Kefa Memeh is a Nigerian artist, currently studying studio art at Kenyon College – a small liberal arts school in rural Ohio – and interning for an artist in Los Angeles. We challenged Kefa to create and shoot a series of painted makeup looks inspired by her interpretation of the four words that exist at the heart of every F Word Beauty story: youthful, raw, experimental, and free. We also had the opportunity to chat with Kefa about her upbringing, creative path, and thoughts on where art and artists will be in the future.
Emilie Louizides: Tell us a bit about yourself, your backstory, where you’re from, and where you are now.
Kefa Memeh: I’m from Lagos Nigeria and moved here [to America] about three years ago when I was coming to Kenyon for college. Growing up in Lagos had a huge influence on who I am today. Just being surrounded by Nigerian and African art and culture and lifestyle and the buzz and fast pace of being in Lagos, the overwhelming feeling you get every day when you leave your house – in the best way possible – where all your senses are completely activated, because it’s such a large city. There’s always noise from horns or traffic. Growing up around that brightness and that eccentric lifestyle played a huge role in who I am today as an artist and my aspirations in wanting to be an artist. I’ve always loved to create and explore and try new things and figure things out and I guess that’s how that whole process of starting to be an artist began. I’ve always loved to draw, and I’ve just always loved to use my hands. If I’m sewing, drawing, or cooking I’m cutting the tomatoes or the onions so meticulously to just make them look beautiful. I’ve always tried to push the limit of what I can do with my hands, and I think that continuous exploration has gotten me to where I am today.
EL: Where did your creative journey begin?
KM: My creative journey began with my hands. When I was in nursery school, as young as five or six, I would win the best handwriting award for my class. It was an award they would do every week and I remember consistently winning every single week for a whole year. I would just take my time to do everything perfectly and I think that close attention, exploration and meticulousness with my hands had to do with where my creative journey began. Then I started to draw, and I had an interest in it and I wanted to get better. I’d want to make things look more realistic or more stylized and I just had more and more fun doing it and that obviously led to where I am today. But I grew up in a Nigerian household and pursuing an art path was just never something that I thought was an option for me. The conventional paths that people expect their children to follow, that people expect success out of, at least in Nigeria and at home, are that you’ll go into the bank or be a lawyer, or a doctor. For the longest time, because I was good with my hands, I decided I was going to be an architect. I was like, you know, that’s the closest thing I can do that’s a professional job, safe, and palatable for people. Getting into Kenyon I was like, I’m not going to do that, I’m going to pursue my dreams, and it’s been great.
EL: You’re studying studio art, you do fine art, makeup, and photography. Tell us a bit about this creative path, and how one thing evolved into the next.
KM: I’ve always been good at drawing and painting and just creating stuff, but I gained a special interest in photography in ninth grade; that’s the age I remember begging my parents to buy me a camera. I wanted to go out and take photos, but I think, more-or-less, I gained an interest in looking and finding. I would go out all the time and there were just things that struck my eye, struck my attention, that captivated me. I just felt the need to capture. Photography was the best medium to save that memory, that feeling I had in that moment. I started doing iPhone photography, taking pictures on my phone for the longest time. Even all the photos I used to apply to college in my portfolio, they were all taken on my iPhone. I did that explorational kind of photography; going out, looking, taking photos of things that captivated me, finding beauty in unconventional beauty; that’s what I love the most, pulling something that’s unconventionally beautiful and changing the narrative of how people see it. That’s beautiful; bringing out beauty in things that would have been neglected.
Getting into Kenyon, I started taking art classes and exploring my artistic abilities more professionally, more seriously, and I couldn’t let go of [any] one [medium]. The best way I could express myself was by starting to combine all the things I loved and starting to synthesize all of them, because I love to paint, and I think that’s how the work I do now was born. In these photographs, it’s just me synthesizing my lifelong passion of painting, the newfound love for photography and combining that light and that color to create something, making the two artistic mediums – that I consider to be my favorites – complement each other and work with each other.
A lot of the inspiration for the art I make is founded in patterns, colors, prints, [and] textiles. I started collecting fabric at a very young age – printed fabrics and Ankara fabric, which is a type of fabric that is indigenous to West Africa – and I just loved how they looked, they were so vibrant with patterns [and] colors. I think that’s what has mostly influenced the art I make today and my love for bright colors, clashing patterns and things that are not supposed to go together but they end up going together. You can still see that inspiration with everything I create. I love expressing my love for that. It also expresses my love for my own culture – my Nigerian culture – because even if now I draw my own prints and patterns. You can see the inspiration behind all of them, the inspiration that I get from hand-sourced local fabrics made by artisans in Nigeria or Ankara wax prints; even celebratory ornaments and fabrics that we use.
In terms of [face] painting and this series I’ve been doing for the past year, it kind of emerged out of not having anything to do [during] Covid and thinking about how I could occupy my time. I didn’t have a canvas, I didn’t have paper, because we had to move out [of the college campus] but I wanted to create. I decided it doesn’t have to be a book or a canvas, I don’t have to order all this stuff, I can make whatever surface I want and that’s when I started to use my face and my body to express that and photography to capture that moment, which kind of solidified and made something that I can look at in the future. When I express art with my face and I paint my face and my body and I photograph it I’m trying to push the conventional idea of what makeup is and what the expression of beauty is and the complexities and beauties of finding, navigating, and adapting to new ways of interpreting knowledge and emotions. I don’t think what I do has to be put in the box of makeup or art, I think it can be both and I think it can exist in both worlds. That has been my thought process since I started creating more of my recent work.
EL: Who influences your art most?
