I remember the first time I saw Data Oruwari’s work. It was on Instagram and I was just lazily scrolling along. Through the noise of food posts, funny clips, selfies, other beautiful photos and the rest, a photo of her piece “Egungun Oya” stopped me. It was otherworldly, pulsing with a quiet but strong energy. Simply, the world stopped for a moment and my attention was fully given to this drawing. I fumbled over words in trying to give this work of art the praise it deserved. Though, I couldn’t find the words, I had to find out who was the mastermind behind this creation.
It’s Data Oruwari, a 30-year-old self-taught artist and creative professional who has been called “Master of the Micropen” for her meticulous and exacting use of the tool. Though her works are diligently done and wrought with painstaking detail, she didn’t come to this point so easily. She’s worked in many mediums since she was five, but it was only three years ago she began to take herself seriously as an artist. With no formal training and learning the ways of the art world as she goes, she admits she has made her fair share of mistakes. Despite the faults, Oruwari found herself alongside some of the most well known female Nigerian artists, including the late Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy, in Chukwuemeka Bosah‘s The Art of Nigerian Women, a collection of art from female Nigerian artists around the world.
Just as her work is done with precision and purpose, everything else in her life is done intentionally with a story. I had the opportunity to talk with Data about her art, her journey and her complicated relationship with Instagram.
When I was doing some research I saw that you have two different degrees that have nothing to do with art. You have a law degree, you have a business degree, yet you’re an artist and self-taught. How did you get into art?
I was one of those people that started really young. I just fell in love with art. It was my dad who was an artist and my most vivid memory when I was shocked into like, “I want to do this,” not even understanding the magnitude of what it was, was when I walked in one day in his studio and he was like hunched over his desk and he was just drawing and I peeked over his shoulder and just with a pencil he was like illustrating stuff and just making magic. As a child, I was very captivated by that. That’s how art started out for me.
You have no formal art training. This is just something that you love. Who are some artists who have inspired you to do what you do? How did you learn your technique?
It’s a long story, but I started out just, you know, copying other people’s work. I didn’t really take myself seriously, but when it came to a point where I needed to make that decision as a teenager to say what do I want to do when I grow up, I really wanted to study art. I know it was between art and architecture. My dad was like [no] and I don’t blame him for saying so because, to be very realistic, at that point in time, there weren’t so many female artist so I had nobody to look to. He [told me], “I’m an artist and I can confidently tell you that I don’t know of any other woman who is doing this so why don’t you something else and if you really like art, you can go back to it.” So I settled with law. Settled. (laughs) I had to pick something but I’m not sad that I went down that path because it helped build the strategic part of creating things in my head. While still in law school, I just had a breakdown where I was just itching for a creative [outlet]. So I literally did a Google search for creative careers. Things like graphic design, animation and whatnot came up. I went after design and illustration. I went all over the place and then landed on art.
For me a lot of my inspiration comes from tattoo art. When I younger and I saw tattoos, it was something that as an African thing, it’s a taboo. I didn’t get it because to me these people loved art so much they have it on their skin. That’s the highest level of love and appreciation. That stuck with me, but I went through different styles and mediums before finally saying, “You know what? If this is the thing that I’m drawn to, I’ll go down this route,” and that how my style developed. It was all just trial and error [and] constant failing until there was something I was proud of.
You have a very different African parent story. I’m Nigerian, as well, and I think most Nigerian parents want you to be a lawyer, doctor or engineer, but your father was supportive. He was just giving you the real.
He was, but it was still the same thing. You have to be a lawyer, a doctor or something. That’s why the law [degree] even came. He was not supportive at first only. I understand it, now, that they only just wanted the best for me and to be honest, I don’t regret that path [I took] but when I really started pursuing art he really wasn’t so supportive. “You’re not an artist,” he kept saying that over to me. It’s something I had to get over at some point. The one person that made want to do this is not supportive. But now he’s like a fan. But it was still was that same thing. A lot of what I did I hid in the shadows.
Let’s talk about that for a little bit. How did you become comfortable to showcase you work?
It’s still something that I struggle with. My art, to me, is my mind. I’ve literally brought out something in my head and it’s bare for you to criticize. My best friend came in one day and saw my sketchbook and just stuff around the house and she [said], “You’re an artist,” and I kept saying, “I’m not. I’m not.” I had that imposter syndrome. She really encouraged me and just made me feel like I had something that needed to be shown. I found this book called The Artist’s Way and that book taught me that my art is like a gift from God that I’m meant to show the world and if I don’t, I’m hiding something from the world. So I just let it go. It stared with me just putting out sketches on Instagram. At first, it would scar me when I didn’t get many likes or somebody was like, “What is this?” It took me a long time to realize that my art is not for everyone and it’s ok.
The first piece I saw was [Egungun Oya] and it’s very meticulous and pointed in it’s message. What are you trying to say with your work?
