Nwaka Okparaeke

“My work is a lot deeper than just trying to take a nice picture.” 

Nwaka Okparaeke winces as I bring out my camera from my bag to shoot her. She prefers to not have her photo taken. “I believe my work is going to go places, and I’d like to control where my image is shown,” she says with measured confidence.

Such confidence defines Nwaka’ s journey as an artist. At the age of 20, after working extremely hard to get into London College of Fashion to study FashionPhotography, she decided to drop out. “I had put in so much work, to the point where I built myself up to something that I felt like they couldn’t really improve in any way,” she says. “When I got there, I was underwhelmed. It was really depressing having somebody trying to manipulate my ideas. All of that just crushes you when you feel so big and flourished and someone is trying to compress you now. I wasn’t about to let that happen to me.”

It’s been 9 months since Nwaka made the decision to quit school, and looking at her progression, it seems like she made the right call.

 She has collaborated with ABOE,NR Magazine and UNIF in an ever-growing portfolio, and has been featured in several exhibitions. Her images are colourful, surreal and intimate, drawing viewers in with rich imagery and transporting them to a dreamlike world. Her work revels in sunlight. Her ability to manipulate light and use it to bring out the figures of her subjects is one of her biggest strengths. 

Particularly impressive is how she constructs photographs that feel both real and unreal, true to detail and lost in the abstract. Her images have no need for frames, they are at once within and without. “I feel like the surreal part of my work comes from a place of living in the city and growing up feeling like you belong nowhere that is directly around you, but you do belong somewhere and you can create that space in your mind,” she explains.

“If you can’t be there at that exact moment or you can’t make that environment for yourself, you can at least imagine it and take yourself to that place in your mind. I’m always trying to create that world in my images. That world that makes me feel how I want to feel at that time.” 

“I see the female body as a being, an energy that is being encapsulated by a figure, and my main thing is to show the energy and the mind of the person.” 

Nwaka and I are at the Ace Hotel - Shoreditch. It’s a grey Wednesday afternoon, much to Nwaka’s displeasure. She complains about London’s fluctuating weather and how it affects her shoots bringing up California as somewhere she’d love to move to. She is dressed in all black ensemble – a jumper matched with a denim skirt and an oversized denim jacket – that threatens to swallow her up, but never quite does.  

“At first I just had ideas and wanted to do them. I didn’t have any concept behind them and any reason,” she says honestly. “People would tell me that the pictures reminded them of something they went through, and I would reflect on that and see how much it connects to me. So, I used it as a way to take from my subconscious, almost like an opportunity to look at my mind and my thoughts, on a piece of paper or a screen, so I could understand myself a bit more.” Her development has been rapid; with each piece, she has fine tuned her talent, becoming more confident in her style.

She possesses an ability to examine the human body, especially the female body, with honesty. She puts this down to how she views the female: “I see the female body as a being, an energy that is being encapsulated by a figure, and my main thing is to show the energy and the mind of the person.” 

"I noticed that in my work, I used a lot of mixed-race models, which wasn’t a conscious decision...I realised why am I doing it. I realised what I am trying to say to myself.” 

“I noticed that in my work, I used a lot of mixed-race models, which wasn’t a conscious decision,” she says as we look through her work, “and all of those people could relate to my story whilst growing up. I thought it was an interesting thing to reflect on. I realised why am I doing it. I realised what I am trying to say to myself.”

“It’s almost like I want to see myself in the image, so I pick people with a similar figure to me, a similar hair type to me, a similar story to me.” After having heard this, I feel less bothered about being unable to shoot her. Just like another artist, Frida Kahlo, Nwaka’s images capture her in a way no one else can. Each photograph is an extension of who she is at the time she is shooting. Her body of work reflects how much she has grown, not just as a photographer, but as a human being. I relay this idea to Nwaka, and she nods her head excitedly in agreement. “Exactly!” she responds affirming my point. “That’s why I see myself as an artist rather than just calling myself a photographer. My work is a lot deeper than just trying to take a nice picture.”

“Now I find myself exploring other races, stories, and silhouettes.” 

Born in London to a Nigerian father and a British mother, she grew up predominantly in London but would travel back to Nigeria often. She spent her formative years navigating through her bi-racial identity. “When you’re younger you are told by media and society that you’re either white or you’re black, even though you are mixed race. It’s like you can’t identify with that because it’s offensive to someone somewhere. I struggled a lot with that when I was growing up,” she says. “Naturally I’ve bonded a lot more with Nigerian people. I just find myself with them, my friendship group all being Nigerian and it’s not even a conscious thing."

What was there a reason for this?

“I guess a lot of people identify me as black.”

She refuses, however, to be pinned down in a box: “I’d say I identify as mixed race. In terms of what I’ve been influenced by its very much equal between the two.”Visiting Nigeria, she would often spend most of her time in her father’s village in Anambra with her grandmother. “The village is a whole other thing.It’s super amazing. I’m really happy I was able to experience that raw life,”she says. It is clear how much this has inspired her work. She showcases a preference for natural settings with  flowers being a recurring motif in her images.Crucially, it imbibed in her a strong work ethic. “You see what they make with what they had, provided by nature, and how strong that has made their lives to be. It’s really inspiring,” she says.” “It gave me the mentality that I don’t need special resources or specific people; I can find things that are accessible to me. It adds to you as a person, enables you to appreciate things in a different way. See things in a different way.” 

Is it hard being a young creative in London?

“When you’re trying to get through, people will recognise you and if they can see you’re being genuine and want this, they will support you eventually. It’ll all work out in the end. You just have to want it enough. The past 3 months has seen jobs and opportunities rushing my way but for the longest time I didn’t have any of that and I was creating as much work and putting as much effort.”

Her recent projects have seen venture into filmmaking, with her latest, A New Room, seeing her explore what it’s like to feel a new emotion: “It shows someone travelling through a new emotion.Showcasing how the mind and body react to that initial feeling of newness. Taking you through the beginning of when it’s new to the end when it’s not.”

Things are looking up for Nwaka, but she is taking nothing for granted. “I’m not anywhere near what I would ideally like to be at.It’s still going to be a long journey,” she says.” “I think you just need to be positive about it. If it’s bad, be excited by how bad it is. If it’s good, be inspired by that. Push yourself to make it even better.”

As I make my way out, Nwaka brings out her laptop and begins to work. Pushing herself to make things even better. 

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