How Three Young Nigerian Artists Are Standing Up to Conservative Gender Norms

How Three Young Nigerian Artists Are Standing Up to Conservative Gender Norms

One of her most important pieces, She Will Not Be Silent (2020), was created in the middle of Nigeria’s lockdown, at a time when the country had seen a surge in acts of gender-based violence targeted mainly toward women. Inspired by other women who defied quarantine orders and took to the streets to protest, as well as the momentum generated by people speaking up on social media platforms, Olusanya created an image of two dancers dressed in white, which she describes as an homage to women all over the country who are creating an impact, no matter how great or small. “The women of my generation are working hard to fight oppression,” she says, “and it’s something I’m proud to be a part of.”

Chigozie Obi, Heavy Is the Head (2020)Photo: Chigozie Obi

“Women’s experiences in Nigeria affect me so deeply that I want to have conversations about them,” says Chigozie Obi, 24, a mixed-media artist based in Lagos, whose work touches on topics like body shaming, sex work, colorism, and unrealistic beauty standards, and gives prominence to fluid expressions of femininity. “I try to do so with my art, and social media helps me spread my message to as many people as I can, and hopefully encourage people to start a discussion about these issues.”

Chigozie Obi, The Pink Room (2019)Photo: Chigozie Obi

In a self-portrait she named Heavy Is the Head (2020), Obi documented the process of shaving off her hair, an act that she described as marking the end of her struggle with a confidence bound up in the politics of hair for Black women. Her series Coming Up for Air (2020) featured portraits of women sporting shaved heads and loose-fitting clothes (transgressive in their overt masculinity), and one painting of a mother dressed in short, tight clothes commonly described in certain sectors of Nigerian society as “indecent.” On her Instagram, Obi accompanied the series with captions stating that women have “different thoughts and personalities” and should not have to conform to societal expectations in order to be accepted. “Because of the way our society is structured, people—especially women—are treated unfairly on the basis of their physical appearance or body size,” says Obi. “Creating art that addresses this is my own little way of pushing for change.”

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