Walking through the city streets of Paris, the first thing I notice is the classical architecture. I find myself amongst elegant buildings which have been standing from the 1600’s – 1800’s, with perfectly large constructed windows and expertly crafted doors. These Parisian streets are filled with history, if only these buildings could talk, I wonder what stories they would tell?
From London to Paris
I’m on my way to meet a talented French-Congolese visual artist, who’s work is even more beautiful and magical than the Parisian roads that I walk on.
Nicholle Kobi has amassed a large following on social media by showcasing her artwork, which effortlessly embodies women’s empowerment. Nicholle greets me outside her apartment, and takes me to her local boulangerie (bakery), for some fresh juice and French baked treats. “Paris city life is beautiful!” she exclaims. I now begin to understand the Parisian influence in her work even clearer and how it represents her experience. As we sit and get comfortable in her Parisian apartment, we talk about French life, history, culture and most importantly her love for art.
“In France the population of Black French people is unknown. Gathering data on race and ethnicity is illegal. By law, we are all French, and that’s all”. Nicholle informs me that it has been this way for a long while. It was further reaffirmed in the 1950’s when racial and ethnic censuses were banned by the French government because they felt the term “race” inferred an association with Nazi ideology.
“In France, it is a taboo to talk and deal with issues regarding race in public”. At face value, this may appear a good thing, in a world filled with racism, discrimination, corruption and prejudices; there is a country that doesn’t recognise you as a minority regardless of your background. However, lumping people into one group causes issues in itself. The voices of marginalised groups have the potential to become silenced.
“In France, my work is considered controversial because I draw black women – I’ve been called a racist, I’ve been told my art is not French. But Black women are French too, no? There are black Parisians that walk their dogs in the park, who live and work in the city, who have families, we are French too.”
Despite her intentions, her work has been made to be about race, when in actuality, Nicholle is just illustrating the world through her perspective. Nicholle Kobi’s art represents her experience and acts as a rebellion to the lack of visibility of black French people, especially, black women.
Nicholle Kobi has been drawing since childhood and went on to study artistry in college. After a conversation with her lecturer, who said that Nicholle would find it difficult to establish a career in Art; she changed direction and pursued an alternative career. “I had a successful career in finance for eight years. The first few years were exciting! I had my office, and I loved my job. However, when I became pregnant four years ago, my feelings changed, and I didn’t enjoy my career anymore. I found myself drawing on contracts and tables during meetings.”
“In France, when you’re pregnant you are treated heavenly. For the duration of your pregnancy and a year after giving birth, you are entitled to full pay. During this period, I thought what could I do for the next two years?”
After days of soul searching and conversations with friends who tried to convince her not to leave her successful career; Nicholle bought a graphic tablet, and a computer and reignited her passion for art.
Nicholle’s direction for her art was inspired by French blogger and illustrator Garance Dore; Another Parisian artist who lives in New York, who illustrates her perspective of the things and people that inspire her. “I love Garance Dore’s work, and I noticed a comment on her work which said – why don’t you draw black women?”
It was at this moment Nicholle decided to illustrate and share her perspective of Parisian life. “I was nervous and shy about my work. I published my first pieces under a pseudo name online. When I got my first ‘like’ on social media, I was surprised and couldn’t believe it. My work started to build momentum, and I thought I must not be the only one who thinks it’s important to draw black women”.
When Nicholle’s work began to go viral, she knew her art had a deeper meaning to her fans.
“I am not as shy compared to when I first started. However, I am very sensitive about what I share. I want to be right about what I portray and not to offend black women. Black women’s portrayal in mainstream media is skewed negatively. We are sensitive, so it is my duty to make sure I portray a sincere image.”
To date, Nicholle Kobi has established herself as one of the best illustrators; she has worked with the highly acclaimed USA magazine ‘Ebony’, has had an exhibition in Madrid and frequently travels to London and the USA for talks and exhibitions. She has thousands of fans worldwide, and her children are her biggest fans. “My eldest daughter loves my artwork, and always talks about my work at school; it can be slightly embarrassing picking her up from school with all her friends asking me about what I do. My son thinks I draw too many girls. However, he also thinks I am the best artist that he’s ever seen – I assume he does not know of any other artist”.
The worldwide recognition of her work was not part of her plan but is something she has embraced wholeheartedly. “At the beginning, I was drawing art for myself and didn’t start with a long-term business plan. It was not until people began to ask – where can I buy this piece of art? Can you make me a t-shirt? Is this print for sale? Then I thought, Hmm, let’s see how far this can go, why don’t I start an online shop (www.nichollekobi.com).”The financial rewards that her art brings is a bonus, as Nicholle’s art is an extension of herself; each piece reflects her feelings and represents a part of modern noir French history. “I love what I am doing. I am passionate about consistency and my customers receiving the highest quality product.”
Conversing with Nicholle is like listening to a history channel, she would connect the dots between French, African and American history to explain present times with ease. She reveals that since childhood, she has always been curious about the history of Black French people. “There were no museums about this part of history, and we were not taught in schools”. I soon realised the depth of her artwork; she is documenting and acknowledging the existence of black women in France and across the world.
Nicholle’s work does not have high visibility in France with the majority of her fans from the USA. She believes this has a lot to do with the cultural differences between France and America, with the latter having to deal with racism on their doorstep since being formed. “Our attitude towards this topic needs to change. I have heard people say they want to have mixed-race kids, so they don’t suffer from racism. Barack Obama has a white mother, but that did not stop him from receiving racist abuse.”
Her work speaks volumes and transcends cultures and race. Everyday life inspires her, and the people she interacts with keeps her flame shining brightly. “I get lovely messages from people from all over the world, from dark skinned people in Malaysia to Aboriginal people in Australia. Colorism is universal, and I am glad people can find a safe space in my work.”
The small pockets of resistance to her style has highlighted the importance of Nicholle’s work. She has trust in God that she is on the right path and is conscious that life always brings changes. Nicholle now lives back and forth between Paris and the USA. She looks forward to further cementing her brand in America, speaking about blackness openly and improving her English.
Alain Mabanckou is the first black lecturer at College de France; the most prestigious university in France. He is a prominent figure who writes about blackness in France. “I was at one of his most recent conference talks about being black. During the Q&A, a person from the audience asked – to be a successful intellectual black person in France, you have to have success in the USA? Everybody laughed.”
Alain Mabanckou found success in the USA before he found success in France. Nicholle tells me that he notably said that he would talk about black French history, and they called him a racist and nobody cared, but as soon as he became a respected figure in America, he was celebrated back home in France for his openness. “If I am honest with myself, I think that’s why I want to go to the USA, maybe when I come back to France, the majority of people will understand my work.”
Nicholle Kobi’s work continues to reach the masses, her following is growing daily and 2017 plans to be an exciting year for the passionate and talented artist. Her art is a symbol of empowerment, and an act of rebellion – point blank, black women, exist!
Her latest venture is the Sprung x Nicholle Kobi x Nubian Skin Tour 2017, the public will have the opportunity to meet and greet and purchase her work, 27th May 2017 in London. The tour will continue throughout the summer in multiple cities across America and Canada. For more information and tickets, visit – www.sprungto.wordpress.com or www.nichollekobi.com
It was a pleasure to share a conversation with an artist who should also consider a career as a historian. She is destined for glorious things, and as the universe conspires to fulfil Nicholle’s greatness, she sets her eyes on her ultimate goal to have an art institution in Kinshasa, DR Congo – “It would be so cool to make this happen.”
Click here to see more of Nicholle’s artwork – www.instagram.com/nichollekobi
Subject – Nicholle Kobi
Photographer & Writer – @Kofi Dwaah