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Artist Spotlight: Nwaka Okparaeke

Meet Nwaka Okparaeke, @by_nwaka, an award winning artist. She is known for using elevated and surreal elements to explore the paradox of simplicity and complexity in life stories. “truth over everything”.

We spoke to Nwaka about finding her why, fostering the right environment to produce her images and more…

First of all, when reading your bio and your website, it really interested me that you described your work as “truth over everything”. I'd love for you to take me through why you use this phrase to describe your work. 

I say “truth over everything” because I feel like that's what I'm looking for in everything. With my work, I'm always exploring some sort of story and a lot of the time, I find myself gravitating to the emotion behind the story rather than being on the nose with it. I think the reason why my mind gravitates to the emotional side is because that's almost like the foundation of the actions - the deeper reason, the deeper meaning behind why we are how we are and why we do what we do. I'm ultimately looking for the truth.

A big word that I often use when I'm collaborating with people is that ultimately, I want to reflect authenticity. If I'm working with a brand on a shoot, I always tell them, okay, if we're working with this particular kind of model or musician or footballer or whoever it might be, I actually want to know who the authentic version of them is. How do we go about reflecting that in the best way possible in what we're trying to do here? So, yeah, I think that's a good question. I actually haven't been asked that before so I'm kind of just going off the top of my head, but I think it's along those lines. 

How do you go about fostering that authenticity in shoot environments? 

I think I'm naturally introverted so I am often quite observant and quiet, which tends to help in these situations. At the beginning I tend to be really good at listening to a person, understanding their energy and being able to be still in my energy. I'm able to pick up on the small details of what makes them who they are, what makes them tick, what they seem to like, what they seem to dislike, and then with that information, I'm able to try and connect with them on a more personal level. Even with my team, I think setting the energy of the room using my energy is important. 

People always say to me, oh, you're so calm, you're so calm. I think there's something about providing that calm energy that makes everybody else in the room have the option to be calm if they want to as well. This often allows for people to feel more comfortable, to open up a bit more and to feel more relaxed in being however they want to be. If we need more energy in something, I think the energy feels even more heightened if it starts off from calmness, because the contrast of it ends up being bigger. So we can play into easing into more energetic moments as well, if needs be. I think ultimately, everybody kind of tends to feel a bit safer in those environments as well which also helps people. They’re able to access a deeper emotional level and be more open, or whatever it is that they need to do to get the energy right in the shoot. 

That's so interesting. So did your journey as an artist in your career start with photography and then did you branch out into including writing and directing in your work?

If we're talking about the very beginning, I started off with making clothes, doing set design and basically anything crafty and creative - anything that involved my hands and putting something together. But photography always ended up being my favourite thing to do out of everything, every single time. So even if I would make an outfit, I'd always then want to photograph it. I did a fashion and textiles foundation course at Ravensbourne, and that's when I came across fashion photography and started to like photography that's more conceptual. The ability to explore self expression had been something that I'd never actually heard of before because in secondary school and college they always tell you to recreate another artist's work, whereas I feel like this was my first time of being like, no, you've got to look inside and create something. I think that really, really excited me. 

So for my first photo shoot, I styled it myself, casted it myself, did everything myself and that was really fun. From there, I started collaborating with other people and I think in collaborating with other people, that's when I started letting go of doing the styling myself, making the clothes myself, or doing the set design myself. Then one day, I had this concept in my head of exploring emotions that I didn't have words for. I knew I was feeling things, but I didn't know what the name of these particular emotions were so I wanted to do a photo shoot based on it. And then I was just like, actually, I feel like if I really want to capture this, I feel like it would be better if there was movement and sound involved. So then I used my camera to film it instead, and then that was my first ever short film called Out Loud. I shared that on social media and in a few exhibition spaces, and people started to ask me to do music videos based off of seeing that short film, then branded content and then it all grew from there. 

With the writing, I feel like I only really properly started that last year, but a lot of people told me beforehand that the way that I speak is quite poetic or, like, I had a lot of friends that do music, and some of them would ask me to write lyrics for them, which I never took them up on. I always told them no, I'm not writing any lyrics. And then even with my short films, they would always be silent because I just felt like I didn't really know how to put words together. 

But I created a whole lot of new work last year, and there was a lot of vulnerability that went into that new work, which then gave me the confidence to be like, you know what? Even if nobody understands what I'm trying to say here, I'm just going to try and write how I'm feeling anyway. I think it's taken me many, many years to build that confidence to express myself in writing. But then I put it out there in my exhibition last year and got some really amazing feedback, which gave me even more confidence so now that's something that I'm continuing. 

What would you say you've learned about yourself as an artist by opening up more facets to your art than just photography? 

I think the biggest thing is my why - why I'm even doing this. I think for a long time my art was just fun and it almost felt like therapy in a way. I'd create something, not knowing why I'm creating it and then, maybe a few months down the line to even years down the line, I'd reflect on it and realise that I was struggling with something and using creating as an outlet for that, or my work was teaching me about a certain part of my energy or something. 

