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Canadian artist Alexis Eke brings her art to the global stage

If you belong to an immigrant community, you are probably familiar with the often unspoken understanding that art is a pursuit of luxury best left to those who can afford it.

But Toronto’s Alexis Eke is an interesting study of what can happen when those unspoken rules are broken and talent gets the spotlight it so often deserves. If you already know and follow Eke’s work on Instagram and throughout the Greater Toronto Area, you probably don’t need any proof of her merit as an illustrator, designer, and artist. You can spot her work on large murals scattered around the city (Waterfront Neighborhood Center, Union Station and Nuit Blanche to name a few) and brands and organizations such as adidas, Nike, Converse, Toronto Raptors, and Google have all commissioned her work.

But for a young black artist on the way, this path and success as a professional artist wasn’t always so obvious. Though extremely talented, Eke also benefited from her mother’s artistry and education to help her hone her unique style before formally pursuing art in school.

Growing up in the North York area of ​​Toronto before moving to Scarborough, Eke has also benefited from the support of her close-knit community. Initially, she joined RISE (Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere), one of Toronto’s largest and longest-running youth-led initiatives. “I think that community has really shown me how important it is for different artists to support each other,” she says.

Described as open love letters to black women, Eke’s portraits of these inspiring women stem from her strong connection to her Caribbean roots and faith, as well as the strong female influences of her own experience. With them, she asks each of us: “How are black women represented?”

For the latest episode of Northern Clutch, made by Now Playing Toronto, Complex Canada met Alexis Eke at her home in Toronto. Take a look above, then read the interview with Eke, edited for clarity, below.

So tell me about your relationship with your mom and the impact it has had on you as an artist as well.
Being an artist, she never had a chance to fully explore it. In like grade four or grade three [was when I discovered] that I liked art and that I somehow gravitated towards it. She has become my personal art teacher and has been very supportive from the very beginning.

It would have made me spend a couple of weeks just doing the eyes and then the nose and then the ears and lips.

I think your son says I want to be an artist when I grow up is not the best thing to hear. But I think my mother is an artist herself – at first she was already so supportive of it. So she really gave me the confidence to go out and pursue this goal and not feel uncomfortable in my family or whatever, because at first I didn’t have the most attractive career I imagine.

I know black women are a great source of inspiration for your work. Tell me about your mother.
For much of my life, my mother, being a single mom, was the only person in my life, the only person I had as an example and to whom I admired. There is a side of black women that is mostly represented by the media. But I think with my mother, and always being with her, I’ve seen the whole spectrum of black women. I think my mother is just a prominent figure in my life, I have naturally, subconsciously felt that my art is a kind of response to my environment.

Tell me about your origins: your first memories of when you approached the visual arts.
I think it was in my middle school. They had a program there for the cyber arts. It was there that I was introduced to making art or just getting to know the digital, but also the traditional side of art. By the time I got to high school, it was pretty clear to me that there was indeed a field where people can make art for a living.

“I guess that moment of closing the circle of making art and then seeing it in the places where I grew up and started, it’s just crazy how it happened.”

I think for many immigrant families, they don’tt always support their children in art. I think [this] obviously it comes from one’s own experience. Trying to make it as an artist ist necessarily considered a viable source of income in several countries, unfortunately. What would you say is the moment when you felt that you would actually embark on this career?
When I was in high school, I still struggled with whether to pursue art or not. I was planning on going to school for something like toxicology or some science program. There was an assembly at the school where someone was speaking [was giving] career advice and told me to do what you love and everything else will follow. This really stuck in my mind for a while after that. And I realized that if I took this safer and more stable path to the sciences, I would probably be miserable. So I was like, ‘Okay. I’ll just have to take the risk and go into the arts and see what happens next for sure. ‘

Tell me about the inspiration that came from growing up in North York and growing up in Toronto.
Many of my schools weren’t very different. The only depiction of similar portraits and the ability to draw people who looked like me were really just people at home. So it was like where much of my big inspiration for my paintings came from and just looking at the photos online.

