In conversation with Ojo Agi

With Blackness at the center of her works, Ojo Agi’s figurative drawings on brown paper tell a story that transcends race. Informed by postcolonial theory, gender studies, and narrative storytelling, the Nigerian-Canadian artist uses her drawings to respond to Afro-diasporic subjectivities, feminist politics, and aesthetic beauty.

A couple of weeks ago, Ojo (b. 1992) and I spoke about her beginnings in the arts, the meditative and soothing qualities of drawing, and how learning from multiple disciplines can benefit your practice

by Nina Seidel

Somto (Daughters of Diaspora), 2015
Coloured pencils, markers, and pens on paper, 10 x 8 in


Hello Ojo, it’s a pleasure to meet you. For people who don’t know you, please introduce yourself quickly.

My name is Ojo Agi, my pronouns she/her, and I’m a Nigerian-Canadian artist, researcher, and educator based in Toronto, Canada. I studied Health Sciences and Women and Gender Studies in school. Informed by my interdisciplinary research, I use my art practice to explore concepts related to identity, representation, and the social determinants of health from an African perspective. Specifically, I am interested in the experience of migration and displacement on African identities, how that experience affects our bodies and psyches, and how we can use art to heal and share our stories.

Departures/Arrivals, 2020
Coloured pencils, markers, and pens on paper, 19.7  x 18 in

How did you get into the arts?

Since childhood, I have always used drawing as a means of storytelling, whether through comic panels or fashion sketches. I loved to read and write, and drawing was an extension of being able to create new characters and build new worlds. I started to exhibit in group shows in 2015, after a friend introduced me to a local curator. But it wasn’t until 2016, when I went to this Black art conference in Johannesburg, that I felt the resolve to pursue my practice professionally.

Since then, I’ve returned to school to develop the conceptual and theoretical aspects of my work. I’ve also worked as a curator, an educator, a writer, and a research assistant in various museums and universities, which has given me a better understanding of the industry.

You wrote about your work: “Informed by postcolonial feminist theory, I create empathic, detailed figurative drawings on brown paper. Through the material, I invite viewers to consider an environment (both on and off the page) in which Blackness is normalized and Black subjects unconditionally belong. By centering Black figures in the environment, I am able to tell stories that transcend race—stories about mental health, migration, beauty, and discovering one’s identity.” Could you please comment on that? 

The use of brown paper is a significant part of my practice. I treat the paper as a middle ground, then add shadows and highlights to create contours and depth. The figure appears to be emerging from its surroundings. The choice is partially aesthetic and partially metaphorical. I wanted to subvert the expectation to start with a white canvas, akin to the expectation to center whiteness in image-making and storytelling.

I focus on creating emotional expressions and interesting titles to hint at the inner world of the subjects. Sometimes, the story is about self-care and boundaries, sometimes the story is about identity and cultural hybridity.

By using brown paper, I’m choosing to represent Blackness as the starting point which empowers me to center my own experiences.

Matthew 11:28
(There is space for you here), 2021
Coloured pencils, markers, and pens on paper, 11.5 x 8.25 in
There will always be one more thing (There is space for you here), 2021
GIF, continuous loop

When I look at your drawings, they seem so clean and precise to me. They look as if they are exactly the way they should be, perfect, almost. Do you also feel that way about them?

I understand why you feel that way. I’m influenced by comic books, graphic novels, and animation. In all these mediums, they have really clean lines. There are usually several people involved, each responsible for a very specific part—such as inking the lines, blocking in the colour, or adding in shadows. It’s very methodical and precise, and I think my process flows in a very similar way.

I noticed that you don’t (or hardly ever) use any decorative elements in your drawings and the open space that you leave next to your figures really caught my attention. In regards to that, I’d like to speak about two of your series, “Daughter’s Diaspora”, and “There is space for you here”, specifically the drawing “No is a complete sentence”.

I created “Daughters Diaspora” between 2014 and 2018, which is a series that represents young African women. The drawings are created on various shades of brown paper and the reference models are from various African nations, which allowed me to represent a range of features. Each drawing was titled after a cultural name (such as “Ada”, which means “the first daughter” in both Idoma and Igbo, two different Nigerian ethnic groups) to signify their identities. Typically, people are looking for specific aesthetic cues to determine who is African—maybe it is a specific print in the fashion, or specific facial features or hairstyles. In this work, I wanted people to identify these women by their names, to foreground an individuality that often gets lost in the greater group identity.