Last year, I think I hadn't created personal work for maybe a good year and a half beforehand and I think that build up of not creating something personal for such a while meant that I wasn't getting that self reflection from my work that I usually had. I felt like there was a black hole inside of me and I didn't know what it was or where it came from or what it meant. So then I went down this journey of creating more personal work just to try and understand it and unravel it, because creating seems to be the only way that I can figure out what these issues are inside of me. 

As I started creating, I began to realise that I was creating a lot of work based on wanting to run away from myself. And then I started to ask questions about what it is about myself I'm trying to run away from? Through that, I began to realise that I had a lot of pain when I thought about my childhood self. I wanted to disassociate with who I was as a child with who I am now. This is really interesting for me, because before that realisation I would have said that though I understand that there were a lot of struggles in my childhood, I wouldn't have said that it's a problem or it’s particularly disturbing me. It was really interesting to discover that it was actually disturbing me quite a lot. 

So in realising that, I then went down this journey of being like, okay, why is it that when I reflect on my childhood self, there's this feeling of wanting to abandon them? I almost felt disgust towards them, which is really a sad thing. So I was like, what do I do about that? The only way is really forgiveness to my childhood self, understanding that my childhood self is literally a child and so therefore doesn't deserve to be looked at with disgust or anything like that. That unlocked a process of healing within me, which helped me with confidence, peace, humility and feeling a lot more grounded, which was really beautiful. 

I think from there, I then realised that I'd love the exhibition I was creating last year to be a space that could be a space of meditation, a space of reflection, a space that could be calming and allow people to feel like they could take that journey of healing in themselves as well. This was amazing because I saw, especially on the exhibition’s quieter days, somebody like praying in the corner, friends discussing insecurities, there was even somebody who was sitting and staring for like a good 2 hours and didn't say anything and just left. I thought that it was really amazing to see that it could be that calming space for people where they could take the time to think, either inwardly or outwardly discuss with a friend. 

I think that's something now just feels like that's my why. This is why I really want to continue with my art. I want to create more spaces of calmness and healing and opportunity. I think that's it. I just want to create new avenues of opportunity for self reflection so that others can go down the route of healing themselves.

Do you have advice for any other artists that are also on a similar journey of looking for their why

I think I'd say patience and kindness to yourself is very important - understanding that you are really a human being and human beings are incredibly complex. So for that reason, even if you live to 110 years old, you're still never going to fully understand yourself to the core. So the main thing is accepting that you're on a journey. The more patient you are to understand what your journey is and what it is that makes you tick, the more it will naturally just come to you over time and and only you will be able to know when it hits you. You're the only one that's going to confirm what your why is. 

So I'd say just experiment, be open, be honest with yourself and be gentle with yourself. If you need help, then there's a lot of safe spaces you could go to for conversations or reflections, or just to broaden your perspectives and open your mind. And also I'd say to remember that your why can change - your why today might be different to your why tomorrow and that's also completely fine.

Looking at the art industry as you see it now, what changes would you like to see in the future of the arts?

This is a very good question. I want to see more space for people to just be themselves, just normally. What I'm trying to say here is I feel like a lot of the time when I go to art spaces or events, there seems to be this thing of people trying to sound artsy or trying to appear artsy, and if you're not that person that's ready to put on this artsy performance, then it can come across as a bit clicky, a bit hard to penetrate, because it's almost like its own language in a way. 

But every now and again, I do meet people in the art world who just seem to just be floating around as themselves, like, they just seem more genuine in a way. It's quite hard to describe because I don't want to say that some people are not being genuine, but there definitely is a mould. If you fit the mould, then it's easier to fit in with the crowd and to go up the ladder versus if you're just, I don't know, trying to be you and just trying to create, then it's a lot harder to feel comfortable in those spaces, basically. So maybe the answer to that is actually just for there to be a variety of different spaces and platforms for all the different kinds of artists that fit the mould and for the ones that are outside of the box. 

Another thing that I'd also like to see is something that I found when it comes to trying to get funding, is people wanting to have too much to say about how I'm going to spend the money, which doesn't really work if you're an artist that's more spontaneous in their process. With a lot of my work, as I said, I don't know why I'm creating it at the beginning. Why I’ve created it comes to me afterwards. That makes it quite hard for me then to do applications and that sort of thing, because they're asking me questions that I don't have the answers to. So it would be nice if it was possible for there to be spaces that give funding to artists to just create without asking so many questions. In an ideal world, that would be nice.

If you enjoyed this conversation with Nwaka, make sure to check out our other Artist Spotlight interviews over on and whilst you’re there, why not have a look through all of the fantastic art we have for sale from emerging artists? Pop into the website to see what catches your eye…


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