Face to Face with Sam Onche
His African heritage and today’s Black-American culture merge in this Nigerian painter’s colorful portraits
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about artists from Colby who are making art imbued with personal meaning while facing the challenges of the pandemic. By necessity and instinct, they and many other artists have taken a more fluid, nimble, and innovative approach in their marketing and promotion. Other artists in this series are Wiley Holton ‘19 and, coming up Sept. 1, Matthew Russ ‘96.
Sam Onche ’22 remembers it well. As a 10-year-old, he’d sneak into his brother’s room and copy his drawings of superheroes and other characters. He’d often draw comics with his cousin, too.
And whenever Onche read comic books, watched Marvel movies, or played video games, he always wanted to know, “What was the artist thinking? … I thought it was really cool that you could use your hands and make something.”
Born and raised in Nigeria, Onche found his passion in basketball and art, the latter urged on by his mother and high school art teacher. He always figured he would pursue art someday. He just didn’t know when or what shape it would take.
Now he knows.
Onche, who received his B.A. in studio art with a focus on oil painting, creates oil and digital paintings of fictional faces that burst forth from his imagination, with bright colors, bold geometry, and whimsical objects. Onche started creating portraits in early 2019 when he got an iPad.
“Portraits are really personal, and I like the challenge of that. It’s hard to convey feeling without depicting a full body and hands doing the things that express emotion,” he said. “And there’s something special about the gaze. For the viewer, they have a feeling; there’s a part of them that can relate, even if they don’t know what I’m intending in my paintings.”
For starters, all of his subjects are Black, “partly because I’m Black,” he said. “But also, growing up and until I came to the U.S. as a teenager, the art I saw was mostly white-dominated. I realized I really wanted to put Black people forward in my art, strongly, and show them in a proud way by how they carry themselves and the clothing they wear.”
When Onche started painting digitally, he posted his work on Instagram, quickly attracting followers. Early the next year, in 2020, he got into The Cubby, an online marketplace for student creators. Then Covid-19 hit.
“It was difficult, at first. I was scared,” Onche said. “I was just starting to get going when it slowed down. So, I decided to push this thing and put myself in the position to succeed. I built a website and set up my own business, my own identity and brand.”
He actually built several websites, and in a short time. He used the first two to show portfolios of his work and a third to sell his canvas paintings. “I kept telling myself, ‘You’re doing something you love. It’ll pay off at some point, and even if it doesn’t, you’ll enjoy it.’”
Onche’s portraits landed on the cover of Outside Colby and in the pages of Center, the Center for the Arts and Humanities’s magazine. In 2021 he published a book of his digital paintings, SOGO: The Art of Sam Onche (Blurb). These and his newest art also appear on Facebook, iCanvas, Creative Boom, and Collater.al.
Most recently, he illustrated a children’s book, The Beat in My Head (BiblioKid Publishing, 2022), by Brandon and Ariel Blackwell. And currently, he’s at work on another self-published book, The Art of Black, that will include his drawings and notes about African culture and growing up in Nigeria.
This past July, the Portland (Maine) Public Library featured his artwork in an exhibition with other contemporary Black artists. This fall he will be part of the Great State of Illustration in Maine exhibition at the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk, which will travel to the Paul J. Schupf Art Center in downtown Waterville in spring 2023.
He has illustrated song covers for Apple, album covers for rapper Bernard Flowers, and portraits for hip-hop and rap artist Safa Gaw and other musicians. And the commissions keep coming.
Inspired by the colors of Nigeria and the culture of the U.S.
Onche, who moved to the Chicago area after graduating in the spring, is inspired by the Ankara fabrics of Nigeria, with their bold hues, sharp lines, and geometric and floral shapes. He juxtaposes those with other abstract, organic textures from Africa and mixes in the influence of Black culture in the U.S., expressed through fashion and music. He admires the American artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kadir Nelson, and Daniel Clarke of South Africa. Afrofuturism, a cultural movement at the crossroads of the African diaspora and science fiction and other speculative genres, runs throughout Onche’s work.
Tying it all together is “the energy of the vibrant colors. They convey a certain feeling, which just sends the message home,” he said.
Onche enrolled at Colby in 2018 as a studio art major and a member of the men’s basketball team. A year in at Colby, he decided to focus on art and stopped playing basketball.
“I received such support from my peers and professors,” said Onche. Garry Mitchell, associate professor of art, was one of them. “We talked about art, about life—the real stuff about just being a human. And whenever I wanted feedback on my work, he was always willing to provide it, honestly. He didn’t sugarcoat it.”
Bevin Engman, professor of art, was another. “I had my own, vague understanding of color, and she opened up a gateway for me, saying you need to look at it, experience it, and you might see something else.” And Professor of Art and Art Department Chair Véronique Plesch “helped me understand the meaning in art, whether you’re analyzing others’ art or making your own. If I’m making it, the meaning has to be intentional.”
So does the process. While Onche paints, Afrobeat, rap, soul, and pop flood his ears. “Different songs give me different feelings. Sometimes the lyrics, or just the title, will get me started,” he said. “Or ideas come from looking at people doing daily-life things. And video games and the computer give me tons of random images. Also, I keep a sketchbook, a self-judgment-free space where I might draw things I normally don’t paint, like still lifes. I learn how to represent the textural and lighting details of different objects, so I can apply those elements more convincingly to the objects in my portraits.”
Ultimately, Onche sees himself as a freelance artist, but he is open to working for a design company and other opportunities, including collaborations, that would give him “the traction” to work on his own. Wherever his career takes him, what’s most important, he said, is “the process of making art. Just doing it makes me happy and gives me joy.”
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