring my work online until March 2021. Before then I was simply practising my craft in the background.

1999 (2021) © Johnson Ocheja

Being a Full-Time Artist in a Country Like Nigeria

Now I am a full-time artist. I never expected that I would go into art full time. First, the experiences of artists we see in our societies are not enticing. Growing up, the roadside artists were the models we had of what the life and income of an artist look like. They are the ones with wooden or metal kiosks by the roadside, the front of the shop is always flooded with the uncommissioned and unsold portraits of celebrities. This was what we thought a career in art is about. Therefore I didn’t see myself venturing full-time into that because I feared I would not be able to make enough money to cover my needs. Yes, I have become very passionate about art and I love creating; yes, there’s joy in doing what you enjoy doing but there’s even more joy in being paid for what you love to do.

After doing art for a while, I began to get commissions and my parents began to finally accept the fact that I am a full-time artist. Whenever I run out of pencils, they’ll give me money for more. One day, I met a friend who was vast in the knowledge of art and was making waves in the art world. I had a conversation with him and he began to tell me how one can make a living and be comfortable as a full-time artist. He told me not to even look at the artists outside Nigeria, he gave me a couple of names of artists in Nigeria and said I should go home and look up those names, and I did. The things I saw on their Instagram pages inspired me so much and I began to dedicate myself to growth. 

I would always revisit my friend for doses of motivation. I realised that listening to him helped me develop a winning mindset that helped me to grow. One day, he asked me to look up some interviews of Arinze Stanley and Ken Nwadiogbu. In an interview with Ken, the interviewer asked him how much he makes from art. This was in 2018. And he answered that he makes between 5,000 to 10,000 US dollars. I was stunned.

When I search about artists making waves, I am not just looking at their work, I am looking for materials, I am looking for interviews, and looking to hear them talk about these arts themselves. 

I had this friend Eli Wadaba Yusuf who went viral for a drawing he made of Kevin Hart. And then Kevin Hart sent him about 10,000 US dollars. That was unbelievable. Stories like these encouraged me to do better.

Beauty from Chaos (2022) © Johnson Ocheja

I remember making a drawing of Genevieve. It went viral. She saw it and asked if she could have it. That attention opened doors for me. People reached out to me for the first time. That was when I started getting job commissions with big names. I remember when somebody paid me 40,000 Naira for a drawing. I was so happy that a drawing I made within five days could sell for that amount, and I began to calculate my monthly earnings if I could do 4 or 5 of these drawings in a month. This was the beginning of my confidence in art as a full-time job.

One of the things I did that helped me was that I channelled all of this money into buying materials. Any time I feel like quitting, I simply remind myself that I had spent so much buying materials and I can’t afford to look back. When you invest in something with literally all your money, it will be difficult to look back because you know you have spent a lot. Just as Jesus said that wherever your treasure is, there your heart is.

The journey has been amazing, and I don’t have any regrets. I am home. I’m very comfortable, and I make more than ten times what I used to make. I work and travel around the world. I have worked and exhibited in Spain, the US, Australia, and Germany. I just have so many coming up. It’s been a great experience.

Lady in the garden, 2021 © Johnson Ocheja

The Message Behind the Art

A message central to my work is “Be proud of yourself”. I grew up in a community where dark-skinned people like me bleach their skin. So, I literally grew up with this mindset that the white race was better. Growing up, we get to hear all sorts of things depicting that the white men are too good, several statements connoting that these people are better. I eventually realised that it is all a misconception. We are equal, we are mates; there’s no difference; nobody is better. So I started questioning myself “Why do we have black people bleaching their skin to be white?” We have people who have damaged their skin in the process. This is an issue I speak about in my works.

When I make a painting, I use blue pigment. And I use a dark shade of blue on the skin of most of my subjects. From the history of colour, blue is a colour that originated in Egypt. And because of how difficult it was to get, it was an expensive colour to use. And so it is reserved for use by only the wealthy. It was used to paint Mary, the mother of Jesus. And it is linked to royalty. So using blue in my painting is a way of saying that my subjects are royal. 

