Meet Our Resident Artist for Feb. '17: Dawn Okoro
At the February #bossbabesATX meet, framing our consistent, affirmative refrain ("Stop! You are smart. You are strong. You are independent. Carry on!") printed across specially made posters was a black woman posed in heels and hoops, a figure created by Dawn Okoro, an evocative painter and our first-ever resident artist.
The black female figure (taken from Okoro's piece "Embrace the Power," featured above) and her proximity to a message of power are constants throughout Okoro’s entire body of work — in part because her subjects are posed incredibly powerfully, and in part because of the way Okoro has taken control of, and made her own, the homogenous, imposed aesthetic of fashion photography.
When she first started incorporating fashion photography into her work, Okoro would recreate the images that inspired her by painting the white models black.
Now, she controls her own imagery from the top to bottom, taking her own photographs of black models, rendering them in paint and full color, and redefining the “aspiration” she believes fashion photography sells.
It’s that aspect of her work that makes it feel incredibly current and relevant at a time when women as a group are taking a larger role in the shape of their own narrative.
This year, she'll expand on her constant themes of power, pop culture, and fashion imagery using video, a medium that will allow her to play with both movement and sound, in addition to the visual.
You can view more of Dawn's work by visiting her website or by following her on Instagram. Below she talks with Boss Babes ATX about self-reflexivity, what inspires her, and her process (lots of "A Seat at the Table" on repeat).
How do you know you're an artist?
I have wanted to be an artist since I was a child. When I was younger I thought that I had to reach a certain achievement or milestone to be considered an artist. But eventually, I realized that aside from creating, for me to be an artist, I needed to declare that I was an artist. From then on, when people asked me what I did, I said “I am an artist.” That helped give me the confidence to back up what I was declaring.
Your work is heavily influenced by pop culture. What works were formative for you and/or continue to influence your work today?
One of my biggest influences is Andy Warhol. His work not only commented on popular culture, but it became a part of pop culture. Another influence is Richard Avedon for his iconic fashion photography. I also draw inspiration from Barkley Hendricks; he makes bold, colorful portraits.
What is it about fashion and fashion photography that appeals to you as a source of inspiration? What about the black female body?
I love fashion in general as a means of self expression. Fashion photography is not just about showing clothes, but selling an aspiration. I am interested in questioning those aspirations and how they are presented. I would lose myself in fashion magazines as a child. But I remember seeing few models that looked like me. That is what drew me into focusing on the black female body.
Tell us about your process: you photograph models and then paint those photographs. Where does the inspiration for your photos come from? Are you just playing when you step behind the camera or do you have an idea of the look and feel you want for your next piece or series?
I usually have an idea of the look and feel of the paintings before I step behind the camera. During the photoshoots I will capture something that I hadn’t planned, and that will end up in a painting. After the photoshoot, I will look through the photos several times trying to figure out which ones would be best manipulated into a painting.
Do you listen to music while working? What kind? What is your studio space like?
I do listen to music while working. For one of my new paintings I pretty much had Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” on repeat. When I need more space, I work in my home studio (my 2.5 car garage). That is where my photoshoots take place. Other times I just set up my easel in my living room and paint there.
Tell us about self-reflexivity and how it informs your work.
I am interested in the circular relationship between cause and effect. Our environment helps shape us, but at the same time, we have the ability to impact the world around us. Through my work I hope to challenge the aspirational images that are often used in fashion photography and other advertisements. But that goal is complicated by how those images have affected me over the years.
You’ve mentioned that your work is influenced by magazine covers and fashion. Black bodies are not as often on magazine covers as white ones. Do you see your work at all as a response to that? Is it intentional or less conscious and more like a survival instinct?
When I first started using fashion photography in my artwork, I would often recreate a photo I saw — by painting — but I would make the white model black. This was something I did initially as a gut reaction. Now it is something that I do intentionally because it feels right, especially if my work is to be a reflection of myself.
So much of being a creative these days is also about making sure that your work is seen. How have you approached the current art landscape on social media/the Internet? Are you appreciative of that outlet? Or how do you feel about it?
Honestly, the internet is my main outlet for displaying my work, and has been since the Myspace days. Social media platforms have been the catalyst for me meeting other artists and collectors and even getting shows. I like being able to post a new work and having it immediately seen by people (even if it’s just a few dozen, lol).
On your social channels, you've announced that you’re introducing new work with video elements. What interests you about video and what will you be able to accomplish with it that you have not been able to with 2D work?
I have been interested in finding a way to make my paintings sort of come to life. My next project includes a video, as well as paintings based off that video. Video gives me more elements to work with — I have sound and motion.
How has your work evolved since your first began to the present? How do you foresee it evolving in the next few years? Are there any constant themes?
My work has evolved a lot since I first began. I started off painting images from other photographers’ fashion editorials and tweaking them. Now I take my own photographs and therefore have more control over the source images I work from. One constant theme in my work is woman being powerful.