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Raphael Dapaah In Conversation with REWA

A week on from Usher Raymond’s show stopping Superbowl halftime performance which was watched by 130 million viewers, and tongues are still wagging in awe and appreciation. Leading up to his much anticipated performance, the R&B royal dropped an arrestingly steamy music video for his latest single, ‘Ruin’, featuring Nigeria’s very own Afro pop sensation, Pheelz.

But it wasn’t just the perfect harmony between the afro beats and the R&B fusion that left us entranced. The stunning video itself was beddecked by stunning artworks by three visual artists, most prominently featured was Igbo vernacular and Lagos based artist, REWA.

Following the huge buzz and excitement surrounding her work being selected to feature in this watershed moment, I had the pleasure of having an exclusive conversation with the artist to hear her thoughts, and learn more about what to expect from her this year.

Raphael: We first have to address the huge elephant in the room. How does it feel to have your work featured in an Usher music video ahead of the Super Bowl halftime show, and what does it mean for you as a visual artist?

REWA: There aren’t enough positive adjectives in the world to describe the feeling; but a recurring one would be surreal. I’ve been on such a high since the “Ruin” video premiered on the 2nd of February. I am a self-taught artist and have been snubbed in the past by participants in the art world on account of this. Also, I began my art career while still working in the corporate world, in my late 20’s. These two items combined have meant that sometimes, I’ve felt like the ugly duckling in a room full of MFA-toting, blue chip- represented swans.

This Usher feature has changed all that for me. I feel like if Dave Meyers, Nathan Scherrer, Daniel Lane and Usher felt that not just one, but five of my works were good enough to feature in the video of a GRAMMY award-winning, multi-platinum, global superstar’s video – especially ahead of his highly anticipated performance at the Super Bowl LVIII – then I am good enough. It is the validation I needed. It is an impetus for me to keep going, to keep improving my craft. Needless to say, Usher is now my top artist and Ruin is my favourite song of all time!


Raphael: This isn’t the first time your work has been featured outside the traditional confines of a gallery wall or art fair booth. Your work was also featured in an Oprah Network show, “Single Ladies’’. What are your thoughts on artists exploring non-conventional platforms and media to showcase their practice?

REWA: Yes, it was also featured in NBC’s Law & Order and ABC’s Black-ish. I’m a non-conventional artist so if you throw an off-the-beaten path opportunity my way, then I’ll be your first taker. In this modern day of the multi-hyphenate and connectivity of things, I believe we have to defenestrate limitations on how we think artists should navigate their careers. I’m a testament to that.

With all that said, I’m immensely grateful for these features because it’s widened my audience base and led to new opportunities to show my work. As a Nigerian artist, it has always been my mission to export our beautiful culture and heritage. Such opportunities and features help me to do just that so I embrace them with open arms.

Raphael: You live and work in Lagos, Nigeria, and your work has travelled internationally, especially in the US, where you have shown in culturally rich cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Miami and New Orleans. Are there any cities or countries that your work hasn’t yet been exhibited in that you’d love to explore?

REWA: Absolutely! China, Japan and South Korea to begin. I think that my figurative work, accentuated with ink, would resonate well in that geography. Shifting continents, Brazil is another. When I think of the country, I think of vivacity and vibrancy; again, I think that these are also features of my work that would resonate in that region. Finally, on my home continent, I would love to have an increased presence here. I have lived in Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe and would love to return home. Africa is such a culturally diverse continent. The soft power of art can be used to further diplomacy and cultural education, within and amongst ourselves. We already do it with our music and films so it is time visual arts continue to make increasing headway.

Raphael: Your work is now in several private collections, especially that of women art patrons, such as CCH Pounder & Beth Rudin DeWoody. If you had to describe your ideal collector in 3 words, what would they be?

REWA: Long-term, invested and curious. As I advance in my career, I have less interest in collectors who only wish to patronise my work because I’m the flavour of the month. I’m trying to move away from the transactional. Rather, I prefer to engage with collectors who take an avid interest in my practice, love my work and plan on retaining for the long term. I have made many life-long friends of some of my collectors and they are interested in seeing me thrive and on my part, I work extra hard to ensure that their investment in me comes to significant avail.

