Ivana Okereke: cross-cultural portraits connecting humanity

Ivana Okereke is a well-travelled woman. Born in Belgrade, she has lived in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, before currently settling in Miami, USA. You can see the multicultural influences blended with ease throughout her paintings, especially in her series of portraits in which she paints each model’s history richly onto the canvas.

I interviewed Ivana to learn more about her rise as a painter, and her commitment to her craft is impressive; the integrity Ivana Okereke shows exemplifies how serious she takes her role as a professional artist. Her dedication to using the finest materials, from Belgian linen canvas “for its refined grain” to Rosemary Brushes and Isabey natural hairbrushes, “prioritizes excellence in materials to enhance the overall quality, durability, longevity and impact” of her paintings. For her portraits, Ivana connects with her models to build a full picture of their very souls in order to represent them and their experiences onto canvas.

Conversely, this level of seriousness doesn’t take away from her ability to create passionate paintings. Her artworks, often painted in the expressive contemporary realist style, celebrate flair and energy and her portraits are far from the stiff, stoic portraits often found in history. Through her works, Ivana Okereke is part of the contemporary wave of painters keeping this traditional method well and truly alive to capture moments – and people – for all time.

Read ahead to learn more.

Interview with Ivana Okereke

How long have you been painting, and what moved you to focus on portraits in particular?

I was exposed to art from a young age which naturally fostered a love and appreciation for it. Growing up in an environment where art is valued, and present sparked my curiosity and interest in artistic expression. Both my grandfather and mother were/are artists; art has been a significant part of my family’s heritage. Being surrounded by family members who are passionate about art and creativity influenced me and encouraged my own artistic inclinations. I do not remember a time when I didn’t draw and paint.

Portrait painting is a profound form of introspection and meditation for me where I delve into the depths of the human experience. As I focus more on portraiture and figurative art, I aim to capture through the portraits that I paint, allowing the expression of the subject’s own humanity and character to come through – and one that I find, tells a story. Oftentimes, it’s the relationship between the characters and their inner world interacting with the physical space that they inhabit.

In my portrait paintings, I aim to connect to the beauty of the natural world and the depths of the human spirit. Painting is a journey symbolizing a necessary vulnerability in both the painter and viewer, one that asks you to question and possibly, alter one’s perspective.

Portrait of a Woman

A world view

There is no doubt that art spans cultures and languages to connect people. You mention in your bio that you draw on your studies, travels, and places that you have lived around the world; how, exactly, have your travels shaped you as a painter?

My travels have infused my art with diverse inspirations from cultures and landscapes, offering unique colour palettes, architectural styles, and artistic traditions. Interacting with people from different backgrounds has influenced my exploration of themes like interconnectedness and unity. Immersing myself in various artistic communities has allowed me to fuse techniques and incorporate cultural symbolisms from Asian design to European texture methods and digital experimentation.

The emotions and personal growth from my journeys fuel my artwork, fostering adaptability and experimentation. Incorporating narratives from each place I visit adds depth to my pieces, connecting with viewers globally through shared human experiences. Ultimately, my travels have broadened my creative perspective and deepened my artistic expression, contributing to the global artistic dialogue.

When talking about your works, you refer to delving into the “human experience”. What does this term mean to you, and can you share some examples of how you transfer this concept into your paintings?

Delving into the “human experience” in my works means exploring the emotions, thoughts, and shared elements that make us human. It involves capturing universal feelings like love, struggle, joy, and introspection that connect us all.

The Antique Seller

In my paintings, this translates into depicting scenes of everyday life with an emotional resonance, using symbolism to convey deeper layers of meaning. For instance, I might portray a figure in a setting that expresses their career, interests or feelings, or I could use contrasting colours and textures to symbolize the complexity of human relationships. These techniques aim to create a relatable and profound connection between viewers and the artwork.

Traditional education vs painting workshops

When interviewing artists, I’ve found that there is a distinct split between those who found their art educations extremely beneficial, and those who found them not conducive to supporting the style of art they wished to pursue. How were your years learning to paint?

My years of education in art were undoubtedly important, providing me with a solid foundation and fundamental skills. However, the workshops I participated in with contemporary artists held an even greater value for me. These workshops not only honed my technical abilities but also exposed me to fresh perspectives, modern techniques, and the freedom to explore my preferred artistic style. They allowed me to bridge the gap between traditional education and my personal artistic aspirations, ultimately shaping my artistic journey in a more profound way.

Cotton Flowers

Challenges and milestones

Have there been any challenges you have faced on your path to becoming a professional artist?

Certainly. In my youth, a lack of confidence and limited support deterred me from entering the art world. However, life-changing events served as a catalyst for a profound realization: authenticity to one’s dreams and passions is paramount. Recognizing the brevity of life, I understood the importance of pursuing what truly ignites my soul. Embracing this perspective, I’ve tackled challenges head-on, pushing past doubts and societal expectations to forge my path in the art world.

When did you first professionally exhibit your works?

I began publicly exhibiting my works in 2019, despite having painted for the majority of my life. It was a significant step in my artistic journey.

While the experience was satisfying and allowed me to share my creations with a broader audience, it was also exposing. Paintings are an expression of the soul – and putting them up for public critique can be challenging. However, this vulnerability also brought a sense of growth and connection as I realized that sharing my art could resonate with others on a deeply personal level.

Overall, my first professional exhibition marked a pivotal moment where I embraced both the rewards and challenges of showcasing my innermost creativity to the world.