For me, art is finding a problem in the world and trying to solve it. It’s also about showing the world that thing in a way that they’ve never seen. That gap for me was the African woman and spirituality. Not even the African American woman because I feel like it’s more solid for them because of what they had to go though finding their spirituality, but when we were colonized in Africa, they tore our beliefs, our values; the things that held us together. They broke down our spirituality and called it voodoo and dirty things so it’s something that got lost in translation. And it’s lost so much that it’s hard to find history books that document that era. I know that we had goddess in our time – where are they? I hear about Greek methodology. What happened to freaking Africa? So for me these women – I call them the Afro Goddess – are trying to put a face to that gap. Egungun Oya is an African goddess that is able to see the future. She of divine truth and is present when they’re bringing children into the world. A lot of my characters, you see, don’t have weaves and all that. Not that I have anything against weaves, but I’m still trying to capture that moment before we were colonized. Hair was in it most natural, beautiful, rising-to-the-sun state. You see things like bantu knots, threading and all that in my work. Also the concept of no eyes. For me, I want you to see the spirit, not the form. The form is telling what exactly is in front of you but I want the skin to just be the vessel [for] who is standing in front of you. The goggles she has on is actually and ode to an [Kenyan] artist Cyrus Kabiru and [he] actually uses trash to make things. I choose dots is because, for me, everybody is made up of energy. If you think of energy, it’s tiny spectacles and molecules all working together.
Speaking of dots, you’ve been called the master of the micropen by Design Indaba. How did find your way to it?
I would say the micropen chose me. I did a six-month daily sketch challenge and it was time where I was like, “I need to find my style.” I was like, “Why don’t I just draw for six months with any medium I can find.” So for six months, I was trying to experiment and I came across the micropen. It reminded me of the tattoo gun. It just became the favorite that I always went back to. What I love about is there’s this boldness that ink leaves behind against white. I love that black and white contrast. So that’s how the micropen literally chose me.
That’s dope. So let’s jump into your inclusion in The Art of Nigerian Women. I feel you have a strong but quiet Instagram presence, but you’re included in this book with other great artists. How did that happen?
So let me address the Instagram first. It goes back to me being an introvert and how I don’t want people in my space. I uninstall the Instagram app a lot of times because in making art you need a lot of solitude. That’s what the white gaps are. The white gaps represent the time I need to be absent to come back with something worth showing. One of these pieces takes about a month to make so it’s a lot of time.
The publisher’s friend reached out to me and said, “I feel that your work should be in this book so just send the submission to [author Chukwuemeka Bosah] and see what he thinks,” so I sent my work to him and literally that’s what happened. It was one of the works that he picked.
In the past year and half, African artist have been more prominent through all kinds of different mediums. Do you ever come up against challenges that are because you’re an African artist?
I think people are realizing now that Africans can be valued and I think another problem that Africans have is until we get validation from some white folks we won’t believe in what we have. I think right now the reason why all this is happening is because we have confidence. We’ve seen successful artist like Laolu [Senbanjo and] Kehinde Wiley. It’s part of why I’m doing this so there are other people who can come out. Personally, I haven’t found any challenges. The only thing that I wish was that there was a sort of hub or community that teaches people like me how to represent Africa as an artist. Like, if I wanted to do a residency, who would take me up? Where are all the African art galleries that will support me in different cities of the world? Is there that one space to do all of that?
With all this being said what goals do you have for yourself and your work?
My goal long term this is to be on an island far away from civilization just drawing everyday. Just drawing in front of a beach house. I hope that when I do that it’ll help me travel around the world and help me meet interesting people and actually talk to people about the idea behind my work and help people see Africa in its purest form. Short term would be I want to show my work in galleries and to be recorded in history as an artist and inspire as many people with my journey and my work as possible.
You said you want to go down or go down as being and artist, but when I went to your website the first thing I see is “Creative Strategist.”
Well see I have two websites. I just launched the second one. (laugh) I’m an artist. I get that, but the thing is I’m a creative professional first and art is [a space] something I’m still trying to get into. It goes back to in general I wan t my life to be an inspiration to others because I didn’t think I could do this. People always got confused so I had to create a website specific to just my art that people can get more inspiration from. Everybody is like where can I buy your work and I was like, “You know what? I need to spend time and get everything in one so my store everything is in one website.” Thank god.
So this has really been a process for you. You came almost knowing nothing about the art game and all of a sudden having to catch up with the response to your work. How have you been handling this rapid change?
The hardest thing for me is over and that was saying that I’m an artist [and] I need to do something about it. It’s has been something about me that I never put intention behind and when I started getting the recognition that [I] could do this I started trying to figure things out, but like I said there was no place that would tell me as an artist you need to do A, B, C, E. I’ve made so many mistake that have set me back so far Even now, people keep thinking like I’m this big shot artist. I’m still learning. I’m still making tons of mistakes everyday. My website I built single handedly myself you know which took me like a month which set me back to be practicing and actually trying to get out more work so its really hard, but when people see my Instagram they think its really easy because I don’t show the mess and the tears. Some days, I’m set back by anxiety, like “What the hell am I doing,” so it’s a really messy process. Regular artists that do residency programs where they’re locked up for a year and they wake up everyday and night just drawing. I don’t have that luxury. I have a 9-5 that I love so you know I have almost 3 percent of the time they have to catch up so it’s no social life which I don’t mind because I have fun by myself (laugh). So yeah it’s messy, it’s hard, it’s chaotic; people give up and that’s why you don’t have a lot of self taught artists getting to where they’re going. This is what I love. Everyday, I would take one step at a time, put in the work and see where God takes me.
Feature Photo by Mike Webb Photography