With a quiet persistence and a commitment to challenging stereotypes, artist Dawn Okoro exemplifies artistry for Black people, by Black people.
By Regine Malibiran, Photos by Shane Gordon
Dawn Okoro is a mixed-media artist, journalist and lifelong tryer of new things. A thoughtful, intentional soul, Okoro’s observant nature presents itself in the way her art reflects some of her most hard-won life lessons.
As a lover of fashion photography, Okoro’s body of work utilizes color, movement and texture to highlight the multidimensionality of Black people. Through Okoro’s practice of self-reflexivity, a reflection on “the circular relationship between cause and effect,” she believes that as an artist she is “impacted by what [she]takes in.”
Okoro feels a strong responsibility to “impact her environment and spark change with what [she puts]out.” This is evident not only in her art, but also in the way her life challenges the idea of what Black is supposed to represent.
Okoro’s relationship with Black identity has informed her perspective not only as an artist but also as a Black woman. Her mother’s family has lived in Texas for generations, while her father is from Nigeria.
“My connection with Nigeria is complicated,” Okoro reflects. “My parents split up when I was a baby, so I was raised by my mom and my stepdad. I wasn’t raised around that culture; I was raised as fully immersed in American culture.”
Okoro grew up in Lubbock, Texas. She remembers always being one of two or three Black kids in her classes. She admits to feeling lonely when she was young, often turning to fashion magazines so she could see past her small town’s city limits.
That loneliness only deepened when she moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas, where she saw even fewer Black people in her classes despite attending such a large college. She chose psychology for her major without much thought other than “that sounds legit.” She also pursued a minor in fashion design.
“I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but not how to be an artist,” Okoro admits. She laughingly recalls that she ended up taking many more fashion design classes than psychology courses during her years at UT Austin. There was little precedent for her artistic dreams in her family or her hometown. Okoro didn’t have access to the mentorship or capital needed to kick off her career when she wanted.
I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but not how to be an artist
Making a sustainable living from art is unavoidably difficult unless all the stars of talent, creativity, skill, timing and entrepreneurship align perfectly. And that’s just for people who might already have connections to the art world. Never mind a Black woman building herself up completely from scratch.
For Black artists, getting into the industry is a particularly complex challenge. A 2019 study by Williams College found that only 1.2 percent of artists exhibited in major American museums are Black and only 12.6 percent are women. The study compares these artist demographics with data from both the American Community Survey and the United States Census. It shows that the majority of artists shown in major American museums are more white and male than the general population. Even the Detroit Institute of Arts, based in a city that is 78.6 percent Black, has an exhibit catalogue that is 94 percent white.
The question then is, why?
“Smaller or underfunded art institutions that were supporting these artists initially got into the practice of not paying,” says Carre Adams, lead curator and culture and arts education manager of the George Washington Carver Museum. “They decided that the pay was the opportunity to exhibit their work.”
This is not a new problem for Black artists. In January of 1969, The Metropolitan Museum of Art published the transcript for “The Black Artist in America: A Symposium,” which included a handful of prolific Black artists at the time. One of the artists at the symposium was Tom Lloyd, the opening exhibit artist for The Studio Museum in Harlem in 1968, which featured his electronically programmed light works.
“The real job still remains in the hands of the art institutions—galleries and museums—to provide the Black artist with that kind of professional and prestigious support he needs for his continued development on both the economic and aesthetic levels,” asserts Lloyd.
Without the structural support Okoro needed to pursue art as a career right after graduating, she spent a few years trying to figure out what she wanted to do next. The lack of resources and support is endemic in the arts, especially in Texas, where the state legislature cut arts funding by 28 percent in 2017. Okoro moved back to Lubbock and entered social work to help people with the Medicaid eligibility process. Her path then took her to law school at Texas Southern University.
“I went to law school because I didn’t know what to do with my life,” Okoro says candidly “It wasn’t until after I graduated that I knew that I had to pursue art full-on.”
It took a few aha moments for Okoro, but she doesn’t speak about her twisting path with regret or impatience. Rather she weaves her journey together as parts of the whole that have made her into the woman and artist she is today.
“I just finally realized that I had to live for myself and not just live to please my family. [It took] growth and maturity,” shares Okoro.
After her post-law school epiphany, Okoro moved to New York City to pursue a career in art. But the reality of making a living from art hit hard for Okoro, especially combined with the unforgiving pace of the city and its art scene.
“[After about a year] I just felt beat down from the hustle of that,” Okoro says. “I just enjoy creating, but trying to build art as a career was so stressful for me.”
Individual and structural support for Black artists can be the determining factor in whether or not an artist continues to create. After Okoro left New York City to move back to Austin in 2012, she put her art career on standby to focus on journalism; she joined the team at Spectrum News, where she’s worked for eight years. Okoro didn’t return to pursuing art until a couple of major deaths in the family put things into perspective and inspired her to reflect on her own path.
“It reminded me how short life is. You know, YOLO!” Okoro says. “[I realized] I need to really give [art]a try and live for myself.”