Similarly, for my other work, I don’t add embellishments if I think it will be distracting from the main story I want to tell. In “There is space for you here”, I’m playing with the concept of the gaze to articulate that looking away can be an act of self-preservation. The focus is on the subject’s gaze, so the drawing needs to be minimal to help direct the viewer’s attention. The subjects wear black shirts with no texture for this reason. However, in another series of untitled drawings, each figure is represented with colourful, patterned clothing which I had a lot of fun drawing. Those works are meant to be decorative, so I left them untitled because there isn’t a specific story I am communicating with those.

No is a complete sentence / No. 3 (There is space for you here), 2021
Coloured pencils, markers, and pens on paper, 35 x 45.75 in

On your website I read about you and your work: “Her research-based and socially-engaged practice is dedicated to knowledge translation and mobilization via the arts.” Could you please explain that a bit more?

Absolutely, I’ll do it bit by bit. When talking about my practice being research-based, that’s to say that it’s informed by all of my scholarly endeavours and also my readings. I read a lot of books, fiction and non-fiction, a lot of scholars, theories, conceptual tools, and those things inform my art practice, sometimes subconsciously, sometimes consciously. That’s my research phase.

Socially-engaged means that it’s meant to connect with people. My work is about connection. I have conversations with people as I’m making the work which helps to inform my practice and then, when I’m disseminating it, I’m also showing it over social media so people can comment on it, engage with it, and interact with it in different ways.

Regarding knowledge translation, it’s essentially communication and teaching. There are so many barriers to communication across cultures, across generations, across languages. Art is a beautiful medium to communicate knowledge, to potentially connect with others. It’s accessible to most people- you don’t need to be able to speak English to look at my work and make some understanding of it.

Lastly, mobilization means that I’m encouraging people to put this knowledge into practice. Some of my series are a little bit more instructive, like “There is space for you here”, which is about setting boundaries and protecting your space. The figures in these drawings are all turned away from the viewer, demonstrating that they are choosing to spend time with themselves. I felt this was an important message to share following the collective trauma and stress of George Floyd’s murder, when Black people were expected to do the heavy lifting of anti-racism with little regard for our well-being.

Art is a beautiful medium to communicate knowledge, to potentially connect with others. It’s accessible to most people-you don’t need to be able to speak English to look at my work and make some understanding of it.

Taiwo and Kehinde (Daughters of Diaspora), 2016
Coloured pencils, markers, and pens on paper, 12 x 18 in

You are an artist and also a scholar, a PhD student. Are there times when you feel that the theory gets in the way of your practice?

Yes, that can happen. For me, drawing is a creative, embodied practice. It’s hard to do when I overthink it. And the time commitment to the PhD program, on top of my paid work, sometimes makes it difficult to carve out time for my art practice. But I love researching and brainstorming how to execute theoretical concepts via figurative drawings. The research is so helpful for situating my work within an art historical framework and developing language to articulate my ideas.

How does drawing make you feel?

I love the question because I think about it a lot. I just really enjoy drawing. Being a professional artist, I thought about how much more prolific I could be if I were to change my medium to photography or even painting because they are faster processes of producing images. But I really like drawing even though it’s painstakingly slow. I like the feeling of paper, I like the feeling of ink. I like feeling the pen and the paper together, and watching the marks appear from my own hand. I find it soothing, meditative and relaxing.  It’s the same for books–I prefer to read a physical book than to read on my computer or on a digital device.

Motion Study, 2021
GIF, continuous loop

What advice would you give fellow emerging artists?

I have a lots of advices (laughs), let me think of something good. It’s definitely going to be context specific, it’s going to depend on the country you’re in, the art market that you’re in, whether you’re trained or not trained, whether or not you have financial support. There are a lot of different pieces that come to my mind, but I would say that one of the most beneficial things for me and my art practice is really related to learn from multiple disciplines, so, studying. Getting to study health sciences and women and gender studies has really informed my understanding of the world which therefore has shaped my art practice. So, even if you are a working artist or studying within an art school, I would encourage emerging artists to find another area of study that they can get passionate about. That passion is what’s going to make it into the art and what makes the art more interesting.

And last question, what are your hopes for the future?

For my art practice, I’d like to exhibit and share my work more, and I would like to participate in more residencies to create focused bodies of works. I’m trying to think: how can we be better together as a community? I’d like to see more of those conversations, and I would love for my artwork to contribute to that in some way.

Untitled (Cornrows), 2020
Coloured pencils, markers, and pens on paper, 11.5 x 8.25 in
Get in touch
with Ojo:
Instagram: ojoagi

All Photographs courtesy of
Ojo Agi
Interviewed & written by Nina Seidel
Edited by Ojo Agi & Nina Seidel

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All rights reserved

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