The Beauty of Blackness: Q&A with Illustrator Naledi Modupi

For many, visual arts serve as a form of communication that allows them to express themselves in a way they know best. Contemporary illustrator and visual artist Naledi Modupi echoes this sentiment. “Personally, I have always used art as a form of expression, especially given that I find it extremely difficult to convey my thoughts, beliefs and values in other more generic formats. I was always drawn to visual arts because of how effortlessly it allows both my mind and heart to unveil the things my words struggle to,” she says. Modupi uses her artistic flair to inspire confidence and awaken hope in those who are see their reflections in her pieces. We spoke with her to learn more.

What is your creative background and journey leading up to this point in your career? 

Growing up surrounded by phenomenal black women has certainly played a pivotal role in the theme I choose for my work, as well as finding so much confidence and happiness within the black community I have had the pleasure of being raised in. Inevitably my creative journey would be greatly inspired by my joyous experiences and the beauty of the people that surround me.

The encouragement and immense support I received from the creative members of my family, especially my mom, led to my introduction to drawing as well as creating in many forms from a young age. I was thus exposed to a multitude of materials and mediums to use in my art even from the infancy of my journey. I further went on to take art as one of my elective subjects in high school which introduced me into a creative space working mainly with acrylic and oil on canvas. This medium served as a form of expression that I used to communicate my beliefs and passions surrounding the idea of blackness and womanhood from the early stages of my creative journey.

As an emerging full time artist, the point in which I currently find myself in my career has already gifted me with the most incredible opportunities. These opportunities have served as living testimonies that my art is and will continue to make an impact in the ways I have always intended, which keeps me enthusiastic for the things to come. 

How would you describe your style of work?

My work is mainly portraiture and figurative, in a style that can be described as reductive and semi-abstract. With this style I convey individuality and personality through the use of organic shapes and vibrant colours.

Tell us about the central theme(s) of your work and why you choose to explore this in particular. 

As a darker skinned black woman, I use my identity and experiences as the central theme to my work. I choose to explore this theme as a way to encourage the community of black people (mainly black women) that black is beautiful, bold and powerful.

And even in my adulthood the familiar narrative which has been, and still is continuously forced in my face, is one that shouts that people who look like me are more susceptible to injustices and struggles. This very same narrative is also the one which continues to falsely enforce that we, as black people, are not beautiful. This is exactly why the beauty of blackness remains the ultimate theme throughout all my work.

Some of the present elements in your work are shapes and patterns. Why is the use of these elements vital in your work, and how do you use different shapes/patterns to create dimension and depth in each piece you create?

The shapes serve to guide in expressing, as well as serving to emphasize the colours and their individualistic vibrance. The patterns and line work differ with every single artwork, which helps me convey the message that every face painted or drawn has its own story to tell, whilst also managing to depict the beauty within all the faces. Ultimately, the use of the organic free-handed shapes, lines and patterns gives every single piece a sense of authenticity and individuality.

Tell us about how you incorporate mixed media elements into some of your work. 

I consider myself an explorative artist, who is constantly finding new ways to incorporate different materials and tools to create. I often find myself exploring with various mixtures and mediums such as crocheting on canvas, creating layers which introduce colour to my traditionally black and white paintings. I have also recently started taking my crocheting and painting a step further by introducing the medium to my black and white photographs.

How did you begin experimenting with these mixed media elements? 

My high school teacher encouraged experimenting with different materials within changing seasons, and I’d constantly fall in love with the different techniques and methods of creating, whilst simultaneously finding a piece of myself in most of these different approaches. I found sticking to one form of creating extremely limiting and restricting. As mentioned, I use art to convey my feelings and thoughts, and think that the use of mixed media has always served as a metaphor to explain that these expressions are not necessarily linear and structured, but rather cohesive in communicating beauty.

Where do you mainly draw inspiration from, and who are some of your artistic influences? 

I mainly draw inspiration from photography. I follow the work of a lot of great photographers, such as Morgan Otagburuagu, a photographer who creates imagery celebrating African women and their skin tone. To me, such photographers also challenge me to create artworks that could have an impact on other women, if not even greater. Also including Solomon Omogboye as one of my artistic influences. Solomon is a Nigerian contemporary impressionist painter who, through his use of different mediums on canvas, has often inspired and forced me into being more experimental with different mediums and techniques. The work of Spanish artist Valeria Palmeiro, known for her vibrant use of acrylic paint and block colour style, is the biggest influence when it comes to admiration for vibrant bold colours in my work. And lastly, Nick Daves’ work opened the door for me to think about representing black people in my work in a way that puts strong emphasis on the iridescent skin tone that black people possess.

What is your creative process like? 

My creative process usually goes something like this:

1. Getting ideas and inspirations from various sources. I proceed by writing them or quickly sketching… An example of this is coming across a combination of colours as I go on about my day. The ideation process, which includes capturing the idea either through writing or even taking a picture, can become the most challenging when trying to come up with an amazing idea for a painting which I aim to translate into an original artwork.

2. From the ideas and inspirations, a rough sketch follows.

3. Once the sketch is complete, I then at this point allow my creativity and imagination to take over. This is my favourite part of the process, the idea of communicating my ideas and feelings through the finished work.

Through your work, what message do you aim to communicate and why/how is this messaging important to you?

My work is heavily inspired by the beauty of blackness and characteristics associated with black people. Through it I aim to communicate the idea that Black is Beautiful. I create with the attempt to express and release emotions associated with the injustices and challenges faced by people who look like me, achieving this by creating various contexts for my subjects through either digital illustrations or acrylic paint – showcasing and embracing black people from different aesthetic standpoints.

As mentioned before, this message is extremely important to me because I am aware of how easy it can be for black people to fall out of love with themselves. My work aims to inspire confidence and awaken hope in those who are able to find their reflections in my pieces, just as I see my work as a reflection of the faces surrounding me.

What are some of your favourite pieces you’ve created and why? 

The digital artwork titled ‘Graobe Marie-Noelle’ revealed a perfect composition of colours and shapes which instantly worked well together without any planning behind it. This piece expressed beauty and boldness perfectly. I was mostly amazed by the response, where black women were able to resonate with this piece, which is ultimately what I try to achieve with all my pieces.

Another favourite, titled ‘Kuyobuya Kulunge’, has to be the most personal piece because it was produced in a period of my life where I was totally uninspired and unmotivated. During this time, this piece allowed me to play with shapes in a way I had never tried to before, and allowed me to get lost in it for hours. For the first time, I wasn’t tempted to use colour, it truly expressed where I was in creatively in my life.

Follow @mo.illustrations on IG.

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