From building an online presence to maintaining her own business, Jamilla Okubo shares how her career has evolved and what she looks forward to in the art industry.
Over a century ago, fashion illustration used to be a prominent language for garment designers. Gouache and ink were used often to emphasize beautiful textures within chosen fabrics. However, as technology evolved, fashion illustration has since became a niche practice. But that hasn’t stopped artists like Jamilla Okubo from exploring possibilities digitally and beyond.
Okubo is an interdisciplinary artist who explores the intricacies belonging to American, Kenyan, and Trinidadian identity. She recently collaborated with the Tory Burch Foundation for their new newsletter TB: Touch Base, which core initiative is women’s empowerment. Each newsletter features original illustrative artworks by Okubo. Combining figurative painting, textile design and fashion, she celebrates the Black body in relation to movement, expression, ideology and culture. An extension of this celebration can be seen in her current exhibition, I do not come to you as a myth, I come to you as a reality at Mehari Sequar in Washington D.C.
Tell us about how you got started in fashion illustration.
I’ve always had a love for fashion illustration and fashion photography. In high school I subscribed to Nylon Magazine and would rip out the pages of the illustrations of people the magazine was interviewing or products they were highlighting. I was obsessed and pretty determined to become a Fashion illustrator. Once I got to Parsons I wasn’t sure if I wanted to major in Fine Arts, Illustration, or Fashion Design, so I majored in Integrated Design. Integrated Design gave me the freedom to create a unique, customized curriculum where I explored all three! My focus was fashion but my core classes allowed me to incorporate my painting skills. That is how I began to create illustration projects which I shared on tumblr at the time. Eventually my work gained exposure on Tumblr and clients began reaching out to me with illustration gigs.
JAMILLA OKUBO, DIGITAL ILLUSTRATION (2021).
What difficulties have you ran into as an artist actively building your business while promoting your artwork?
Personally, balancing the time to create and actively wear the many hats of being a businesswoman. It’s worth the journey though.
Your current exhibition, I do not come to you as a myth, I come to you as a reality, at Mehari Sequar Gallery in Washington D.C. is beautiful and refreshing. What was it like painting this series?
Thank you. It was an emotional rollercoaster, yet very therapeutic, and grounding. I began working on this series at the beginning of the pandemic and was really lost at first. After a few months though I began to appreciate the time that I had to sit at home or in the studio to really reflect, deep dive into research, and collect inspiration. I spent a lot of time alone watching random documentaries, films, music videos, and listening to music – it’s evident through the canvas that Sun Ra was on repeat. Once I got back into the studio I spent a lot of time creating studies and posing for reference photos to create some of the works in my series.
JAMILLA OKUBO, MELANCHOLIA AS RESISTANCE (ARTEMISIA’S MOST FAITHFUL MISTRESS) (2021).
Just like in your Tory Burch collaboration, you bring together art and fashion by referencing Marine Serre’s moon print bodysuit on your Aires ram character. Why are you drawn to this particular combination?
I am drawn to the connection between fashion and art because I absolutely love the history of fashion and the global use of Fashion as a form of expression of one’s Identity.
As I was exploring my connection to astrology and spirituality, I thought the Marine Serre’s moon print was the perfect symbolic representation of what the series is exploring. The moon is a feminine symbol that represents rhythm of time but also the dark side of nature. The moon in pattern form was a perfect representation of fashion as identity but also a further exploration into ancient practices of body painting and African tribal marking as a form of cultural and artistic expressions, whether for religious, social, or aesthetic reasons.
JAMILLA OKUBO, BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT BLACK PEOPLE ARE, MYTHS (SUN RA) (2021).
Your exhibition focuses on the emotional and spiritual experiences of Black women. How did religion help to tie together the overall narrative?
Although Black people have collectively led their lives by religion, I don’t think that religion helped to tie together the narrative for this exhibition. The theme of this exhibition is solely tied together by spirituality and astrology. I do feel that spirituality and religion are both rooted in exploring and understanding the meaning of life and our connection to the Divine.
Where else do you gain inspiration?
I’m really inspired by the way writers can create compelling visual imagery with words. I’m inspired by music and the way music can draw various emotions out of you through rhythms and vibrations. Specifically jazz, r&b/neo soul, and hip-hop/trap music.
JAMILLA OKUBO, IN DEEP REFLECTION WITH SELF (2021).
Collaging with paper and found materials.
Who is your favorite woman artist?
I absolutely adore Mirka Mora and her work. I discovered her work at the Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne, Australia, and fell in love. I wish I could’ve met her.
What changes are you looking forward to in the art industry post-pandemic?
The ways in which we interact with art via the internet. I think there’s a lot of room for innovation in that area.
What business advice can you give for emerging artists?
Take courses in finances and entrepreneurship and do your research on reading and writing contracts and/or hire a lawyer to review your contracts. It’s worth the pretty penny.
JAMILLA OKUBO, ILLUSTRATION FOR TORY BURCH FOUNDATION