Creating vibrant portraits of Black creatives, Dawn Okoro’s practice combines fashion illustration, photography and painting to produce one-of-a-kind canvases that radiate energy and movement. With her first UK solo show opening at our Maddox Street location this week, we look at her bold and dynamic practice and outline some of the lesser-known facts about this exciting emerging artist.
Born in Houston, Texas in 1980, Dawn Okoro grew up in Lubbock in the Northwest corner of the state. From a young age, she was extremely creative and was captured by the power of fashion photography and illustration. Growing up in a town that was native to predominantly white people, Okoro turned to the pages of magazines for inspiration. The creative notes that growing up, “I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but not how to be an artist”. A lack of opportunity and ongoing systemic prejudices rendered the options of a creative career nearly impossible so in 2002, Okoro moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas, where she majored in Psychology with a minor in Fashion Design. Still unsure on her career path, in 2009, she looked to join the legal profession, attending Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Although she had always wanted to be an artist, it was not until she graduated with her law degree that she felt that it was possible to pursue art full-time.
From fashion photography to dance, Okoro’s artwork is inspired by many different cultural factors and creative practices, including being heavily informed by music and punk culture. The punk philosophy is primary defined by an anti-establishment ethos that prides itself on non-conformity. Both her portraits and her sitters exude this energy. The title of her latest solo exhibition, Mad Explosive Spontaneity, is taken from a lyric written by artist and pioneer for women in hip-hop Bahamadia. The song ‘Spontaneity’ (1996), which the show title is inspired by, highlights her ability to excel in an industry dominated by male artists, reflecting Okoro’s own success in the art industry.
Taking inspiration from legendary pioneer of Black portraiture Barkley L. Hendricks, Dawn Okoro’s paintings utilises colour, movement and texture to highlight the many facets behind the human persona. The artist personally chooses each of her subjects and takes inspiration from their own creative achievements to convey the sitter’s spirit. Mad Explosive Spontaneity is a collection of twelve conceptual portraits that capture a moment of spontaneity in each of the subject’s life. Using the idea of personal style as performative dissent, in their existence alone her sitters defy societal expectations. Whether it be the personal clown costume of Vertarias Black depicted in Space Aerialist or the patriotic colours of Tope Eletu’s dress in Sending, each portrait radiates the unique energy of the sitter with both charm and a certain sense of grit.
Inspired by the hand-smudged drawings of Gary Simmons, Okoro partial obstructs her subjects to highlight and juxtapose her own experience with both erasure and hyper-visibility. Okoro challenges the paradox of normative whiteness by obscuring her figures but at the same time, also drawing attention to them. The gestural strokes that obscure the figures are the same sweeping lines of shimmering gold leaf that draw in the viewer, highlighting the ongoing dichotomy between invisibility and hypervisibility that many marginalised communities experience in society.
Okoro has repeatedly cited Andy Warhol as an inspiration for her practice. The American artist and producer is renowned for popularising the pop art movement in the United States and is best known for both his portrait prints and his celebration of the everyday. Notoriously reserved yet perceptive, Warhol collaborated with some of the most innovative and outgoing creatives of his time but always let his artwork speak for itself. A 1987 Rolling Stones article put it best when stating that “when all the Warhol “superstars” are forgotten, … it is Warhol himself — the ultimate introvert — who will perhaps be remembered as the crucial figure in that most extrovert of eras”. This idea is something that has inspired Okoro’s practice, especially when capturing the creative spirit of her sitters. Through quiet observation, Okoro amplifies the raw creativity and unbridled dynamism of the friends she paints. Also, like Warhol, Okoro works over many different mediums, using both photography and fashion to inform her composition and style.