Finding Black joy in normatopia: Inside the sentimental world of photographer Isabel Okoro
The 21-year-old Toronto artist searches for 'flashes of ordinary happiness' in her tender photographs
When asked what brings her joy, Isabel Okoro cracks a shy smile. The artist and photographer, whose work captures intimate experiences of warmth and happiness, immediately recalls her family and friends — the people who help her "navigate life."
After spending a few minutes with Okoro, even on a Zoom call, it's clear the photographer's empathy and gratitude for those around her are foundational to her practice. Okoro says that her work is a reflection of how she's feeling at any given time — her own well of private joy.
"Joy is one of those things that really has the ability to move people," she says. "I just want people [who] look at my work to understand that it's coming from a really human place."
That throughline is present in Matters of the Heart, her upcoming show at the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival running May 25 to 31 where she pairs subjects with belongings, places, or people of their choosing that bring them joy. In one black-and-white image, a person is praying in a church. Another wanted to be captured with their favourite book. Matters of the Heart is a striking series, sometimes featuring people looking directly at the camera, inviting you into the space they occupy as they experience the private comforts of their world.
The Lagos-born, Toronto-based Okoro, who is 21, searches for flashes of ordinary happiness. In her photographs, these flashes come from people in her community who are, for the most part, Black. Her images are concerned with providing an intentional place where Black viewers can see themselves across the landscape of Blackness, in all its vastness and uniqueness.
"I'm trying to challenge the notion that suffering is synonymous with Blackness," she says. "I feel like Blackness is so much more expansive than the images that prevail in the media." She says she feels "a responsibility to make sure we're changing that narrative — [that] we're creating imagery that people feel welcomes them into the space as opposed to necessarily turning them away."
How do those viewers feel about her work when they're engaging with it? "Relief," she says, "especially for those who look like me, to go out into these public spaces, and [engage] with images that show them as they see themselves every other day."
Okoro has a name for the concept her work exists within: "normatopia." She uses this language to describe her visual world, which she calls Eternity. This is not a place of utopia; instead, she coined the term normatopia, a place where expressions of lived experiences — good and bad — can exist.
"I'm trying to make space for things like conflict, sadness, or imperfection — these natural, human emotions that people feel," she explains. In her photographs, she hopes to "creat[e] space for these emotions to be felt and moved through."
Okoro has been photographing her friends and family since she was 12 years old at boarding school in Lagos, trying to capture the undiluted jubilation children feel and see. Since then, Okoro has taken the work of an artistic path seriously, viewing it more as a life choice — a vocation toward artistry — than an occupation. Her career so far includes a showing at Art Toronto, a self-published book called Friends in Eternity, a number of fashion editorials, and collaborations with brands like Havana Club and Kotn — all within this framework of normatopia.
The warmth and intimacy of Okoro's images is what made curator Ashley Mulvihill feel immediately drawn to her work. Mulvihill is the founder of Ninth Editions, a digital gallery she founded to make an accessible space for Canadian artists and buyers. Mulvill discovered Okoro's work on Instagram, where Okoro has (at publish time of this piece) over 10,000 followers, who engage with and comment on each post with great affection.
"There's an abundance of love in her world," she says.
Mulvihill is an ardent champion of Okoro's work, and of the messaging and world-building behind each image. She says that the images should be seen in person and put together a booth at last year's Art Toronto to promote both Okoro and Ninth Editions in a physical space. At a time when we're inundated with imagery all day on our phones, Mulvihill says the effort and sincerity of Okoro's work comes through on another level when experienced up close.
Shot over late winter and early spring in Toronto, Matters of the Heart is a chance for Okoro's subjects to show up as themselves, influencing some of the conversation she's trying to have in Eternity. But she says she kept her own point of view out of the work, not really giving her subjects direction. "I'm focused on the actual person in front of me and what their own reality is rather than imposing that idea on them."
Okoro even distributed consent forms to her subjects so they could have agency over their image. "I think historically about the violence of photography, and the ways photography has been used against Black people specifically. I try to make sure that I'm not adding to that narrative of the camera being a violent tool."
Not everything Okoro does falls under the creative jurisdiction of Eternity, but a lot of it is normatopia, including Matters of the Heart. This beautiful artistic universe straddles and welcomes both the fictional and nonfictional to create expansive, distinct worlds for her ideas to blossom in.
Okoro admits this is an early phase of her career, and there's still so much more for her to explore, including as-yet-unnamed other worlds and concepts in her universe.
"[Matters of the Heart] was very personal through and through, but I think by interacting with these real people and telling these very real human stories, it gives me more like groundwork and more like inspiration to then funnel into Eternity," she says. "I'm trying to tell stories that people can relate to. By interacting with these people and their stories as they want them to be told, it just gives me more of a vocabulary to use and expand my other practice."
Isabel Okoro's Matters of the Heart runs May 25–31 at Top Tops in Toronto as part of the 2023 Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival.