Jamilla Okubo is a celebrated mixed-media artist fresh off her first solo exhibit “Ain’t going to tell you no story, Ain’t going to tell you no lie,” which concluded at Mehari Square on June 7. Though she described the lead up to her show as chaotic, her schedule hasn’t freed up much since.
Okubo’s talents have already been on display in a variety of other places, ranging from this summer’s StoryMakers Festival at Carnegie Library to an illustration in O, The Oprah Magazine to commissioned drawings in several children’s books. In other words, she’s a busy woman.
The majority of Okubo’s illustrations could themselves be considered “A Day in the Lives,” as they frequently feature young black women doing everyday things. Though the figures populating her work are colorless, pitch black and without faces, they unmistakably represent elements of the black experience.
Drawing from influences in her own backyard to her family’s lineage in Kenya, the pieces are powerful yet graceful, and her use of color around the silhouettes is a masterwork of expression. We caught up with Okubo in a DC tea shop to discuss her illustrations, her upbringing as an artist and the significance of her work.
On Tap: Have you always been fascinated by silhouettes?
Jamilla Okubo: When I was at Parsons [School of Design], I majored in integrated design and my focus was fashion, but I could take other classes and tailor them to fashion. I had a class called “Love” and my professor had us figure out what our purpose was, what were we investigating. I went back to themes I was exploring at [the] Duke [Ellington School of the Arts]. I still loved fashion illustrations, so I wanted to tie those in. I started taking some of my favorite fashion magazines and began blacking out the models. I was studying how you can display emotions through pose or posture.
OT: It’s a prominent feature in a lot of your work. What was it like the first time you used that aesthetic?
JO: It was exciting. I wanted to use it as a tool to create positive representation of black people, so then I started changing their features – maybe making their lips a little larger [and] making them more obvious. I took that and started illustrating with patterns [in the background], looking at African fashion that I was inspired by.
OT: Was it a natural decision to make them completely black?
JO: I have thought about experimenting with using other colors like purple or orange. I’ve done it once, but you could say it was mostly monochromatic. I was scared. I feel like it evokes a different emotion when you use different colors.
OT: What is your process like? What’s the difference between doing a project for a client and creating your own piece?
JO: My process for both is pretty similar: I start with a theme. I’ll come up with a color palette, figure out how I want to express that theme and mock up different ways of showcasing what I’m trying to say.
OT: What’s it like collaborating with authors on children’s books?
JO: It’s been liberating because most of them gave me complete freedom to do whatever I want. They’ll send me a manuscript and I’ll ask if they have an aesthetic and they’ll just answer, “You.” It scares me, because what if it’s not that good?
Music playlists for different vibes
Paint, markers and sketchbook
OT: What are the struggles you face with that?
JO: [With] the book that I’m finishing up right now, I had a hard time coming up with concepts. It’s a book about African folktales, and the stories are really complex. Some of them are dark. Just coming up with concepts sometimes can be the most difficult.
OT: Describe your first artistic memory.
JO: It was definitely elementary school. Early on, I had a really good art teacher and she had us always doing some crazy projects. My mom said I used to always paint pictures, and she noticed something about the way I used colors.
OT: What kinds of things were you drawing?
JO: People – probably me, my mom and my grandmother. Family or scenery or animals. I remember being obsessed with cheetahs.
OT: Was your family one to put things on the fridge?
JO: My mom was because she went to grad school for photography, but she didn’t finish. I think that’s a huge influence in how I got into art because she also went to Howard University for television production. When I was younger, she’d take me to classes and use me as a little actress in her films.
OT: What steps did you take to push forward with your career path in the arts?
JO: At a young age, I just really wanted to do art. I don’t know if I was focused on a skillset. I just wanted to make pretty pictures. By the time I was in high school, maybe sophomore or junior year, I knew I had to take it seriously. I transferred [to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts] my junior year. That’s where I got my foundation training in drawing, painting and graphic design.
Can’t Live Without
Music (a must)
Dancing and laughing with my friends
Essential oils (amber oil and Egyptian musk)
OT: When did you start crafting your aesthetic?
JO: [The Duke Ellington School of the Arts] was really big on empowering a lot of the young black students. I had a great art history teacher, and he introduced us to black contemporary art and other worldly artists. I realized I could make artwork about my identity. I started looking into African fashion. I’m really into patterns and I wanted to design my own patterns, and that was a way for me to explore the themes of my work. I try to think about the African diaspora as a whole. I wanted to know more about where my dad is from – Kenya – because I grew up with my mom, so I didn’t know much about the culture there. I thought that looking at art and fashion would help me connect.
OT: Do you feel like your art is more important now in this political climate?
JO: I feel like it always has been. There are always political things going on. I think it’s a small portion of the grander scale of making sure women of color and black women feel empowered. Using art as a tool of empowerment is important. It’s a visual reminder that you are accepted and beautiful.