Welcome back to the Artists of Color interview series. This week, I am speaking with Vancouver-based artist Ejiwa Ebenebe, also known as Edge. I first discovered her work while scrolling through instagram, and was entranced by her magical imagery and her refreshing take on mermaids! I hope you fall in love with her work as much as I have, and that you enjoy reading her thoughtful responses to these questions.
1). Tell us about yourself! What is your background, and how would you describe your work?
I’m a queer Nigerian-Canadian woman currently living in Vancouver, Canada. I’m fortunate to have lived in varied places throughout my life, from Africa to the South Pacific, and that experience has given me a perspective on the world and my art that I wouldn’t have otherwise. My work itself is primarily figurative with a focus on ornamentation. I love ornate, detailed, beautiful things, and so I like to focus on those elements in my work. I also aim to help add to the positive representation of black women, to combat the pervasive negative stereotypes that are constantly applied to us.
2). When did you first fall in love with art, and realize that you wanted to pursue it as a career? Did your parents approve or disapprove?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love creating! As a kid I was always building things, or sewing, or drawing - there isn’t a distinct point I can remember that caused me to fall in love with it. But as far as wanting to pursue it as a career, that’s really an ongoing journey for me! I’m still figuring out what feels right for me in that aspect. I’m happiest when I am able to focus on creating the imagery that’s constantly generating itself in my mind, so I find that professional work can be a frustrating compromise. There are times, however, when a client wants exactly what you’re offering, and those make for awesome experiences. I’m still figuring out that balance for the long term.
My parents have always been supportive of my interests though, and have always done their best to help me with achieving my goals. Even when I myself am unsure about what I’m doing, I’ve never felt pressured to give up on pursuing what resonates most with me in my career. I’m extremely lucky in that regard, and am forever grateful for that!
3). Are you self-taught, or did you go to art school? How important was this training to becoming a professional artist?
I suppose I fall into the ‘self-taught’ camp. I didn’t go to a formal art school (although I did go to school to learn 3D film production), but instead learned through various means, mostly thanks to the internet! From countless tutorials on DeviantArt.com (so much nostalgia), to time-lapse and real-time videos on Youtube, to spending hours breaking down the work of artists I admire and trying to figure out their techniques and thought processes, to life-changing mentorships (most notably Chris Oatley’s Painting Drama mentorships)... It’s been quite a journey thus far! I don’t consider myself to be a professional artist yet; I’m still transitioning and figuring out what that looks like for me, but the training and experiences I’ve gained throughout the course of my educational journey have been vital for getting to where I am right now.
4). Your work is inspired by creativity. Do you mind sharing a bit about your creative process? Do your pieces evolve from doodles or writing? Do you have a structured approach to each piece, or do you tend to experiment quite a bit?
Ideas for my work generally jumps into my mind at random times, triggered by various things: a pattern I notice on someone’s clothing, the way light is shining on a specific spot of the ground at one moment, a piece of music, etc. I find that my brain loves to make random connections, and this often leads to doodled sketch ‘notes’ in my sketchbook (or on my computer) that I later turn into full drawings. As for the work’s process itself, I’ve learned (much to my dismay) that I had to develop a structured approach in order to get anything done, haha! I envy artists who can effectively work by forming a finished piece out of seeming chaos, but right now I’m most efficient when I establish exactly what I want to paint and where, through my under-drawings/line art. I think this is because the ideas my mind generates are usually pretty strongly formed impressions, and really the creative process for me is about transferring that specific imagery from my mind to my canvas. Unintentionally deviating from that impression in my mind tends to leave me unhappy with the final result.
I have been experimenting a lot with my technical approach over the years though, mainly due to frustration with certain aspects not completely ‘clicking’ for me. For example, I spent a long time trying to find an approach that resonated with me when it came to drawing line art. I tried so many line art methods (including not using it at all) until one finally felt right (at least for right now.) And I imagine that’s going to continue for quite a while as I grow. There are just so many techniques to try, and my process feels like it’s not quite ‘there’ yet.
5). What is a major obstacle that you have faced in pursuit of your art career? How did you overcome this, or is it something that you still struggle with?
The most difficult obstacles I’m having to overcome are my mental barriers. Depression in particular has been a major thing that I’ve had to deal with. I’m fortunate that I was able to get help that was effective for my situation, and that I’ve had and continue to have supportive people around me. It is an ongoing journey though. One of the most important and life-changing things I’ve ever done for myself is starting therapy, and it’s made such a difference. I’m feeling increasingly capable of taking on the challenges I need to in order to build the career I envision for myself. It’s exciting and I’m incredibly grateful to have these resources available to me.