But in terms of the community, I think with the support of my art it was definitely there. But in terms of the topics of my work – I guess the type of work I was practicing or doing – they came more from home than from my community.

You currently reside in Scarborough. What is special about that area?
I think when I came here, for some reason, it was very different from being in North York. It really looks very different in Scarborough, I think. It’s one of the few communities I was truly introduced to and one of the first communities that really supported my work was RISE (Reaching Intelligent Sounds Everywhere). Randell Adjei [Ontario’s first poet laureate], outside of my family and closest friends, she was probably one of the first people to really support my work. And that was a huge thing for me, just because I was still very young. But yeah, I think that community has really shown me how important it is for different artists to support each other. And then I think that after being introduced to my ecclesial community too, this was also an important thing because it happened about a couple of months before COVID occurred. So there is a lot of isolation, you know, everyone is home alone. But I think if I didn’t have a community it wouldn’t have been nice. So I’m happy that being in Scarborough, the whole community theme and being supported by the people and not doing things alone, really showed a lot in Scarborough.

Randell is great at giving black creatives many opportunities they may not have had in the community. Can you tell me about the importance of his program, RISE?
I think it is really important. Even though I had a program in high school that helped me learn the art, it’s not everyone’s situation. So I think having that program really gives black artists a real chance and an opportunity to actually explore their art. It’s a place that doesn’t lock them up or make them feel less appreciated. But I think such a program can really encourage and give a lot of confidence to black artists, like going out into the world and pursuing such a creative career.

I know a big goal for you is also to bring more light to black women in their creative fields as well. Tell me about this.
I think it started naturally once I started my university program. That was a big theme that I wanted to convey in my work. Just because I myself during school, I haven’t even heard of black contemporary Canadian artists, like in school or just in conversation or just on TV or the Internet. It was just a difficult thing to meet.

I think it played a role in me being a little reluctant to go into this field just because I didn’t know someone older who was already there. So I think this was a reason why I wanted the actual work itself – just me being a black artist here in Canada – to try to somehow increase the representation of black women on the field so that younger black artists could at least get a bit of an example of another black artist in Canada who has had some success in the field. It is not an unsustainable thing to hope, to dream.

I know a lot of your works have white lines on the face, right? Whatis the meaning behind the lines?
The white lines, from the eyes to the mouth, actually happened by accident. It was just like an interesting thing that I wanted to experience and I ended up keeping it. The meaning behind it has become a little clearer. It communicates how what we see or simply consume with our eyes has an effect on how we express ourselves through words, actions. I guess it’s just a reminder to take a moment to think about what we are visually consuming and how this is affecting the way we speak or how we treat other people.

Can you tell me about closing the circle? You started in this community making personal pieces for yourself and then you started making these pieces for clients. How was being a Toronto artist able to give you this trajectory?
Yes, I think one thing that really caught me off guard was the support I got in Toronto. I think it played a huge role in this closing circle for me. I used to work at home, and on weekends I would just like to just casually walk into Foot Locker or just walk around downtown, and go from there to have my job at Foot Locker or the adidas store is great. I guess that moment of closing the circle of making art and then seeing it in the places where I grew up and started, it’s just crazy how it happened.

Is fantastic. And speaking of the city, I know you were part of Nuit Blanche Scarborough. It’s a big problem. Can you tell me about your installation and then look forward to the Nuit Blanche that will arrive this year and see some of your fellow local artists also be part of it?
With my piece that was there at Nuit Blanche, I think the main goal was to have a great piece of work or installation that showcases a black woman in a contemporary and positive light. And that was the concept behind that piece. I knew there would probably be a lot of people pacing back and forth in that area, so I really wanted to have a piece that was a good image and positive for black women in particular. This year, I’m really excited to see more and to see more young black artists hopefully part of the lineup. I am thrilled for the Nuit Blanche this year.

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