Get to know William Ukoh, one of the nine artists taking part in New African Photography II, Nataal’s co-curated show with Red Hook Labs in Brooklyn
William Ukoh (sometimes known as willyverse) is a young Nigerian-born, Toronto-based artist whose diverse work encompasses fashion, portraiture and documentary photography, as well as film. His recent personal bodies of work have addressed subjects ranging from cultural appropriation to the entrepreneurial spirit of Lagos’s artisans while his clients include fashion designer Andrea Iyamah and Ours magazine. As he prepares to join Nataal's New African Photography II exhibition line-up at Brooklyn’s Red Hook Labs, we get to know Ukoh.
Tell us about your upbringing.
I had a normal upbringing in Lagos. While there was art around me, and it was something that held my interest the most, science and engineering were the focus of my studies. Photography as an art form was a foreign concept growing up in Nigeria - and still is to some - so sculpture was the main medium I was exposed to early on.
What originally drew you to photography?
Having gone down the science route, I never developed my skills as an artist in terms of painting and drawing. As a result, I later saw photography and film as another way to express myself visually. With the rise of affordable DSLRs, I began to engage with the medium and was specifically fascinated by the ability to blur the background while keeping the subject in focus. This amazed me so much that I named my first Facebook album Focus and Blur. It's hidden now though! With constant encouragement from my family and friends, I continued to explore photography and sought to master it.
How did you go about developing your eye?
I think it's a combination of inheriting good taste from my mum, and observing the works of great painters and photographers. It's an on-going process of editing and curating until it gets to the right level. Also, I’m always learning, being exposed to new things, and develop new perspectives, which influences the work I put out.
You moved to Toronto to study at Ryerson University?
Yes. I studied film and completed the program in 2016. I learned a lot about myself during that time. I am interested in both film and photography as tools for storytelling but chose film because I liked photography more and didn’t want to risk school ruining that! Discovering photography on my own was, and still is, really fun.
What drives your work now?
I'm focused on feeling – both those feelings that move me to create, and the feelings solicited from people about my work. That is the common thread. I could make a piece touching on one of many social issues, but if the empathy is lacking, chances are it won’t be compelling. I also believe the audience will connect to something better if it comes from a true place.
Tell us about the work you are exhibiting at Red Hook Labs?
It’s a variety of images created over the last two years, which I consider my period of enlightenment. Some were birthed from a spontaneous burst of expression, others were created on the back of months of thought and planning. I hope visitors to the exhibition slow down and have conversations with each other, and myself, about their feelings toward the work. Through those conversations, I hope we learn something that will improve us on some level. Make us better people.
Who or what inspires you?
Every now and then, the beauty of the world crashes into me, and I'm left wanting to do more with the gift I've been given. It could be something as simple as a really nice, warm, windy, day. It could also be something amazing that another person has made. It could be a pain I've felt, or pain someone else has felt. Whatever the case is, I just see it as God using and pushing me to create, and in turn, serve and help people.
What are your dreams for the future?
As far as photography goes, my plan has always been to elevate the art form in Nigeria. To inspire people to take and create really cool pictures. Outside of that, I don’t know of an African photographer who has shot a Vogue cover, so I'm going to shoot a Vogue cover one day.
Nataal: New African Photography II runs from 4-14 May at Red Hook Labs, 133 Imlay St, Brooklyn, New York, open 10am-6pm daily