Figurative artist Nneka Uzoigwe hasn’t always known she wanted to paint. Instead, after a few years in the fashion industry, she had a revelation when seeing an exhibition of work by Dorothea Tanning – an American artist influenced by surrealism who was married to Max Ernst. “I had a really emotional reaction to the work, unlike anything I ever had before,” she says. “I realised it was the kind of work I would love to create.” She spent a year painting on her own before deciding to embark on formal training and came across London Fine Art Studios, where she began training in the classic atelier method.
Nneka studied there under Ann Witheridge and Scott Pohlschmidt, working with the comparative measurement method. She learnt about proportions and compositions, then moved onto colour and paint handling, creating still lives, portraiture and landscapes. She received the De Laszlo Foundation Scholarship three times, and was required to give lectures. “I felt very uncomfortable doing that at the time,” she says, “but it definitely helped me get used to being able to speak about art.” She spoke about Dorothea Tanning, and Eugène Carrière, a French Symbolist artist of the fin-de-siècle period.
Soon she began teaching there, sharing approaches to still life painting. “It definitely helps you improve as an artist,” she says, “because you’re showing people methods that sometimes you don’t necessarily always follow yourself. So it definitely makes you focus on technique.” Part of the lesson structure is teaching people how to set up their own still lifes. “It’s not very regimented, it’s very much about promoting that person’s individuality,” she explains. Students bring items in from home. “They have to be things that they like, as they will be spending time painting them.” They discuss the best arrangements for the objects, and how to light them. Nneka most enjoys understanding how the students create brushstrokes, and encouraging them to follow their individuality.
There is a real sense of community at the studios, and Nneka has been working in her private studio there for a few years, cycling in each day. “It’s great because there are people from so many different walks of life, at different stages in their lives,” she says. She finds that ability to offer and receive advice invaluable; she sometimes asks her old tutors to pop up to her studio on their lunch breaks, if she needs a second opinion on a particular piece of work. “That’s priceless.” Her studio has a lovely quality of light, and she calls it her “little sanctuary.” She has filled it with intriguing objects that she depicts in her paintings, collected over the years.
These objects, including shells, oil lamps, birdcages and music boxes, run throughout the paintings exhibited for her first solo show, Waking Dream, which was presented at the gallery at Green & Stone of Chelsea in September. The works unfold out of dreams and the imagination, with surreal aspects that arise from subconscious thought. “There’s a moment when the sun is just about to go down, or when you’re on your own early in the morning and everything is really quiet. You’re just waking up and remembering a dream, or you’re daydreaming. My work is all about a woman being by herself, and exploring where her imagination goes,” she explains. “Those things are actually happening in the painting, so there is always a feeling of action, like something is about to happen.”
This feeling is captured in Alchemy, where a woman reaches into a large glass bowl to a white dove, and Shell Carousel, a self portrait with flowers and foliage seemingly growing in the hair, and bright oranges dangling from the ears. Also shown was The Marine Room, where water bursts forth through a window, inspired by a dream Nneka had. When at her grandmother’s coastal house in Ireland, she realised the sea came up to the window visually, and that was where the dream came from. “I struggle with a very bad memory,” she explains, “but a lot of my memories appear in my dreams and exist in that way, very vividly.”
Nneka’s work incorporates these dreamlike elements, but there is a sense of realism due to her drawing and setting things up to paint from life. She particularly enjoys portraiture and often paints friends, portraying “an inner emotion of flight of fancy.” She will often set up painting with herself first, spending time to try different pieces of clothing and adding objects to get a good synchronicity. “I find clothing brings a sense of escapism to my work,” she says. “With beautiful fabrics coming together, there is a sort of otherworldliness.”
In Alix and her Hair Crowns, Nneka depicts her artist friend Alix Bizet in a hazy, gossamer blouse, wearing a crown crocheted from Afro hair. The ethereal mood is heightened by the gilt Jupiter, created through layer upon layer of gold leaf. There is a tenderness to her portraits, which are created through up to seven sittings, each taking three hours. “The lighting is important, and also the expression,” she says, preferring a natural expression with a sense of subtlety. “I don’t like portraits where they are drawn perfectly, but there is no emotion.”
Since the exhibition at Green & Stone, Nneka has seen a portrait hung in the Mall Galleries for the Royal Institute of Oil Painters annual open exhibition, and two more have been added to the main hall in Oriel College, University of Oxford, celebrating the achievements of Regius Professor of History, Lyndal Roper, and Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, Hindy Najman. For the coming year, she is looking forward to completing some more commissions she has lined up. “I also have a few paintings to do for friends who have modelled for me for free!” It will surely be a busy year ahead.
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Photographs by Debbie Loftus.