You’ve just moved to Miami after living in Dubai. I don’t know much about the art scene in Dubai; what was it like being a female painter in this country, and do you prefer the Miami art scene, or is it just different?

Having recently transitioned from Dubai to Miami, the change in art scenes has been both intriguing and distinct. In Dubai, a cosmopolitan city, I navigated the art scene while being mindful of certain cultural restrictions that influenced my artistic expression, particularly concerning figurative art. The art market, though growing, isn’t as expansive as in Miami. Now in Miami, I find an art scene rich in diversity and creative freedom, allowing for a broader range of subjects and styles. While both cities have their merits, the Miami art scene’s vibrancy and established market provide me with more opportunities to explore and evolve as a painter.

Girl with Fan

The connection between painter and model

The way you speak about your portrait painting is very beautiful. I love how you focus on portraying each models’ own character and spirit. How do you work to build that relationship with them, to paint them with such a connection between painter and model?

Thank you for your kind words. Building a strong connection with my models is a vital aspect of my portrait painting process. To capture their character and spirit, I begin by meeting with them and engaging in conversations that delve into their life motivations. These discussions help me understand their essence and individuality. I then create sketches and colour studies to experiment with various compositions and palettes.

Taking numerous reference photos allows me to capture their natural expressions and nuances. This meticulous preparation culminates in my studio, where I channel our shared understanding into the portrait. This process ensures that the final artwork resonates with a deep connection, reflecting both the essence of the model and my own artistic interpretation.

The painting process

Focusing more on your process, are you the kind of person who has sketchpad after sketchpad of ideas, or is each concept a slow grower, forming over time?

My creative process varies; it depends on the nature of the idea. Some concepts are born from instant inspiration, taking shape in a burst of creativity. Others, however, develop gradually over time, growing as I mull over them and layering in different elements. So, whether it’s sketchpad after sketchpad or a slow and steady evolution, both approaches contribute to my artistic journey.

Moonlight Bather

How long does an average painting take?

The time it takes to complete an average painting can vary based on several factors. The size of the painting plays a significant role, as larger canvases naturally require more time. The subject matter and complexity of the background also influence the duration. Different painting techniques contribute too – some methods involve layering that requires paint to dry before proceeding. Additionally, whether I’m creating a polished studio piece, or a study affects the time frame. As a general guideline, a painting can take several weeks to months to reach completion, encompassing the various considerations that contribute to its final form.

I notice from your social media that you paint a lot outdoors. What is it about painting outdoors which speak bring you joy?

Indeed, I find immense joy in painting outdoors and connecting with nature. The outdoor environment offers a unique inspiration, from the play of light on landscapes to the vibrant colours of plants. However, painting figures and portraits outdoors comes with its challenges, including shifting weather conditions, shadows, and discomforts for models like temperature and insects. Despite these hurdles, I thoroughly enjoy doing studies outside, as it allows me to capture the essence of the scene in real time. While painting outdoors comes with its complexities, the rewards of experiencing nature’s beauty firsthand and translating it onto the canvas make it a deeply enriching and fulfilling part of my artistic practice.

Ivana Okereke painting at the asylum which Van Gogh stayed in.

More than just a project

Are there any paintings you have created which hold a special place in your heart?

Absolutely. I frequently use my family as models, particularly my children, which infuses those artworks with a deep personal connection. These pieces capture not only their physical likeness but also their essence, making them cherished subjects. Moreover, certain paintings become vehicles for expressing my emotions, carrying a profound emotional weight. These artworks transcend mere description, becoming powerful conduits for my personal experiences and feelings, adding an extra layer of significance and depth to my artistic journey.

Emma with Parrot

Are you working on a particular series at the moment?

Currently, I’m engrossed in the creation of two distinct series. The first is an “Angel Series,” where I’m working on larger pieces that explore the concept of angels from various cultural perspectives, delving into their symbolism and significance. The second series is titled “Inside: a Journey Within”. This series delves into the theme of looking inward, emphasizing the importance of focusing on our inner selves rather than getting consumed by the external superficial and materialistic aspects of the world. Both series offer me a unique creative space to explore these themes and engage with them on a profound artistic level.

Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?

I would like to express my gratitude for this opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences. It’s my hope that my artwork resonates with readers, inspiring them to connect with their own emotions and perspectives. I’m excited about the potential for future collaborations with Beautiful Bizarre Magazine and the possibility to continue engaging with art enthusiasts and fellow artists alike. Thank you for your interest in my journey, and I look forward to the artistic adventures that lie ahead.

Keep up to date with Ivana’s upcoming exhibitions and events by following her Instagram page, where she regularly shares updates on her latest works, exhibitions, and other artistic endeavours. Stay tuned for more exciting developments on the horizon!

Ivana Okereke Social Media Accounts

Website | Facebook | Instagram

About Author

Based in the UK, Natalia Joruk enjoys a life surrounded by art, nature, and curious trinkets. As Deputy Editor, she's worked closely with the Editor-in-Chief for over a decade, supporting with the design and growth of Beautiful Bizarre and the maintenance of the annual Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize. Natalia also oversees sponsor partnerships for the Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize, and distribution of the magazine, so drop her an email if you know someone who would like to sponsor or stock! She also writes for both the Beautiful Bizarre Magazine website and print publication. One of her favourite perks is getting to know artists, gallery owners and their teams personally, so feel free to email her if there is anything she can help you with – or just to connect.


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