Nkem Okwechime is a shining star in the Scottish art scene today. Having just graduated from Glasgow School of Art, Nkem has already held his own exhibition, “M.R.L.C Takeover” showcasing his perspective which connects mixed/Black working-class culture with the world of fine art. While Nkem sees his work as deliberate social commentary, the beauty of his imagery highlights and celebrates traditional African culture, paralleled with British culture and community. The main pillar of his work is documenting and celebrating his identity, which Nkem hopes to inspire other young Black People and People of Colour to do as well by sharing his experiences of entering the art space.
Being both Scottish and Nigerian, have you identified any differences in how both cultures approach creativity, colours and textiles? Has this inspired your work at all?
As a person of mixed Nigerian/Scottish background, I do find that my father's family history and culture does directly influence my current work. I use traditional African images alongside images from environments in South London and Glasgow hopefully to context and comment on where I find myself.
Can you take us through the origins of M.R.L.C? How do you want your work to connect and what does it convey?
I originally took advantage of a Scottish Creatives support scheme when I was 19 and spent the summer at the DCA print studios learning print making techniques. I followed this by starting my own small business, Inkprints, mainly screen-printing T-shirts for clients. This evolved into M.R.L.C in 2018 just before I started Uni and felt I was ready to start my own brand using my own designs. M.R.L.C was a project I started wanting to use imagery inspired by my African background and environments around me. I use M.R.L.C as a platform, using designs inspired by my Nigerian heritage to explore my own background and family history, and share this imagery more widely to connect with people and celebrate the culture.
Congratulations on your first exhibition “M.R.L.C Takeover” at the Pipe Factory! – how did this feel? Can you explain the process and lead-up?
It was a great experience having my first exhibition after leaving Glasgow School of Art. It was a bit daunting to be out there on my own, taking full responsibility for success or failure. It was a big job firstly curating the space and making it my own, then installing and preparing in advance as 95% of the installation was hand printed and designed by me. It was a lot of hours but seeing it all finished - the environment you have created – it was a sense of excitement and satisfaction. I got a very enthusiastic response generally and a good crowd came to see it.
You just graduated from Glasgow School of Art! – What was your university experience doing art like? What advice from your time would you give a young Person of Colour looking to apply?
I found myself at the start of my Painting and Printmaking course at GSA in the interesting criteria of being in a minority - being the only Scottish/Nigerian South London born working-class cis male. GSA seem to be committed to diversity but, at the moment, fewer POC seem to choose art school. I had a very enthusiastic and encouraging tutor who gave me enormous support which is very important as sometimes I did feel out on a limb, not necessarily just because of my ethnicity but because I was a printmaker surrounded by painters and my work was very different.
I would definitely encourage young People of Colour to go to art school. The time and facilities will give you the chance to find yourself, your voice and experience. I do feel the Glasgow School of Art have their heart in the right place, but when I would hear the saying, “We’re going to decolonise the art school” from a lecture, I felt more as a token for their own guilt of privilege. It seemed that the university was very detached from the Scottish working-class world from their upper-class standard, so automatically I thought how could they suddenly relate to me?
Drawing on your experience, how can young POC begin to tap into their creativity?
Find your passion whatever it is. Take in what inspires you the most, be open to experiences and views. Have the confidence to know that your work is good and share it with others. Explore your background, celebrate it and be proud of it as it gives you a unique perspective that is entirely your own.
How would you describe the Scottish art scene at the moment? Who’s shining or standing out to you?
There is a huge variety of emerging artists to enjoy on the Scottish scene. Identity is a strong subject especially in Glasgow with such a wide range of creatives practising. I really rate the work of Ade Adesina, it is such a plus seeing other black printmakers being successful in the Scottish scene.
What do you see for the future of M.R.L.C and what would you hope for the future of the art scene in Scotland?
I want to continue using M.R.L.C to show off my unique artwork and perspective which will naturally evolve through the years. At the same time, I want to explore events and creating environments that you would not necessarily find in a fine art gallery. Including, collaborating with like-minded creatives, exposing new work at exhibitions and setting up workshops to introduce young audiences to screen printing. Eventually, to attract an extra audience of people who wouldn't ordinarily go to an Art Gallery.