With her Hockney level talent, Uzo Njoku is the name to know in the art world right now. The buzzy newcomer has just opened her first exhibition, A Space of My Own, with Voltz Clarke Gallery in New York. She tells The Daily how she feels about being dubbed a breakout star and her unconventional path to success.
What will your upcoming exhibition look like? Is there a theme?
I wouldn’t say it is a theme, it is where I am at this point. There will be three installations. It is like a pre-masters program. You’re not going to go in and see one style like any other artist, you will see more focus on patterns and it is a more interactive space. I want to show how I’m able to bring the product design portion of art and fine art into one
space, that is my goal.
How did the relationship with Voltz Clarke Gallery come about?
My relationship with Voltz Clarke Gallery started through their associate, Juliette, who knew my work from University of Virginia, as she is also a graduate of there. It seemed like a gallery I wanted to work with from the start as Voltz Clarke felt more homey, like a family, and the college connection fostered the relationship. I have had numerous galleries reach out, but they did not take into account what I wanted. Voltz Clarke cared about showcasing my voice, and made me feel at home, (and I even did visit their home!). I felt welcomed and heard.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I have been painting for six years. I went to the University of Virginia to study Statistics and then in my second year, I decided to switch my major to painting. As a result, I had to take an extra year to graduate. After I went to DC, I lost my job amidst the pandemic. I got into my MFA program, and deferred it a year and I am finally coming to New York!
One of my favorite pieces by you is of a woman in a bathroom reading like she’s on the subway. What’s the story behind that work?
We were a few weeks into lockdown and I started thinking about New Yorker illustrations I saw from 1998. It showed a man in his living room in his work clothes, old baggy suit, reading the newspaper “commuting” on the subway. I always loved the illustrations that graced the New Yorker. I remember seeing this years back and laughing. Then during the start of the pandemic I wanted to show a funny comparison, and it was a commentary and play on how you cannot ride the subway and you’re stuck at home. I wonder what happened in 1998, amidst a different crisis and I wanted to make it contemporary.
What made you decide to move here to New York, and what are you most looking forward to?
My MFA. New York is where it’s happening! I was thinking about Yale, but I’m done with quiet towns. I want to expand as an artist. I’m here for two years to study and make connections, then I’m out because it’s so expensive. People have this idea that an MFA makes connections, which isn’t true. You have to make your own connections and put yourself out there and work extra hard because it won’t be handed to me. Additionally, I want to teach from the Black teacher perspective, because there aren’t really any Black painting teachers. I didn’t know how to paint dark skin, and my professors didn’t know, and there were no Black skin models.
You’re now being dubbed a “breakout” star. How do you feel about that title?
“Breakout”—I guess so, since I never got funding. I didn’t have money to pay for school so I had to go through a whole different route to have funding. I supported my education and supplies in addition to applying to so many grants, but I never got them. I was able to pave my way in an unconventional manner, through commercial design and products. Now this approach is bringing me money to take risks. I like it now because the ball is in my court and no one can sway!
Who are some of the artists who have inspired you?
There are no artists that I take wholeheartedly from. I studied Njideka Akunyili Crosby, her resume, her interviews, everything. I wanted to understand what steps she took to become who she is. While studying her resume, I noticed she was pre-med, and switched to painting like me, and I admired that. I love how active she is with BLM and what’s going on in Nigeria. She uses her platform for good. For example, she created a work of Breonna Taylor. She respectfully reached out to her family to receive rights to images of her. And she made no money: it was out of the goodness of her heart. David Hockney, in terms of color, he evolved over time and changed his style. It hit me that I don’t have to be stuck in the same style forever. Alexander Calder—for his persona. He was an entertainer, he wasn’t just an artist. I love how personable he is and I hope I come off as that as well.
I saw you sell yoga mats and phone cases with your work on your website! Any other merchandise coming?
Yes! Pre-orders for scarves are out. I have also started Sip and Paint canvases—as some people try to redo my artworks, in a simplified manner. I made simple outlines on canvas, I did not do “paint by numbers” because I wanted the client to have freedom in their color choices and not be bound to one way of recreating my work. Thanks for the chat today!
Voltz Clarke Gallery
195 Chrystie Street
The show runs through June 16th.