Traditionally, you see a Black man painted brown in simple attire. In contrast, I wanted to paint the everyday Black people around me in a way that depicts them like royalty. We are kings in our kingdoms. This is another message underlying my works. 

If I painted you, I wanted a way to call you king, and I wanted to do this with colour. If you go through my works, you will realise that I pay special attention to colour combinations because of how dark the African skin is. People say that black shines the brightest. You have to uphold this assertation as an artist. The Black will shine the brightest in your work if you stylishly mix it with some bright colours.

Noka in the garden (2021) © Johnson Ocheja

The Role of the Black Artist in Amplifying the Black Voice

As Black artists, we all have different messages that we want to pass across. Whatever your message is, I think you should do better in trying to amplify this message. I appreciate the likes of Amoako Boafo, who amplifies the Black voice through his bold portraitures.

Due to globalisation or exposure, many Africans tend to adulterate African culture with western culture. Many tend to travel and decide not to come back to Africa. Over time there’s a tendency that they might forget their origin. I once watched a movie in which one of the actors said “I am black, but I am not an African.” To me, this is wild. I want to ask such a person “Where is your origin?” Definitely, they are from Africa.

I think it is our duty as Black artists to uplift the African culture and encourage people to do the same. There are people who have forgotten their roots and artists must begin to pass messages about origins. I made a painting recently of a guy in the Yoruba regalia (Agbada) carrying a safe box. Works like that are an attempt to preserve our culture and heritage. 

Besides preserving heritage, I also think that the Black artist has the responsibility to amplify the voices of Black people and create works that speak against oppression and marginalisation. I understand that the efforts might appear futile now, it might seem that the conscious works that we create are not hitting any cords. However, what we can do as artists is not give up sending out these messages.

Today, I have white people representing me. A few decades ago, this would not have been possible. But several years ago some people decided to pay the price, and now I’m able to ride on that effort. So I think I must also pay the price for the next generation. I will keep sending out messages, and I know that a time will come when the messages will have been effectively passed.

Locs in the Garden (2022) © Johnson Ocheja

The main challenge I had when starting out was finding my voice and style. I’m a spiritual person and I don’t take a step without trusting in God to give me directions. So I can’t just say okay, my journey started by myself, and that I got here all by myself. No.

For example, I would say that the colour and the style I use in my works are divinely given. That’s a story for another time.

After I have overcome the challenge of finding the style that I was comfortable with, I was then faced with the challenge of being accepted globally. When I first started, I discovered that nobody was reaching out. I had a few friends who always complimented my artwork. This was nice, however, these are your friends telling you your work is nice. Where will that lead you? Nowhere. 

After a long while, I got my first exhibition. Social media was especially a great tool that I used to navigate through some of the challenges. First, I look for artists who were already quite established in the field. I connected with them to learn and asked them questions about how they were able to navigate some of these challenges. Most of them said they didn’t directly reach out to any galleries. They said that the best you can do is tag these galleries and platforms whenever you post new work. They gave me a few names and I also went back to review some of their posts to check out who and who these established artists tag in their posts. I made a list and began to tag the names on the list in every one of my posts. This was how I began to get attention on social media. Eventually, around June 2021, I got the first invitation. The person reached out and said he was organising a show and would love me to be in that show. The first show I had was The Awakening, which was in London. The works I exhibited at this show were sold out.

Blue with the Flower (2022) © Johnson Ocheja

Future Expectations

The future is great for me and I can say that God has reached out through people. It is the joy of every artist to exhibit in museums around the world, in institutions and at art fairs. I have a couple of fairs coming up this year in which my works will be featured. I’m not only getting featured in random galleries, I am getting featured in the leading art galleries in Asia and all over the world. I also have so many shows and residencies coming up. This is something I’m so excited about.

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