There are many ways of thinking about “the gaze” when it comes to visual representations of women, and Black women in particular. Throughout my artistic practice in figurative drawing, my approach to the gaze has shifted in response to my personal experiences, research, and conversations with other women, artists, writers, and health-care practitioners. In this essay, I unpack these shifts, explore the contexts in which I have been creating, and revisit a few of my favourite drawings.
To start, let me introduce myself and my work. I am an interdisciplinary artist, researcher, and educator focused on creating stories that represent the contemporary Afro-diasporic experience. Through figurative drawings (mostly of women), my artistic practice delves into Black identity, cultural hybridity, and practices of care. My body of work spans over 10 years and is created through an anti-racist, decolonial, and feminist approach. One way that I embed these ethics into my work is through the materials I work with.
The figures emerge from the surface, subverting canonical art traditions of starting with a white or light-coloured ground.
I started working with brown paper in 2012, incorporating the material as the basis of the figures’ skin tones, but also as a metaphor for identity and belonging. Through the material, I invite audiences to question processes of racialization and the ways in which its advantages and disadvantages are unevenly distributed. The figures emerge from the surface, subverting canonical art traditions of starting with a white or light-coloured ground. In doing so, my drawings prompt audiences to consider a space (either real or imagined) in which Blackness is normalized and Black subjects unconditionally belong. In other words, by representing the figures in harmony with their environment, I create a space in which Black women’s subjective experiences, emotions, and aesthetic beauty can be centered.
I often group my drawings into series, which I narrativize through creative titles and artist statements to share my perspective. In For sad girls and lonely boys (2012), I addressed racial stereotyping and mental health; in Daughters of Diaspora (2014-2018) I addressed acculturation and hybrid identities; and in There is space for you here (2021), I addressed self-care through a politics of refusal.
One of the most prominent features in my drawings are the striking eyes of the subjects. The eyes are rendered in bright white, creating a strong contrast against the dark paper which attracts the viewer’s attention. By emphasizing the importance of the figures’ eyes, I can influence where I want the viewer to look, thus playing with the gaze. Numerous philosophers and cultural critics theorize the gaze as a site of power struggle, through which the one who “looks” holds power over the one who is “looked at.”
Being “looked at” is equated with objectification, surveillance, and social control—and it is a position that has historically disempowered Black women. However, in her 1992 book Black Looks: Race and Representation, bell hooks writes: “Spaces of agency exist for black people, wherein we can both interrogate the gaze of the Other but also look back, at one another, naming what we see.” “The ‘gaze’ has been and is a site of resistance for colonized black people globally,” says hooks.
Being “looked at” is equated with objectification, surveillance, and social control—and it is a position that has historically disempowered Black women.
In many of my drawings, the figures stare back at the viewer, entering a relationship that suggests both are in the position of looking. Representing Black women as looking back is an act of resistance that claims an equal position. What’s important for me, regardless of the identity of the viewer, is that eye contact makes mutual recognition possible. I started to explore this in 2014 with the Daughters of Diaspora series. At that point in my life, my experience as a hyphenated individual (identifying with Nigerian, Canadian, and Black Atlantic cultures) felt quite alienating. I experienced very few spaces where I could embrace all of my cultural identities and experience a sense of belonging. Many of the exclusions I experienced were based on my phenotype, while others were specific to cultural traditions such as naming.
Motivated to create images that countered this negative experience, I drew over 20 portraits representing women with similar hybrid identities and titled each with an African name. For example, the first drawing in the series was titled “Ada,” which means “the first daughter” in Idoma; other titles include “Somto” (an Igbo name that translates to “join me to praise”) and “Emefa” (an Ewe name that translates to “peace is with you”). Representing Black women with a title that clearly signifies their African heritage, in combination with a strong returned gaze, acts as an introduction—a first encounter through which these figures (and their hybrid identities) could be recognized. For Black women who looked at these works, they were able to see a representation of themselves that felt authentic.
I learned that refusal could be a powerful response to the gaze.
In 2017, I began to explore how other Black women artists were responding to the gaze in their respective practices. I started #BlackGirlDraw, an Instagram platform that shared my research on Black women artists such as Lorna Simpson, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Elizabeth Catlett, Amy Sherald, and Mickalene Thomas. This helped me connect to a tradition of Black women authorship that centered figuration in a visual medium. I continued this work in my graduate studies, focusing specifically on Canadian artists such as Oreka James and members of the Black Wimmin Artist (BWA) collective that I was a part of, which was founded by artist Anique Jordan. Through this work, I learned that refusal could be a powerful response to the gaze.