Raphael: You were recently acknowledged by NBC Washington as one of 33 women blazing a trail in Africa as a leader. What does leadership and success as a woman in art look like to you, and do you feel that women artists are finally receiving their due representation and flowers in the art market yet?

REWA: You know, it’s so incredible to me that people notice the work that I do, whether in the art world or the finance world.

Honestly, I’m still trying to define what success looks like to me. Once I hit one milestone, I’m immediately onto the next. As we say in Nigeria, my eyes are too big! My overarching goal though, would be for my work to be used for educational purposes when learning about the Igbo tribe of Nigeria and our wider customs as a whole. I want to become a point of reference.

I think that women are increasingly getting their dues, but we still have a long way to go. Look at the statistics, by Artnet, in the US, only 11% of acquisitions and 14.9 percent of exhibitions, at 31 US museums between 2008 and 2020, were of work by female-identifying artists. Drill down again, art by women accounts for around 3.3 percent of all auction sales between 2008 and mid-2022, or $6.2 billion, out of a total $187 billion. Drill down further yet and you find that there is very little racial diversity. Seventeen of the top 20 women artists are white (the other three artists are Yayoi Kusama, Julie Mehretu, and Frida Kahlo). With so many baddies like myself out there, these statistics are atrocious and need to change.

Raphael: February marks black history month in the US, a time for reflection, celebration and honouring those who have come before us and paved a way. Looking at the modern and contemporary art market, and the strides artists of African heritage have made today, which artists, if any, have inspired your journey and have helped pave the way ahead for you?

REWA: This is a bit of a tough one for me to answer. As I mentioned earlier, I came into this career “late” and I am also self-taught. Even though my dad is a collector of West African art, I didn’t follow the career of other artists and I wasn’t fully aware of the key players in the space. In this sense, I have carved my own path. When I am denied an opportunity, just like water, I simply divert and find an alternative route for myself. I can’t say I’ve ever tried to chart the course of another artist’s journey.

However, it’d be remiss of me to not acknowledge my absolute love and admiration for some of my fellow Nigerian women artists who are absolutely killing it and blazing a trail; Toyin Ojih Odutola, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and Ndidi Emefiele. I’m such a fan girl to these three ladies.

Raphael: 2024 is now underway and the art calendar and market has officially opened this month. What can we expect from REWA in 2024, and how would you say your practice has evolved since 2023?

REWA: This Igbo woman here has been climbing ladders – literally and figuratively! The size and scope of my work has expanded massively; I use each of these words very deliberately. I challenged myself to migrate to very large-scale works and so far, it’s been an incredible journey. The vast expanse of canvas gives me ample space to tell my stories better.

Also, my practice is now more holistic. I am now marrying other sensory elements with my art to enable me to communicate my narratives more effectively.

What you can expect from REWA in 2024 is my first, travelling institutional exhibition. This exhibition will highlight the women of the prestigious otu odu Society of Igboland. The society is a bastion of Igbo culture and tradition, preserving and promoting communal well-being and cultural identity. The viewer will have an immersive and experiential journey of an initiate undergoing the initiation ceremony. It will be a sensory experience incorporating the visual, tactile and aural.

This is my most personal and ambitious body of work to date. Beginning at the iconic National Theatre in Lagos, Nigeria and moving onwards to The Africa Centre in London and finally ending in the U.S.

Raphael: Before we let you go, any final remarks, news you’d like to share, people or collectors you’d like to give a shout out to?

REWA: There are too many to thank, too many. I have the most incredible support network in the world; from my parents, to my siblings and to my friends. My son, for being my raison d’etre.

But to hone it into our subject matter, Jonathan and Matthew of Ferrara Showman Gallery who have been with me since my artistic birth in 2016/17. They also bring me back to my spirit home, New Orleans, time and again. Sorella Acosta of Out Of Africa Gallery for giving me a platform in Europe. The team at Band of Vices in LA for taking me from Nollywood to Hollywood, and Anna Arnell for putting me in front of Dave Meyers and the team.

My collectors and patrons, far too many to name but I speak with them so frequently that they know who they are, particularly one incredible fashionista in New York.

There is an Igbo proverb that says, onye kwe chi ya ekwe. Which means that when one takes a bold step towards the realization of a dream before expecting their chi to intercede and further them. So finally then, I thank my chi, for walking ahead of me and illuminating my path.