6). Does representation matter in art?
Absolutely. Representation is vital, not only for showing people that they’re not alone and are understood, but for bridging gaps between people. While there are a lot of shared experiences we have as humans regardless of where we come from or where we go, there are also very unique and critical experiences that impact their daily lives of certain groups of people, that other, generally larger, groups never have/never will encounter. Without sensitive and prominent representation, what we’re left with are pervasive, harmful stereotypes and general ignorance that influence popular culture and opinion. Without an understanding of each other’s experiences, it’s practically impossible for us to work together and find solutions to these deep-rooted issues in society. But through art, I believe we can cultivate empathy and connection between otherwise disconnected people. Creativity is universal, and that makes it a powerful tool.
7). If you could communicate one thing to artists about representing a background or experience that isn’t their own, what would it be?
Research! If you’re trying to depict something you have no experience with yourself, I think it’s vital to gather as much information and perspective as we can from those who are familiar with that situation. Talk to people with those experiences, find and read media/resources created by them, ask questions, etc. I understand that this can all sound daunting though, and I think it’s also important to not feel immediately scared off creating something involving a different experience from our own. Truth is something that resonates across all different walks of life, and if you’re being honest, thorough and sincere in your approach, I think that’s a vital aspect that will help your work resonate with people.
8). Do you have a favorite character of color (from film, television, literature, comics, or any piece of art)?
I’m having trouble picking just one… Audrey from Atlantis comes to mind - that entire movie holds so much nostalgia (and fave characters) for me, and the depiction of Audrey as a skilled, independent and strong character has stayed with me. But I’m gonna cheat a little here, and also include: Garnet from Steven Universe - even though I haven’t gotten around to watching much of the show (I know), every time I see her, whether in clips, screenshots or fanart, I love her! (...And also Laverne & Poussey from OINTB!) They’re such badasses! (Oops, can I say that?)
Audrey from Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), left. Garnet from Steven Universe (2013-present), right.
Sophia Burset and Poussey Washington from Orange is the New Black (2013-present).
9). Who is the most underrated creator of color you wish everyone knew about?
Brian McDonald, screenwriter, director and teacher. He’s such a wonderful person, and he makes a positive and powerful impact on all those he encounters. His book ‘The Golden Theme’ has made an especially lasting impression on me. I recommend that every creative reads it at least once. It’s targeted at writers, but the concepts it expounds are valuable to anyone wanting their work to resonate with others.
10). What piece of advice would you give to young aspiring artists of color?
Don’t be afraid to share your voice and perspective. I know that personally I struggle with the feeling that the work I’m passionate about creating doesn’t matter, or isn’t good or important enough for me to share. But the more I work at what I'm doing and share more of my personal voice, I find that it’s resonating with people in ways I hadn’t expected. And something I believe is that, even when we’re feeling like what we want to share has been said or done numerous times before, there will be people who want, or even need to hear it in your voice, from your perspective. So don’t stifle your voice, you never know when what you share with someone, will be just what they needed at that moment. (And don’t slack on your art fundamentals!)
11). Any current projects you can talk about? What is your ultimate dream project that you canʼt wait to work on, or be a part of someday?
Nothing at the moment, although I’ve got some fun things I’m working on that I’ll be able to talk about down the road! I do have my own personal works that I’m focusing on this year - there’s a lot in my backlog that I’m excited to get done and to share.
My dream project, that’s still a hard one for me to answer… I’m in such a transitional stage that certain things are still solidifying for me. But for right now, If I allow myself to just imagine anything I could potentially create, what keeps coming to mind is a tome of intricate illustrations, that would function as a sort of ‘cabinet of curiosities’. I loved the magic of beautifully illustrated books I had as a child, and that’s the sort of whimsical spirit I imagine the book having. I imagine the book acting like a rabbit hole you could drop down into through the pages, traveling through different themes and collections of things. From found objects, to unusual flora and fauna, to weird environments. It’s a pretty abstract idea to explain, but that’s what has been puttering about in the back of my mind for quite a while now.
Thank you so much, Edge, for sharing your story and your stunning art! And thank you, readers, for joining us for this interview series. If Edge's answers resonated with you, please comment and share her interview far and wide!
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