KM: That’s a really hard question. Not one single person popped up in my head. There are a lot of people that inspire me. But most of all, the people that I find inspiring aren’t even always necessarily people who make art with the media I use or the type of art I make, they’re usually people who are pushing it, they’re paving the way, they’re making a mark with their art, with what they do, with what they create. A lot of times, I find heavy inspiration from Nigerian and African artists who are doing their specific things like paving that way, creating that name, pushing those boundaries of what art is and the whole idea of creation. Those are the kinds of people that truly inspire me.
EL: How do you interpret the words youthful, raw, experimental, and free – through makeup?
KM: Those words are synonymous to me. They lead back to each other, almost like they have the same meaning. I interpret being youthful to being free; free to think, to dream, to explore. Just that internal and external freedom, that’s what I associate with youthfulness.
The word raw I would say would be vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to be brave, it’s to be strong, it’s the ability to lay it all out there, allowing people to see through, which is so difficult to do because a lot of times, we’re all confused. This question inspired one of the face paint looks I did, which had the question mark, because we’re all confused. We all like to act like we have it all together, but we don’t and we’re all figuring it out and I feel like that question mark [represents] that I’m in the same position as you, I’m figuring it out.
Experimental is allowing yourself to try new things, allowing yourself to be bold, to own yourself, to step out of your comfort zone. It brings me back to the word freedom – I’m starting to use the same words again. I think being free is a combination of all these words and ultimately being content because if you allow yourself to forgive yourself, to be bold, to be strong, to feel what you’re feeling, I just think you’ll be happy.
EL: What is your own personal definition of beauty?
KM: I personally think that beauty is enchanting, and beauty is captivating. I think ugly is beautiful. People hate the word ugly. I wrote a poem about the word ugly, expressing how I don’t think that word should have a negative connotation. I mentioned earlier that what got me into photography was trying to capture beauty in things that were unconventionally beautiful or things that people would otherwise overlook or consider ugly, but I think beauty is just enchanting. You get lost in beauty, you get captivated by beauty, no matter what it is. It’s in line with conventional perceptions of beautiful when you think of overall, broad definitions of beauty. It’s a person that captivates you or a thing that captivates you, enchants you, and I think ugly can also be beautiful. I think those two words are very important in describing beauty: enchanting and captivating.
EL: Do you have any predictions for how fine art and beauty might continue to merge in the wider creative world?
KM: They’re not going to be mutually exclusive. I think they’re going to be able to exist in the same space and boost one another while also attaining the same amount of respect. [With] the new age of expression that we’re in – social media, and the kind of creation that’s going on in the world right now – artists that are going to be remembered from our generation are not going to be anything like the ones we have learnt in the art history books, because everyone just is free to create. All those roadblocks and canons that were created by one group of people – just white men, to dictate what fine art is – I think that’s going to be dismantled eventually. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s still going to be a market for fine art, high art, whatever that is, but I think we also have to acknowledge that the art market has changed and is continuing to change and inevitably, art history will change.
A lot of times people like to write off social media artists as gimmicky or not sophisticated or not fine artists. There’s a lower level of respect [that says] they’re not deserving of the museums and galleries, [they’re] not using the canons that have been put in place in the art world, but I think it’s the exact opposite. I think these artists that exist online are opening a whole new world of art and art history that is completely going to change art in the future and for generations to come. As I say this, I realize that I’m in some ways a hypocrite. I would verbalize all of these things that I think but recently… I was hanging out with my boyfriend, and we were with someone else, and he was showing the work I do with my face paint, and he said, “she considers this her side gig but I think it’s the main gig,” and that was a huge reality check to me because I’m doing the very thing I’m basically condemning. I’m saying, what even is fine art? Who created those canons? Some white man decided that this is less of art, and this is going to be called ‘craft’ just because of the kind of people who made that art. But it’s not any less of fine art. Craft-like practices and folk art and all these names and divisions [are] given to different art, which was originally, in my opinion, just based off who made them. I had to take a step back because I was always saying that this thing that I’m doing – painting my face – it is fine art, and at the same time it is makeup. It doesn’t have to exist in one or the other, it can exist in both and [they can] support each other completely. I don’t know why I thought I had to conform in the first place. It was a great epiphany to have, to realize that I’m also brainwashed in that aspect.
EL: What’s next for you? Is there anything you’d like to plug?
KM: Just growth. Growth in my art, growth in whatever I do. I mentioned that I fell in love with patterns and fabrics and prints and textures and that had inspired me to start my own brand, Shop Kefa, where I made some clothes over the summer and decided to sell them. I designed and sewed and it was such a fun experience. I think the next step for me is just focusing on Shop Kefa, building the brand, and at the same time, continuing to make the art I do. Also making them exist with one another. Even in this day and age, how I market my brand Shop Kefa, how I advertise my clothes and bags and whatever product I decide to create with beautiful patterns, I photograph that, I decide how I want to express that and that is also art. I’m just looking forward to my growth and my progress and continuing to create [and] design. I’m looking forward to graduating and continuing to make art and potentially get an MFA and go to grad school out of Kenyon next year.
EL: And finally, what is your favorite F Word?
KM: I think my favorite F Word is free. Even now when I think of the word free there’s just this level of peace that comes over me because that’s what freedom is. Freedom to be and freedom to do. A lot of times we place these constraints on ourselves. We’re not kind enough to ourselves. I think being free internally is just giving yourself that ability to prosper. So that means the freedom to think, to express, to be, to do things, to create, to forgive yourself, to move on, just to exist and be happy. Externally also with freedom, the world owes you [success] as a human being, and to live, and to breathe. Sometimes I think that if you attain that high level of freedom, that’s just peaceful, because you’ve allowed yourself to be free and ultimately, you’ll just be happy and content and live that rewarding life.