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Written by Ollie Macnaughton, CNN

Eyes are often said to be windows to the soul. For Nigerian artist Ayobola Kekere-Ekun, eyes are a way of revealing the truth of someone’s character. “You can tell a lot from a person’s eyes. The eyes offer a mutual vulnerability,” she said.

Her work has been seen in exhibitions from Lagos to Los Angeles and has even attracted the attention of Alicia Keys and her husband, who gave Kekere-Ekun and others a $5,000 grant as part of an initiative to support artists.

Mixing childlike, colorful imagery with themes like sexism and Black identity, Kekere-Ekun’s art is not created using paint on canvas or a hammer and chisel, but rather through rolling and shaping paper in a process known as “quilling.”

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Quilling — sometimes known as paper filigree — dates back hundreds of years, and was practiced by European nuns as far back as the 16th century, according to the non-profit Quilling Guild, but Kekere-Ekun stumbled upon the technique by accident. One day, whilst walking home, she was given a flyer and began to play with it.

“I had just found a way to paint without painting,” she recalled. “So I went right back out, and I bought a bunch of paper. Then I cut them up and I just kept rolling them and gluing them to a board just to see what happened. It became a really intense, passionate affair that just morphed into something loving and stable.”

Ayobola Kekere-Ekun's "Memory Bank Error I."

Ayobola Kekere-Ekun’s “Memory Bank Error I.” Credit: Ayobola Kekere-Ekun

The work can be difficult to define — is it a craft or an art? “It’s something a suburban mum in Arkansas would use to make cards,” Kekere-Ekun explained. “But I don’t treat it like a craft. I treat it no differently than if I was sculpting or making an installation. It’s just another way to tell the story.”

Creating an artwork this way can take her anywhere from two weeks to seven months, depending on the size and scope of the piece. The process usually starts with a sketch, before eventually becoming a “skeleton” of its future incarnation. Then Kekere-Ekun will quill piece by piece using colored paper, ribbons and parts of canvases before it’s eventually completed. “I find a good way to describe it is that I’m building a jigsaw puzzle, but I can see where it ends,” she explained. “I just call it lines on steroids.”

“I feel like men take up enough space in the world”

Kekere-Ekun was born and raised in Lagos but is currently based in Johannesburg. Her father worked as a surgeon in Saudi Arabia, whilst her mother gave up her job as a hospital administrator to care for her and her siblings.

Art was a fascination from a young age, but not a passion that would inspire a career. At first, architecture seemed like the more stable path for Kekere-Ekun, following in her great-uncle’s footsteps. However, the mathematical aspects drove her away and the pursuit of art took hold.

The cyclops -- the one-eyed creature of Greek mythology -- is a recurring motif in Kekere-Ekun's work.

The cyclops — the one-eyed creature of Greek mythology — is a recurring motif in Kekere-Ekun’s work. Credit: Ayobola Kekere-Ekun

Exploring femininity, her work primarily deals with Black women. “I feel like men take up enough space in the world,” she explained. “I don’t feel like they need to take up enough space in my head as well.”

Kekere-Ekun hopes her work can go beyond preconceptions of Nigerian art. “There used to be this very stereotypical perception of what Nigerian arts could look like. If it was more abstract, they would be some masks. If it was more figurative, there would be a market scene, or a lady fetching water. Now, there’s a lot more nuance.”

For Kekere-Ekun, therapy has also been important to how her work has evolved. Originally, her art dealt more with social and political issues that frustrated her, but therapy allowed her to express herself more. “I think I was drowning because I’ve spent my entire life internalizing everything that has ever happened to me,” she said. “I think therapy 100% saved my life.”

Kekere-Ekun is currently finishing her PhD in art and design at the University of Johannesburg. Academia has left it difficult for her to pursue her passion full-time, but she believes that all artists should stay true to themselves.

“There are few things as glaring as dishonest work. If you don’t value your point of view, no one else will,” she said. “There’s something very humbling or rewarding in people whom I’ve never met, finding a connection with what I have to say.”

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