Arts

'I wish there was art that looked like me': Watch Alexis Eke make striking portraits of Black women

Eke calls her technique combining portraiture with digital painting "a mix between Afrofuturism and contemporary Renaissance."

Eke calls her technique 'a mix between Afrofuturism and contemporary Renaissance'

"Listen Part 2" by Alexis Eke

There's something so satisfying about watching a work of art come to life, whether it's an elaborate pencil drawing, a clay vase on a pottery wheel or — as in the case of artist Alexis Eke — a digital illustration made skillfully with software.

Eke, who is based in Toronto, has a technique that combines portrait images with digital painting in Photoshop and Illustrator. She describes her art as a "mix between Afrofuturism and contemporary Renaissance," and her portraits of Black women in her retro colour palette are a big hit on Instagram.

She shared her process in three time-lapse videos that let us glimpse her images coming to life (including two portraits of CBC Arts: Exhibitionists host Amanda Parris). But before we watch her at work, we asked her a few questions to learn more about her process:

Inspiration

Where do you get your inspiration?

I get my inspiration from Japanese graphic design and Renaissance paintings.

Which other artists inspire you?

Bryant Giles, Kanye West and recently Hatecopy.

How did you discover/develop your style?

I developed my style through lots of experimentation. I didn't care to make my work likable — I was focused on creating art that I've wanted to see since middle school. Experimenting with different colours, mediums and layouts helped me to get my art to where it is right now.

What kind of art did you want to see when you were in middle school?

Basically, Black artists were not taught at all or very little at my school. I know now because Black artists weren't as celebrated/supported many years ago as they are now. I wish there was art that I could see that looked like me or artists that looked like me. I want to try and fill this gap by creating art that Black people can relate to in some way.

"I want people to see the beauty of black people in a contemporary light" 1:30

Method

Do you prefer to work on a desktop computer, laptop or tablet?

I've only worked on my laptop, but if I had a tablet I might actually prefer that instead.

Are you using a mouse or a pen/graphic tablet?

I use a drawing tablet.

What kind of music do you listen to when you work?

I listened to a lot of genres of music, but I mostly listen to rap and/or vaporwave music when I'm making my art.

How long does it take you to complete an illustration, on average?

Depending on the detail, three days.

What is the program that we see you use?

Photoshop and Illustrator.

"I get my inspiration for Japanese graphic design and Renaissance paintings." - Alexis Eke 1:32

The finished work

Do you get any misconceptions about your art?

I don't get many misconceptions about my art. People have told me that my illustrations look like modern-day clowns, which was cool to hear actually. What we see has a lot to do with how we express ourselves, what we say, etc., which is why I have the white line connecting the eyes and mouth — to "humanize" the subject in the illustration.  

What do you hope people take away from your work?

I want people to see the beauty of Black people in a contemporary light and that Black art is not only Afrocentric, but it's also futuristic, retro, contemporary, etc. Aside from those reasons, I hope that my work makes people feel something, whether it be beauty, anger or both.

What is your next project?

I'm working on a couple projects right now, but I am planning on designing clothing very soon.

What keeps you going as an artist?

The messages I get from people about how my art makes them feel make me really happy and do keep me going. Knowing the art you make for yourself has a positive impact on other people is a great feeling. Also, thinking about how far I've come with my art and who I've worked with within the past year keeps me motivated as well.

Watch Alexis Eke’s portrait of CBC Arts host Amanda Parris come to life 1:28

Check out Elexis Eke's final portraits below!

"Say You Will" by Alexis Eke

This interview has been edited and condensed.

About the Author

Mercedes Grundy has been producing videos for CBC Arts and Exhibitionists since 2015. She is a unabashed Leonardo DiCaprio enthusiast with an educational background in photography, and produces film and theatre when not busy here at the CBC. And while her love for the arts does not discriminate, she openly acknowledges she is a horrible dancer.

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