DUBAI: Nigerian visual artist, photographer, art blogger and graffiti artist Tonia Nneji was one of six talents invited to take part in the Art Dubai Residents program, which will no longer exhibit physically due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Color plays a central role in Nneji’s practice — a tool she embraces to imbue her art with accessibility and positivity. Her diverse works delve into overlooked societal and health issues that negatively impact women and children.
“My work is more social activism than political, because the themes are things people neglect and don’t talk about,” said Nneji. “I come from a society of superstition, so every little health issue is from a witch in the village trying to harm us.” She explained that even educated females rarely visit clinics as they still adhere to longstanding cultural beliefs that medical conditions such as PCOS — with which Nneji has struggled with — or endometriosis are due to “an enemy in the village trying to use voodoo.”
Elaborating on the example, she added that there is a widespread social dismissal of even concrete medical test results. “In Africa, people need to understand that things are real,” asserts Nneji of her work’s main goal.
But just because the themes are weighty, her approach is not. For the piece she created in the UAE, Nneji took advantage of the opportunities to explore markets and fabric. “I use draperies as a tool of hiding, to represent protection, a safe place,” she explained. “Where I come from, it’s very hard for people going through emotional distress to come out and say it because they don’t want to be judged, so I’m using this to explain and show what’s happening.” And the colorful fabrics illustrate more than accessibility. “The storylines may be sad, but the colors brighten them,” she observed. “’Sad’ doesn’t have to be in black or white, gray and brown.”
Nneji is focused on outreach through her works. “I want women to feel safe and not alone, like there’s hope,” she said. Her aim is for viewers “to see my work and know there’s someone out there experiencing the same thing and tell them that they can get help if they need it.”
Tonia Nneji is represented by Rele Gallery in Lagos, Nigeria.