Striking colour, complex emotion, spirituality – these are all key elements of Ruby Okoro’s work. The Lagos (Nigeria) based photographer explores various intimate themes, from familial relations to isolation to self-actualisation. In this interview, he discusses his use of colour, the thought process behind his work and the world he’s trying to create with his photography.
Firstly, could you please introduce yourself and what you do?
My name is Ruby Okoro, and I am a Nigerian visual artist expressing through the medium of photography.
You were born in Nigeria but you were partly raised in Italy. These two places are vastly different – did this diverse upbringing inspire your work? How do you reconcile these two juxtaposing experiences?
I think it’s a classic case of our experiences shaping who we are and how we show up in the world, so yes, my upbringing definitely inspires my work. I grew up surrounded by art – my father being an architect meant having a studio and house filled with art. As a young boy, of course, I was actively absorbing all of that consciously and subconsciously. I even started painting at some point.
One major thing growing up in the Eastern part of Nigeria did was inspire a genuine love and appreciation for the culture and tradition, as raw as it can get. I have often found myself chasing that nostalgia and trying to capture memories of that time in some of the works that I create. During my time in Rome, I also absorbed a lot of the art and beauty that was abundant in the city even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I especially fell in love with literature and the world of storytelling and would write all these short stories to express myself. I even got published in the reader’s digest magazine at some point, and as a kid, that was pretty exciting for me. Today, I think that influence shows up in different aspects of my work, yes, but especially in the way I name my projects and the stories I weave around them.
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In your photos, you use a lot of red. What does that colour symbolise to you?
Ah, I guess it should symbolise something at this point, right? (Laughs). The truth is, at the start, it’s not like I intentionally set out to ‘pick’ the colour red as a constant thing in my works. I naturally gravitated toward it. I mean, colours generally have always been a way for me to put my unique spin on things and tell stories in my own way. I started off playing with a lot of purple in my earlier images and then sort of moved from there to blue and red. The more I experimented with red, the more it felt right. I love the intensity it lends to a visual story, and you know, the way it also transforms a scene from ordinary to magical.
More broadly, the colours in your photos can be quite striking and the use of colour always seems very intentional. How do you decide what colour goes where? How do you see colour playing a role in your photography?
I hate to sound like a cliché, but I just go with what feels right at that moment. I trust my intuition and mood in that present time or a particular project. When I edit images, different things inspire my process and visual choices – the story I’m trying to tell, how I’m feeling, the energy that image is sending back to me and in a lot of instances, the music I am listening to at that moment. All these things inspire my choices and the colours I use but, ultimately, I lead with what feels right to me at that moment. At this point in my journey as a visual artist, the use of colours is definitely a major theme in my work. It’s a malleable tool for me to create the stories and imaginary worlds I want to see, and I just let it be that. That being said, it is also very important for me to not force anything as I create. So, I just let my ‘dance’ with colours lead me where it needs to go.
In your project Days Before Ascension, you capture the fear and anxiety of self-isolation near the beginning of Covid-19. Why did you decide to do this project?
I decided to create Days Before Ascension as a way of coping with all that was going on, as well as expressing my interpretation of the times. The energy in the air was intense. It’s like you said, there was a lot of fear and anxiety. There was also a lot of dismantling of belief systems and ideas of ‘self.’ This was both confusing and transformative and I wanted to express that. Personally, I was also dealing with stuff that needed me to process my emotions and re-examine where I was at. Days Before Ascension was my way of processing everything going on at that time as well as expressing and documenting it.
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You’ve said that during isolation, “the individual is forced to confront and most likely re-define his/her relationship with self.” How did your relationship with your own self change during the pandemic?
Oh, in a lot of ways. For starters, I’ve always been a spontaneous person, but the urgency of that time made me place even more value in the present moment and savouring my experiences and relationships. I’ll also say that time gave me more clarity and made me more self-aware.
Then, you did the follow-up visual series, Days After Ascension, which captures the liberation of exiting isolation. To me, it seems that although this project represents freedom, it also feels quite hopeful. Are the photos inspired by your own transformation over the pandemic?
The real idea behind Days After Ascension is self-actualisation. You are in your ‘aware form’ transitioning into something more powerful. So yes, it represents freedom from the rule books or guidelines. I also wouldn’t say that the photos were only inspired by my own transformation. It was more inspired by us as a collective coming to terms with what the situation was and transcending our old ways/selves into something truer and closest to our authentic selves.
You worked on a project, Father and Son, which portrayed the intricate relationship between father-and-son pairs in Africa. For these photos, you photographed regular people, and it seemed a lot rawer than your previous work. What did you learn from this project?
After that project, I learned a little bit more about what connects us as a family just by observing and capturing daily routines. Having to zoom in on that dynamic and really pay attention to it opened my mind up even further about how the father-and-son relationship is such an important one that helps shape both the father and the son. The project also helped me shed more light on the different angles this ‘father-son story’ can be told. It wasn’t until I was done with the first story that my teammates and I decided it’d be an ongoing project. So, I guess the project made an even greater impact on me than I realised when we first started out to create it.
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Obviously, father-son relationships can be quite complex. While the familial relation can be warm and loving, there can also be different hierarchical burdens imposed by cultural norms. How do you capture this complexity in your photos?
I totally agree. I think that is what really makes this project challenging and interesting for me. As much as I exercise creative freedom in the stories I’m telling, the fact that this project documents real stories of real people makes me more inclined to let them unfold as organically as possible. One key aspect that helps me convey the nuances of the father-son relationship is the ‘poses.’ That is the one area I feel like I have control over, so I’m very intentional with making sure the poses convey my interpretation of the intricacies of the father-son relationship. Another important thing I do is find a time or a routine in their lives where they come together to achieve a common goal. I find that those shared spaces and activities also help me convey how they relate and self-identify in relation to one another.
Family, mental health, isolation – your work is centred around a lot of themes that are intangible. Is it difficult to capture these concepts? How do you do it?
Difficult? Not at all... Although these are intangible concepts, these themes are usually centred on strong palpable emotions that I’m able to easily draw from when I create. They may not be personal emotions or experiences of mine at the moment, but they are themes and experiences we can all relate to in one way or another as humans. So, I would say that the ‘humanity’ of these concepts makes it easy to capture, translate and express.
Lastly, your photography feels quite spiritual, kind of like entering another dimension. What kind of world are you trying to create with your photos?
Yes, because it truly is another dimension. It’s all a combination of everything I’ve absorbed through physical and spiritual states, kind of like a sneak peek into my subconscious. I am literally showing you what I see – a fearless world of endless possibilities, a world where fluidity comes as a way of life.
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