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Kelvin Okafor: The Art Draws Itself

By Michael Bamidele
29 March 2020   |   6:00 am
Most people stumble through life’s ups and downs and through numerous career choices before settling for something. Not Kelvin Okafor. At the age of 8, he discovered his love for drawing - with pencils. Although Kelvin drew “obsessively” every day, he didn’t give much thought to it as he believed that everyone else was drawing…

Most people stumble through life’s ups and downs and through numerous career choices before settling for something. Not Kelvin Okafor. At the age of 8, he discovered his love for drawing – with pencils.

Although Kelvin drew “obsessively” every day, he didn’t give much thought to it as he believed that everyone else was drawing too. It was at age 15 he realised he had a gift, a unique talent – drawing portraits so lifelike that you would mistake them for photographs.
Although born and raised in London, Kelvin Okafor is of Nigerian descent.

Nigerian parents often have a strong input in the life path of their children. Kelvin’s parents were no different as they wanted him to take “serious subjects” in school that would see him become either a lawyer or doctor. “It wasn’t fully embracive, although they did allow me to explore my interest.” His parents imagined that his love for drawing would pass and give way to a more serious career path.

The voice of passion was louder. Okafor went on to study a Foundation course in Art & Design at City & Guilds Art School and he graduated from Middlesex University with a B.A. (Hon) in Fine Art.

The One Thing
Kelvin took a self-taught path to art. For him, it was the only thing that mattered and made him “feel good”.

“Drawing was that one thing. I never had any intention of making [it] a living. There was no sort of blueprint. I had no mentors that were artists that could guide me through. Drawing was that one thing that I just did that made me feel really good. It wasn’t about making a living or acquiring anything financially. It was all about how I felt innately. And that’s what art brought for me.”

Is It Art Or Photograph?
When you view Okafor’s art, it might make you doubt your eyes or the artist. It looks so real and lifelike that you would say “oh, this is definitely a photograph.” And that is the same impression people had even in his early days.

In 2010, Okafor was accused of being a fake artist after gaining a sizable amount of fans on DeviantArt, an online community featuring artwork, videography, and photography. His accusers said it was impossible for someone to draw like that. They said his arts were photographs and tried to discredit his works.

“I got a direct message from that website from someone saying ‘read this you fake artist.’ It was curse words. Really rude words. Sadly, a lot of the artists that I found amazing were there and they said really harsh things about my work. They said ‘He is a fraud. A fake artist. It’s not possible to draw like that.’”

Kelvin Okafor

It was only later that his accusers realised that Okafor drew what became known as Hyperrealism. Hyperrealism is a genre of art (painting and sculpture) resembling a high-resolution photograph.

But is that how Okafor describes his art?
Okafor says he doesn’t like to label his kind of art because “I feel like when you label something, you put it in a category, a box where it doesn’t have much reach.” He, however, subscribes to the term ‘Emotional Realism’ which British art critic Estelle Lovatt used in describing Okafor’s work.

Okafor says that the term describes the fact that when people view his work in person, it prompts an “emotional response.”

Okafor does mostly portraits – drawings depicting only the face or head and shoulders. “I’ve always been kind of almost obsessed with facial features and expressions.” This focus has a root in his childhood. When he was a little kid, Okafor used to ask adults what they were thinking about when they smiled.

“When people smile, when they are angry or pensive, what is this person thinking to make them express themselves that way? So I’ve always been really curious and intrigued by people’s expressions because the eyes, for me, even as a youngster, that’s one place that people can’t really lie.”

Mother Teresa

If pictures indeed tell a thousand words, then Kelvin Okafor’s drawings tell stories.

“While I’m drawing each portrait, in my personal life, I’m going through certain things. Whether I’m in love, in a relationship or I’m going through some difficulties. There’s a story with each one.”

When asked if he has a favourite amongst his creations, he says that he has an appreciation for them individually. However, he adds;

“If I can say that there is a drawing of mine that has helped me through something, in that perfect time, I’d say, it would be Mother Teresa.”

Okafor was going through a low time in life when he drew Mother Teresa. He took a break from social media due to the slandering criticism and backlash that trailed him. It was during this period he was inspired to draw Mother Teresa.

Human Essence

As at the time of this writing, the world is dealing with a global health crisis as a result of the coronavirus pandemic that has affected 487,648 people with a death toll of 22,029. Consequently, millions of people are self-isolating around the world.

Even in the midst of the crisis, Okafor believes that one shouldn’t lose the essence of what makes us human. This he says is the foundation of his creative process.

“Before I put any pencil to paper – the first thing I do – it’s very important for me to meet the person. We are in an age right now where everyone is on their phone, screen, TV. People are losing that human interaction.”

“I find it very important for me to meet the person I’m drawing, get to know them and I would ask them, where is your favourite place to go? Where is your favourite environment?” The reason Okafor asks these questions is that when people are in their favourite setting, they are able to express their true self.

“I get to know them, understand their interest, understand what they feel like internally, so I can truly capture their essence.”

After taking photographs of his subject or model in their favourite setting, it is then that he begins to put pencil to paper. Even before that, he says he would study his subject for two weeks prior to drawing.

Okafor draws for 12 hours a day – a practice he has been doing since 2011. And he only works on one drawing one at a time.

It is this dedication to his art that would see him win awards, get TV features as well as get commissioned to draw celebrities.

Kelvin Okafor has exhibited with the The Columbia Threadneedle Prize, The Pastel Society, the Royal Society of British Artists and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, where he was awarded The de Laszlo Foundation Award in 2013. He is also the first commissioned artist to have a pencil portrait on permanent display in the House of Commons.

The Nigerian Hyperrealism Movement

The hyperrealism movement in Nigeria started as a small awakening after Olumide Oresegun’s arts were mistaken for photographs in 2016, in came the likes of Ken Nwadiogbu, Arinze Stanley and Oscar Ukonu. The movement became a tidal wave in 2018 thanks to the #WeareNigerianCreatives trend on social media platform, Twitter.

Speaking on the hyperrealism movement in Nigeria, Okafor says Nigerians are disciplined and see the world differently. He says the movement shows that there are a lot of attentive and focused individuals in Nigeria.

“I feel like the hyperrealism movement in Nigeria is a showcase of the discipline, the commitment and the level of attentive skill Nigerians naturally have. As Africans, our work ethic is different. he way we see the world. We see in a really detailed miniature way.”

Okafor, however, advises artists should not rely on trends but rather stay true to the nature of their art or the work they create.

“The problem with following trends, as an artist, is because of your longevity. If you’re following a trend, when life gets difficult, you won’t be able to endure because you were in it for the wrong reason rather than create art which is true to your nature.”

Okafor encourages people to invest in living artists as “artists that deceased no longer benefit from people investing in their works. It is the artists that are living now that are trying to make a living. They are the ones that need that support and investment.”

When asked if he has plans to host one of his workshops in Nigeria, he said, “A hundred and ten billion per cent!” and this is in no time.