Morenike “Renike” Olusanya spends much of her time with her iPad and touch pen sketching the people and things she finds interesting.
The Nigerian-born visual artist is particularly fond of painting black women. “I’m in Nigeria; Black women are all I see. I love to paint our culture, our fashion and our hairstyles,” she said.
Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub, Olusanya has always been artistic. “Drawing was a normal thing for me to do as a child,” she explained. “My father was an artist for a short period, so I saw him draw. I saw my older brother draw too.”
Olusanya, 28, studied creative arts at the University of Lagos and worked as a graphic designer before finally taking up visual arts as a full-time job during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020.
Nigerian artist Morenike “Renike” Olusanya. Credit: Morenike Olusanya
Bestselling book covers
Olusanya’s art exists in many forms, such as portraits, dance art and book covers. Some of them are created on canvas, but she prefers to illustrate digitally.
Combining shapes, lines and shadows on her iPad, she has designed book covers for notable women including Aminata Touré, Germany’s first black female minister, award-winning American author Coe Booth, and Jamaican-American author Nicola Yoon.
In 2020, she illustrated the cover of Yoon’s book “Instructions for Dancing”, with a sketch of a black man and a woman dancing tango.
“The book is about a woman, Evie, who starts dancing. She meets a man with whom she connects through dance,” explained the artist, adding that the cover took her two months to complete.
According to Olusanya, illustrating the cover was a “dream come true”, especially since it became an instant New York Times bestseller upon its release in June 2021. “I can proudly say that I have book covers for several created best sellers,” she added.
Olusanya’s cover for “Instructions for Dancing” by bestselling author Nicola Yoon. Credit: Morenike Olusanya
The power of storytelling
Many of Olusanya’s portraits share a message about what it’s like to be a black woman in today’s world.
“If I see a phrase, thing or person that I feel tells a story and can be carried out in a work of art or picture, I go for it,” she explained.
One of her pieces, “Aminata,” is an image of a black woman with short pink hair, wearing a sleeveless white dress that exposes her back. “The hair color was inspired by my friend, Chigozie,” said Olusanya. “At the time I found myself insecure about all the fat on my back. So I painted it, as you would see in the portrait. It was my way of accepting myself. It was also a way of showing that it’s It’s natural for black women like me to have fat on their bodies.”
Olusanya’s “Aminta.” Credit: Morenike Olusanya
Her dance portraits are even more personal. “It’s like a journal for me; I draw them based on what I experience,” she explained.
For example, “She will not be silent” was created during the pandemic when there was an increase in cases of violence against women. “The art was inspired by how women on social media lent their voices to support other women who faced targeted harassment,” she explained.
“It was very hard for me, but I wanted to create something powerful, something that shows that when a woman is treated unfairly, there will always be other women who try to help,” she said.
Olusanya’s “She will not be silent.” Credit: Morenike Olusanya
‘People can relate to what I do’
In 2021 Olusanya was included in Leading Ladies Africa’s list of 100 most inspiring women in Nigeria and in 2022 she won the Lord’s Achievers Special Recognition Award: A Lady Making Impact Through Art.
“Winning the award was very encouraging for me. It reinforced that art is my thing, and people can relate to what I do,” she said.
While Olusanya is happy to be recognized for her work, she said the highlight of her career is being commissioned to create portraits for some of the biggest brands in the world, including Hulu, Dark & Lovely, Penguin Random House and Scholastic.
For the next few years she just wants to keep creating and experimenting with art. “I want to continue to collaborate with bigger brands and host exhibitions in Lagos and other countries,” she said.