My name is Sam Onche, I am a painter and illustrator from Benue state, Nigeria, and currently based in Chicago. I graduated from Colby College with a major in studio art and a focus in painting. Before coming to the United States, I lived most of my life in Nigeria where my love for the arts originally formed.
I come from a big family with six siblings and many cousins, of which a handful also lived with us. At the time, drawing comic books and copying characters from my favorite cartoons and movies were my first introduction to making art. At a young age, I quickly realized that I was not limited to the world around me, so I sought to create drawings that often led to places or discoveries I never imagined possible.
Coming from an average family, I knew I had to find a way to stand out if I wanted to pursue my interests. My parents had already done their part by providing me and siblings with love and care, enrolling me in good schools, and instilling in me core values that were part of my culture. To be able to explore a career in the arts, which was my dream, I knew I had to leave home and come to the US. Now that I look back at my reasoning, I think I probably realized that I had to really dream big and the US was a country that allowed for that dream to thrive. Knowing my parents couldn’t afford to send me overseas, I briefly put art aside and worked extremely hard on my second hobby, which was playing basketball. I knew I had a better chance of impressing foreign basketball scouts that came from the US with scholarship opportunities (mostly during the summer) if I wanted to be put in a situation where I could then pursue the art dream. Prayers, hard work, and luck provided me with a generously funded opportunity to come to the US to continue my education.
Fast forward to 2018, I was recruited by Colby College to play basketball which was a great opportunity that put me in a position from which I still benefit to this day. With the help of the Colby grant, I was able to study art in depth and its history and impact. At Colby, the path on my artistic journey became even clearer, but another problem arose. I was thousands of miles away from home and in a white-dominated environment with a handful of people that looked and talked like me.
This problem made me look even beyond my current environment which is when I believe I truly knew I had to use my art as a voice, especially for people of color.
I’ve been part of a couple of exhibitions, made paintings that sit in universities and homes, designed and illustrated covers for books, songs, and publications that celebrate and seek to understand Black culture and experience. I’ve also recently started writing about my work and motives.
For a long time, I’ve tried to make sense of several things happening around me, some truths and many lies. To be able to make sense of everything happening around me, I engage with it internally and externally. I understand that some topics can be difficult to talk about, such as racism, inequality, and pain and suffering, which are both internal and external.
This difficulty has led me to look inward and use symbols, unique expressions, colors, and even elements from my culture as an entry point to talk about these topics. For instance, flowers have a way of communicating feelings perfectly in a way that other symbols might not. As you will see in some works I’ve shared, I’ve used flowers to replace the eyes, lips, and the heart. Many people of color experience horrors, struggles, and pain that the world tries to hide with lies. My goal is to take an approach of healing while I make a statement about these struggles. I want to heal the eyes that have seen these struggles, unseal silenced lips, and mend broken hearts.
To uncover truths and lies, I believe “afrofuturism” plays a unique role. For those new to the concept, afrofuturism can be found in African-American science fiction. Today, it is generally used to refer to literature, music, and visual art that explores the African-American experience. Concretely, it can be understood as a wide-ranging social, political, and artistic movement that dares to imagine a world where African-descended peoples and their cultures play a central role in the creation of that world.
Many people of color have been lied to in several strategic ways in which the use of imagery plays a big role. Imagery takes different forms and characteristics like illusion. Illusion can be used negatively or positively. Knowing that there are limited works of art out there that show people of color being part of the future, I consider this a negative use of illusion. This is why in some of my works I try to create that space with endless possibilities, which I hope can lead to conversations and talks about the future for all peoples, especially those marginalized.
Confronting the truth and the lies can be painful; I always try to shy away from representations that show pain and suffering. I try to find creative ways to illustrate this pain in a way that viewers can see the deep meanings and understand the broader topics.
From my study of the world around me, I find that people connect with topics when there’s a story. For instance, in one of my works titled Puzzle Pieces I have intentionally represented a Black man with missing puzzle pieces. This is my way of informing people of color especially that we are all pieces of the big puzzle, even though we are currently missing some of these pieces.
Note: The digital paintings are painted on a software like Procreate or Photoshop, using a stylus.
Image at top: Sam Onche, Trumpet Boy, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 36 in., 2021. I’ve always had a love for music; it’s part of my daily life and work and a medium to talk about how people can become one with their craft. I try to bring viewers to a special moment that can inspire them or evoke a memory.