For example, James’ surrealist paintings depict nude figures that are notably headless. The figures are unidentified, unnamed, and offer no returned gaze—thus no reclamation of the supposed position of power. And still, her work conveys a range of emotions that speak directly to Black women’s subjectivity. In my work with the collective, I learned that the visual realm was not the only sensory medium to communicate knowledge. In collaboration with the Art Gallery of Ontario, we produced The Feast (2019), a multisensory dining experience for the collective’s 100 members and the historic Diasporic African Wimmin Art (DAWA) collective, founded in the 1980s.
I learned that prioritizing visibility was a remnant from a colonizing knowledge system which organized people according to how they look.
We played on our hypervisibility as Black women in a predominantly white institution to demand recognition, encourage witnessing, and document our work for the archives. We crowded the galleries, arranged for a group photograph by photographer Ebti Nabag (a fellow BWA member), and distributed cards that read, “I witnessed a gathering of over 100 Black wimmin artists.” We were not just looking back—we were looking at each other. And through this act of looking, we got to experience joy.
Delving deeper into African feminist theory, I learned that prioritizing visibility was a remnant from a colonizing knowledge system which organized people according to how they look. According to the Nigerian sociology professor Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, this is why race and gender are used to identify and organize people in Western societies: because knowledge is constructed around what we can see, above all else.
This profoundly shaped how I think about the gaze. Looking back was only one response to objectification via the gaze. It was inspiring for me to learn that there are many ways of looking that resist the dichotomy of empowered versus disempowered that is often articulated in feminist critique. It prompted me to think through the following questions: what if I don’t want to look back? What if the outcome of looking back leads to more surveillance and controlling gazes? What if I want to look away, disengage, refuse, and look towards something unknowable or unseen?
This period of questioning happened to overlap with my own experiences of burnout, anti-Black racism, and interpersonal conflict. I was working at a diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting startup with a problematic leader, experiencing the collective trauma of the global pandemic and the media coverage of police brutality in the United States, and navigating a one-sided relationship with a friend. What these experiences had in common was that I frequently felt powerless to say “no.” I was overextending myself, exhausting my time, energy, and resources to serve and care for others even when it came at the expense of my own health and well-being.
The beauty of saying “no” is that it creates space for us to say “yes.” – Dr. Thema Bryant
In Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery (1993), bell hooks explains that Black women are socialized to think about themselves last, if at all. She contextualizes our burnout within systems of domination that make it difficult for us to set and maintain protective boundaries. By now, we are all familiar with Audre Lorde’s adage that caring for ourselves is not self-indulgence, but an act of self-preservation. Indeed, if we are so busy caring for others, who is caring for us? According to Dr. Thema Bryant, founder of the Homecoming podcast and current president of the American Psychological Association, the beauty of saying “no” is that it creates space for us to say “yes.”
In 2021, I created a series of drawings titled There is space for you here. All of the subjects look away from the viewer. What they are looking at is not the point; rather, it is the simple fact that they are refusing the gaze. They don’t look back in defiance and they don’t seek recognition in earnest. They don’t try to explain or justify their being. They exist in harmony with their environment, experiencing something that we, the viewer, cannot access. This serves as a metaphor for saying no, setting boundaries, and creating space to say yes to things that matter. Drawing these portraits allowed me to step out of my previous relationship with looking—one that responded to historical power dynamics—and instead focus on creating art for my own pleasure. I enjoyed representing features like mine, observing how beautifully light reflects off of dark skin, and recreating the aesthetic labour of Afrocentric hairstyles through repetitive mark-making techniques.
Since then, I have been thinking less about the gaze and what it means as I create. In creating for myself, I haven’t felt compelled to intervene in the historical power dynamics involved in representing Black women. In my commitment to prioritizing my self-care, my artistic practice currently serves as a space for my intrinsic desire to draw, make affirming images, and express myself creatively. This shift from responding to the gaze to creating with my own needs in mind has empowered me to truly center myself, which is what I always intended for by drawing figures on brown paper. Taking cue from my drawings, I look away and say “no,” making space for myself to say “yes.”
Ojo Agi is an artist, researcher, and educator based in Toronto. Her work contributes feminist perspectives to contemporary cultural discourse, with a focus on Afro-diasporic subjectivities and storytelling through drawing.