InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each week ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This week we caught up with Akwaeke Zara Emezi, a 24-year-old Nigerian painter.
ELIXHER: Tell us a little about yourself.
AKWAEKE: My name is Akwaeke Zara Emezi, and I also go by Z (pronounced ‘Zee’ or ‘Zed’, depending on if you’re into American or British English). I just turned twenty-four. I was born and raised in southern Nigeria, and I first came to the States when I was sixteen for college. I got my Bachelor’s in Biology when I was nineteen and went on to veterinary school. Two years later, I dropped out and moved to New York with my (now ex-) husband, where I’m currently doing my Master’s degree at NYU. I started blogging about 4-5 years ago and now I’m totally hooked, so I spend a ridiculous amount of time online. I’m Igbo and Tamil, I’ve been reading and writing with a passion since I was four. I’m queer and genderqueer, and I just got into capoeira (yay, yellow/white cord!).
ELIXHER: When did you begin painting?
AKWAEKE: I took a painting class in my last semester at college, and we used only oils, it snagged me. I’d spend hours outside class in the studio with my iPod plugged in, getting paint all over my favorite sweatshirt. I started with painting from photographs of myself, working on a series that juxtaposed large jewelry with bleeding wounds, the two being painted with a lot of texture so they rose off the canvas. When the semester ended, back in 2007, I stopped painting and didn’t pick it up again till last fall.
ELIXHER: What drew you to the craft?
AKWAEKE: Before college, I remember being back home in Nigeria and my mother getting me a paint-by-numbers kit. I would sit at our dining table for six hours straight, working on it. For me, there are certain activities that put me in a near-trance state, where I don’t get bored or tired or hungry. Reading a great book is one of them, painting is another.
When I went back to it last fall, I was severely depressed. Barely a day or two after I picked it up again, I hospitalized myself for having a suicide plan. Soon after I was discharged, I found out that my cousin, who was the only other same-sex loving person in my family, had suddenly died. Throughout all of that, I painted. This year, I took a break from it for a while to work on some other things, but I’m feeling the need to go back to canvas.
ELIXHER: What’s your favorite subject to paint?
AKWAEKE: I suppose I tend to paint human figures, especially faces. I realized that what I tried to do in college, which was to try and make realistic reproductions of the human body, was just not going to work. When I paint, I feel like the painting is building itself. When it’s ready to stop, I’ll be ready to stop. If it’s not, I remain uncomfortable with the painting and have to return and work on it some more. If I try and force the painting to look like what I think it should look like, I’ll just get stuck until I give in to it. I was working on the painting “Thug Bear,” and I wanted it to be a certain color at first, but it wouldn’t go until I let go of what I had in mind for it and painted the greens and pinks and bruised purples that it wanted to be. With “Casting Pearls,” I finished it, looked at it and went, “What the fuck, those eyes are creeping me the fuck out.” I wasn’t expecting that. I never know what my paintings are going to look like until I’m done with them.
I also love painting with texture. I actually slightly dislike the few photographs I took of my work because there’s a very tactile aspect to the paintings, which I feel gets lost in translation when viewed in two dimensions instead of three. I want people to touch my paintings, to run their fingers over them, maybe even to smell them.
ELIXHER: You also have a blog where you talk very openly about personal topics, which I really appreciate by the way. Why did you decide to write in this very honest and vulnerable way?
AKWAEKE: Aw, I’m glad you appreciate it #smileyface. I used to have an anonymous sex blog once upon a time, because I wanted a space where I could be this person I was inside. In real life, to talk about sexual desire like that as a woman was too taboo. When I started blogging under my real name, I blogged about my relationship in depth (that blog no longer exists, yay divorce!) and that relationship was a very honest, no secrets thing so I think some of it carried over to how I wrote about it.
Eventually, though, the honesty-no-secrets policy spilled over into how I live my life in general. I’d spent so long playing a part in order to feel accepted, that by the time I moved to New York, came out, got divorced, et cetera, just living became this revolutionary act. I was tired of using a mask, tired of pretending, and it was cathartic to talk about things that so many people kept insisting it was taboo to mention, especially online. The thing is, I’m not the only person like me and breaking a silence is a contagious act. So I write this way because there’s nothing wrong with me and I need other people who are being told that there’s something wrong with them to know that they are not alone or crazy or sick or fucked up.
People make fun of blogs and talk down about others who spend so much time online or with online communities, saying we’re too dependent on technology and what happened to just connecting in person. Well, some people don’t have that option. I was really isolated from any community that could understand me before I came to Brooklyn, and the only people I could have contact with that were sex-positive, queer-positive, etc existed only online. The Internet spans distances and creates connections that wouldn’t exist otherwise, and I use that.
ELIXHER: Who or what inspires you?
AKWAEKE: I’m inspired by people who go for their dreams and break free of what everyone tells them they should be. I’m inspired by people who aren’t afraid to fight and keep fighting, no matter how tired they get. I’m inspired by people who believe in love and don’t abuse it. My chosen family is incredible in so many ways, and they give me faith in myself and all of us.
ELIXHER: Describe yourself in three words.
AKWAEKE: Honest. Loving. Cliffjumper.
ELIXHER: What’s the biggest misconception people have of you?
AKWAEKE: People don’t think I’m shy! It’s actually really frustrating, but I’m partially responsible for that. I’ve been told that I come across as stuck-up, elusive, uninterested, and so on. In truth, I am painfully shy, I just hide it amazingly well. Apparently. I’m terrified of being the kid that no one really likes but pretends to (I was teased a lot as a child, it plays out), so instead of trying to make friends, I just chill and let whatever happens, happens. So yeah, I don’t think people see my shyness and insecurity – maybe because I’m also clearly awesome (don’t expect this to make sense #Gemini #duality).
ELIXHER: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to face and how did you overcome it?
AKWAEKE: Ah, that’s easy. Major depression. I’m pretty sure I’ve had depression for an extremely long time, but it took the hospitalization last year to really bring it home. I’d had suicidal thoughts for several years, I’d been cutting since I was thirteen, and the only problem I have with being dead is that there’s a chance it won’t mean oblivion and then I’ll just be pissed. So many people dismissed me when I tried to reach out for help, and I internalized what they were implying, that I was just weak for not being able to handle things.
Last year, I reached capacity and had to call my chosen family because something in me had just quit life on an epic scale and I was about to kill myself. They saved my life by intervening, and talking to my therapist at the time allowed me to realize that either I was going to treat my depression or I was going to eventually die from it. I refused antidepressants (that was not a popular choice), and started on a herbal alternative instead. I registered with the Center for Students with Disabilities on my campus – depression is categorized as a psychological disability, and I stopped overloading my schedule. Dealing with major depression meant I had to take it as the threat it is. I can’t feel guilty about not working crazy hours or about taking time for myself, because things that might not matter to other people can easily become a matter of life or death for me. Being happy is paramount for me – depression means that if I let myself be unhappy for too long, I will actually die from it. There are still people who will accuse me of being melodramatic and they will minimize this illness, but if I want to stay alive, I have to take it this seriously because that’s my reality. I try to talk about it online because this is reality for a lot of people and not enough conversation is being had about it, it’s one more silence to break.
ELIXHER: What makes you proud to be a part of the Black queer community?
AKWAEKE: We take care of each other. This doesn’t apply to everyone. [Laughs.] But the concept of having a chosen family and having a community of people who support each other’s work and art and lives, that’s a beautiful thing.
ELIXHER: What changes would you like to see in the Black queer community?
AKWAEKE: More acceptance! I wasn’t expecting the amount of transphobia I’ve witnessed, the internalized homophobia, the judgment we pass on other’s life choices, the disdain for people who have different interests/beliefs – I guess I’d like to see intolerance hit the curb.
ELIXHER: What’s next for Akwaeke?
AKWAEKE: Whatever life decides. I definitely want to go back to painting again, and I’m tentatively working on a site geared towards sexual orientation and gender identity in Nigeria. I’m feeling the push to collect my writing and put it on paper for people to feed off of, so that might start happening, too.
Read more about Akwaeke’s work here.