Okoro’s first solo exhibit, Punk Noir, debuted in 2018 at the George Washington Carver Museum, 20 years after her first ever exhibition in New York City. She created the collection while still working full time as a journalist. After two decades of experimentation and patience with the process, Okoro had finally found the balance between creating and sustaining herself. Punk Noir is rooted in what she’s learned as someone living outside the norm, as someone who has been breaking stereotypes her whole life. The exhibit also strives to teach those same values to viewers.
“Featuring portraits of Black musicians, filmmakers, photographers and other creatives—Punk Noir revels in the divine feminine and masculine energy of her subjects. Through color, pose and clothing Okoro conveys a sense of grit, glamor and grace. This is reinforced by her gestural use of copper to obscure the body and alludes to issues of erasure, self-agency and resistance. Indeed, Punk Noir offers an alternative to life lived in a Black body on a stark white canvas. For Okoro, punk has always been Black,” writes Carre Adams in a curatorial statement for the exhibit.
Okoro’s Punk Noir and its subsequent success goes to show the vitality of Black curators and Black art institutions and museums. Since leaving the George Washington Carver Museum, Punk Noir has traveled to Bremerton, Wash., San Antonio and Dallas. Truly, Black institutions like the George Washington Carver Museum can serve as launching pads for Black artists. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s their only entrance into exhibiting in galleries. The duty to not only exhibit diverse art but also pay and provide resources for Black artists should not lie singularly with Black institutions and curators.
The recent revitalization of Black Lives Matter protests has jumpstarted conversations about Black issues and structural racism beyond police brutality. Major art institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art both participated in #BlackoutTuesday, a social media campaign meant to direct attention to actions that individuals and organizations can take to support the Black Lives Matter movement. However, Williams College’s study found that the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s catalog of artists are only 2 percent and 0.2 percent Black, respectively.
As a Black artist, Okoro observes an art world that had structurally shut her out now release Black Lives Matter statements. Though she sees it as a step in the right direction, Okoro is interested to see if the art world’s timely statements hold any sort of longevity and if there will be any actions (not just from institutions but also individuals) behind the eloquent words, especially in the city she calls home.
“A lot of Black people that are from here have been driven out. For me anecdotally, it seems like a lot of non-people of color like to think of themselves as just so open-minded,” says Okoro. She knows what it means to be someone who has spent their lives navigating spaces that weren’t built to accommodate them. “So many people live in a bubble and there hasn’t been enough support for [Black institutions] like Six Square and the Carver Museum and Black creatives in general. The enthusiasm we’re seeing now, I just want to see that continue and not just be for a month or so.”
Right now, Okoro is in the process of piecing together the lessons 2020 has offered. She has had to adjust her original plans for the year, which included the next legs of Punk Noir’s touring exhibit in Grand Rapids, Mich. and Lagos, Nigeria. It would’ve been only the second time she got to visit her father’s hometown, and she was planning on leveraging the environment for inspiration to create new work. But of course, 2020 had other plans.
“When the lockdown first started, my first concern was are my basic needs going to be met,” Okoro says.
The pandemic’s unavoidable effects forced Okoro, along with millions of other Americans, to go into survival mode. Okoro had to divert her energy from creating, focusing instead on making ends meet for her and her family.
“At first, I wasn’t feeling really inspired at all in a creative way. As all of these changes become our reality, that’s naturally going to seep into my art,” reflects Okoro.
She’s slowly getting back into creating, starting with smaller drawings and prepping her canvases for when she feels inspired to produce larger scale work again. Okoro’s experience has taught her the invaluable lessons of flexibility and self-awareness; she knows eventually that her spark will return once the initial emotional shock of the pandemic settles.
In the meantime, Okoro is trying yet another new thing.
“I’ve been learning how to skateboard,” Okoro says. “It’s something I’ve been wanting to do the past ten years. A month or two ago I finally decided I was going to buy one.”
Okoro’s husband has been skateboarding since the ’90s and now acts as her instructor. Her new pursuit is not only an opportunity to break the monotony of quarantine and do something with a loved one. It’s allowed her to learn lessons she can apply to life and art.
“I just want to hurry up and be good at skateboarding. I get frustrated, but it’s important to take your time learning it and being patient with yourself,” says Okoro. “Learning something new and challenging and physical has been really good for me. It helps inform my creativity as well when it comes to art.”
Despite the obstacles she’s overcome and the new ones that this year has presented to her, Okoro maintains her spirit and her passion. The twisting path she took to get to this point in her career and in her life gave her a clear sense of purpose that drives her forward. Whatever her next projects look like, her commitment to refracting her experiences to make an important statement will shine through her work.
Learning something new and challenging and physical has been really good for me. It helps inform my creativity as well when it comes to art.
“For a while I’ve been wanting to start something new. What’s going on now has been a really big catalyst for that. I’m not totally sure what this new direction will look like for me, but I’m letting it just flow naturally with how I feel and saying what I want to say.”
To any artists who feel like they have to make a decision between their art or making a living, Okoro advises, “Be persistent. Don’t give up. One of the hangups I had being an artist was not feeling like an artist unless I was doing art full time. Do what you need to do to survive; that doesn’t take away from you being an artist.”