Yo, she’s so cool!
I met her the day after the Jon Bellion concert, so of course, I was already beat. By the end of this day, I knew I was going to be exhausted. But at least the exhaustion was voluntary. Sometimes, I feel like my soul is dying and art is the only thing that can revive it. So seeing Jon Bellion and Jamilla Okubo in the span of two days was so uplifting, I didn’t even mind the exhaustion much.
My Africana Studies professor brought her to the college. The former found the latter on AfroPunk years ago. (I’m just sayin’ y’all. Get yourselves on the internet. You too could be fresh out of college getting paid by colleges.)
Jamilla Okubo is an American, Kenyan, Trinidadian artist.
Because I’m a very sensible creep, I looked Jamilla Okubo up a little while before she was due to show up. Her Instagram story was full of videos about her arrival and first impressions of California, and a few words about herself and what her Californian mission was. In the midst of this stalking, I heard her say something that really shocked me: she’d just graduated only a few months back. Ah. I went to replay that section of the story. So, I reasoned, she must be only a few years older than me. And she was flying halfway across the USA to do an art workshop with and talk to college students. Hmm. (This is the part where I fiercely battle an inferiority complex.) A few hours later, I attended her more formal talk. There I got the confirmation I’d been waiting for: she was fresh out of college, and about five years older than me (due to circumstances, she’d had to do six years of tertiary education instead of four).
In the late morning, she held a workshop, which was when I first saw and interacted with her in person. Her air of complete casualness and comfort threw me off guard. I’d expected someone assertive and instructive. Instead, I got a super chill girl who was interested in sharing (as opposed to instructing) and conversation (as opposed to lecturing or monologuing.) Straight away, I knew I liked her as a human being. I want to be that kind of artist.
During the hour and a half workshop, Jamilla showed us some of the dope art she’d created, allowing us to pass the pieces around between ourselves. Then, she walked us through a simple method of creating new pictures from existing images, using tracing paper, markers and coloured/patterned paper. It was very simple, but loads of fun. It was great to set aside some time to just sit there, create and conversate, with nothing much banking on it. So I made a thing! In Akotz’ signature colors, too!
Okubo has been gifted with a different kind of environments than many of the rest of us. her mother’s African-American, her maternal grandmother was literally a cotton-picker. Her dad, who’s Trinidadian and Kenyan, lives in Nairobi. Her mother had encouraged her throughout adolescence to be actively engaged in all sorts of arts, and it hadn’t even been a problem going off to study arts and design for tertiary education. I loved hearing and seeing how much her family influenced her art – and also the Kenyan culture that she was slightly estranged from. The way she would call her father and ask many questions about what the culture was like reminded me of the way I worry my grandfather to explain his childhood and various aspects of being Ewe to me.
I also especially like remixes – in several forms. the kind of remixing that Okubo specializes in is reinterpretation of Kenyan Kanga fabrics. First of all, before she gave her talk, I’d never even heard of Kanga, but now that I have, I think it’s incredible how beautiful and malleable a piece of tradition it is – case in point, how Okubo makes collages with cutouts and inserts inscriptions like the phrases her grandmother likes to say often.
Allow me to direct you to her Tumblr.
And she showed us this dope video that she helped make (she’s the creature without facial features zooming around like she just landed from space).
One thing that inspires me a lot is seeing black artists flourishing through the education that They (you know, The Man, the people in the Control Room) seem to require that we go through, living life in the present, as life demands to be lived, not “waiting” for anything first like graduation, certificates, approval, marriage, steady income engagement…Living one’s career presently. Which is what I want to do. Which is what I hope I’m doing.
So here she is, straight out of college, already having designed packaging for brands, illustrated a profound children’s book, and is currently doing lit stuff that those of us who now follow her are probably going to see very soon and marvel over. And seeing young, black, African-descended girls killin’ it and not being hella broke while killin’ it brings me such joy.
So yeah, anyway, I just thought I’d share about the experience of having some artistic African light penetrating my life for a while, especially because it left me with a fierce sense of hope that made me think, “Yes! It can be done! It is being done! I can do this life thing, and so can you!” Hope is great.
Akotz the Spider Kid.