If you belong to an immigrant community, you’re likely familiar with the oft-unspoken understanding that art is a luxury pursuit best left to those who can afford it.
But Toronto’s Alexis Eke is an interesting study in what can happen when those unspoken rules fall away, and talent gets the spotlight it so often deserves. If you already know and follow Eke’s work on Instagram and throughout the Greater Toronto Area, you likely need no demonstration of her merit as an illustrator, designer, and artist. You can spot her works on large murals dotted throughout the city (Waterfront Neighbourhood Centre, Union Station, and Nuit Blanche to name a few), and brands and organizations such as adidas, Nike, Converse, the Toronto Raptors, and Google have all commissioned her work.
But for a young, Black artist on the come up, this pathway—and success as a professional artist—wasn’t always so seamlessly apparent. While wildly talented, Eke also benefited from her mother’s own artistic skill and instruction to help hone her unique style before formally pursuing art further in school.
Growing up in Toronto’s North York area before moving to Scarborough, Eke also benefited from the backing of her close-knit community. Early on, she joined R.I.S.E. (Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere), one of Toronto’s largest and longest-running youth-led initiatives. “I think that community really showed me how important it is for different artists to actually support one another,” she says.
Described as open love letters to Black women, Eke’s portraits of these inspirational women stem from her strong connection to her Caribbean roots and her faith, as well as to the strong female influences from her own experience. With them, she asks each of us: “How are Black women represented?”
For the latest episode of Northern Clutch, powered by Now Playing Toronto, Complex Canada caught up with Alexis Eke in her Toronto home. Check it out above, then read the interview with Eke, edited for clarity, below.
So talk to me about that relationship with your mom and the impact that she had on you as an artist as well.
With her being an artist—she never fully got the chance to explore it. In like grade four or grade three [was when I discovered] that I liked art and kind of gravitated towards it. She became my personal art teacher and she was just very supportive right from the beginning.
She would have me spend a couple of weeks just doing eyes and then noses and then ears and lips.
I think for your kid to kind of say like I want to be an artist when I grow up is not the best thing to hear. But I think my mom being an artist herself—she was already so supportive of that in the beginning. So it really gave me the confidence to actually go out and pursue it and not feel uncomfortable in my family or whatever, because I didn’t have the most attractive career I guess in the beginning.
I know Black women are a big inspiration for your work. Talk to me about your mom.
Most of my life, my mom—being a single mom—she was the only person in my life—the only person that I had as an example and just looked up to. There’s one side of Black women that is mostly portrayed in the media. But I think with my mom—and just being with her all the time—I saw the full spectrum of Black women. I think with my mom just being this prominent figure in my life, I felt naturally, subconsciously my art being a kind of response to my environment.
Tell me about your origins—your first memories of getting into visual arts.
I think it was in my middle school. They had a program there for cyber arts. That was where I was introduced to doing art or just learning about the digital, but also traditional side of art. Once I reached high school, it was pretty clear to me there was actually a field where people can do art for a living.
“I guess that full circle moment of making art and then seeing it in the places where I grew up and started out, it’s just pretty crazy how that happened.”
I think for a lot of immigrant families, they don’t always support their children being in the arts. I think [this] obviously stems from their own experience. Trying to make it as an artist isn’t necessarily considered a viable source of income in different countries, unfortunately. What would you say is the moment where you felt you were actually going to pursue this as a career?
When I was in high school, I still battled with whether to pursue art or not. I planned to go to school for something like toxicology or some science program. There was an assembly at school where someone who was speaking [was giving] advice for careers and they said to do what you love and everything else will follow. That really stayed in my mind for a while after that. And I realized that if I had taken this safer, more stable route of going into the sciences, I was probably going to be miserable. So I was like, ‘Okay. I’m just going to have to take the risk and go into the arts and see what happens after that for sure.’
Talk to me about the inspiration that came from growing up in North York and growing up in Toronto.
A lot of my schools weren’t very diverse. The only representation of like portraits and being able to draw people that would look like myself was really just the people at home. So that was like where a lot of my big inspiration for my paintings came from and just looking at pictures online.
But in terms of the community, I think with supporting my art, it was definitely there. But in terms of the subjects of my work—I guess the type of work that I was practising or doing—that came more from home rather than from my community.
You currently reside in Scarborough. What’s special about that area?
I think when I came here, it was a lot different than being in North York for some reason. It really does feel a lot different in Scarborough, I think. It’s one of the few communities that I was really introduced to, and one of the first communities that really supported my work was R.I.S.E. (Reaching Intelligent Sounds Everywhere). Randell Adjei [Ontario’s first poet laureate], outside of my family and my close friends, was probably one of the first people to really support my work. And that was a huge thing for me, just because I was still super young. But yeah, I think definitely that community really showed me how important it is for different artists to actually support one another. And then I think later on with being introduced to my church community as well, that was also a big thing because that was around a couple of months before COVID happened. So there’s a lot of isolation, you know, everyone’s at home alone. But I think if I didn’t have a community it wouldn’t have been good. So I’m happy that being in Scarborough, this whole theme of community and being supported by people and not doing things alone, it really was shown a lot in Scarborough.
I know a big focus for you is also just bringing more light to Black women in their creative fields as well. Talk to me about that.
I think that it started kind of naturally once I started my program in university. That was a big theme I wanted to communicate in my work. Just because throughout school myself, not even hearing about Black contemporary Canadian artists—like in school or just in conversation or just on TV or the Internet. It was just a hard thing to come across.
I think it did have a role in me being a bit hesitant to go into this field just because I didn’t know someone older who was already there. So I think that was a reason why I wanted the actual work itself—just me being a Black artist here in Canada—to try and in some way increase the representation of Black women in the field so that younger Black artists can at least have somewhat of an example of another Black artist in Canada that has had some success in the field. It’s not this untenable thing to hope for—to dream for.
I know a lot of your work features white lines on the face, right? What’s the meaning behind the lines?
The white lines, from the eyes to the mouth—it actually happened by accident. It was just like a cool thing I wanted to experiment with and ended up keeping it. The meaning behind it became a bit more clear. It communicates how what we see or just consume with our eyes has an affect on how we express ourselves through words, actions. I guess it’s just a reminder to take a moment to kind of think like what are we consuming visually and how this is affecting how we speak or how we treat other people.
Can you talk to me about coming full circle? You started in this community creating personal pieces for yourself and then you started creating these client pieces. How has being a Toronto artist been able to give you this trajectory?
Yeah, I think one things that really caught me off guard was the support that I received in Toronto. I think that played a huge role in this full circle moment for me. I would make work at home, and on weekends I would just casually like go into Foot Locker or just walk around downtown, and to go from that point to actually having my work in Foot Locker or the adidas store is amazing. I guess that full circle moment of making art and then seeing it in the places where I grew up and started out, it’s just pretty crazy how that happened.
That’s awesome. And speaking of the city, I know you were part of Nuit Blanche Scarborough. It’s a pretty big deal. Can you talk to me about your installation and then looking forward to Nuit Blanche that’s coming up this year and seeing some of your fellow local artists being part of that as well?
With my piece that was there at Nuit Blanche, I think the main focus was to have a large piece of work or installation that would showcase a Black woman in a contemporary, positive light. And that was the concept behind that piece. I knew that there were probably going to be a lot of people walking back and forth in that area, so I really wanted to have a piece that would be a good image and a positive one for Black women in particular. This year, I’m really excited to just see more of that and to see more younger Black artists that are hopefully a part of the lineup. I’m excited for Nuit Blanche this year.