How Tonia Nneji turned her pain from chronic illness into inspiration for her art business

Abu Mubarik July 12, 2022
Tonia Nneji. Photo: Twitter/@NnejiTonia

Tonia Nneji is a Nigerian artist who decided to venture into artistry right after graduating from the university. She started her journey with a loan of $120 from her mother and also used her backyard in rural Ajegunle. From a humble beginning, Nneji has grown to become one of Africa’s most celebrated artists.

In an interview with Forbes Africa, Nneji shared how her journey in the creative industry began. She noted, “I just completed my university education and as soon as I got back home, I applied to train under master artist, Wallace Ejoh,” Nneji said.

“I started out with [$120] from my mum, which was to be repaid as soon as I sold my first painting, which I did about a month later… I could only paint in the backyard for a specific time every day to avoid disturbing other tenants and to prevent the younger kids from touching or ingesting oil paints.”

In 2020, Nneji had her first solo exhibition at Rele Gallery, Lagos. Her works are also part of important collections around the world. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie profiled her for Harper’s Bazaar in February 2020. That same year, she was featured in major publications like Vogue and the New York Times.

Having been diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a traumatic medical condition which the World Health Organization says affects some 116 million women globally, a lot of Nneji’s work is inspired by her personal experiences with the Nigerian healthcare system.

Her craft reflects the pain and isolation of the condition, she told Vogue. She has been to both local and international hospitals, sought herbal treatments and joined several prayer camps in search of a cure.

“I wanted my artistic practice to help educate women who suffer from the same ailment, as well as the people around them,” Nneji told Forbes Africa. “I wanted to help them understand that there is hope, no matter how bad their situations are. With my work, I am also shedding light on the failed healthcare system in Nigeria as well as the practice of extortion and arbitrary judgment that precludes access to religious spaces in Nigeria.”

Nneji comes from a family of artists. She is from a family of traditional carvers and masquerade dancers. However, her art has mainly centered on women and covers themes about the relationship between trauma and the female body.

Fabrics play an important role in her pieces as they remind her of her mother’s sacrifice. “She had to sell some of her precious fabrics to foot my medical bills in the beginning—as well as my journey to seeking healing and also as a testament to my engagement with religion,” she told lamag.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: July 12, 2022


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