Parisian illustrator and entrepreneur came to South Africa for her global art exhibition and to share with KDanielles Media about what success means to her
Hosted at 158 Jan Smut Avenue in Johannesburg in the evening of 16 August 2018, Nicholle Kobi’s art exhibition was an intimate, inspiring affair for the women present. Kobi, 38, is a French illustrator, speaker, entrepreneur, and activist. She is mostly known for her black women and sisterhood illustrations. Her artwork is bold and revolutionary for black representation, especially for women across the globe. It has even appeared in Marie Claire, Glamour, Ebony, Essence and BET.COM, ABC studios, Grace Anatomy and many more. Her work is exhibited in Europe, Canada, the USA, Brazil and recently, Africa. She shares with KDanielles about her journey to success and her success tips to South Africa
Nicholle, how does it feel to be in South Africa, especially Johannesburg?
I am so happy to be in South Africa. I started my tour in the US, Brazil and when I mentioned that I wanted to tour Africa, South Africa came top to mind because it has a special place in my heart. I am excited to discover more about this country’s history, culture and especially what it means to be a woman in Africa.
Did you have any expectations coming to Africa?
Growing up in France, I used to hear a lot about the injustices of Apartheid in South Africa and researched more about that system, which introduced me to activists such as Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela. So coming here was important for me. But to be honest, when I didn’t see a lot of black on the flight coming to SA, reality hit hard that black representation is lacking everywhere. Although it was sad to learn that there’s still a lot of inequality in how people are living, I am happy to be here and look forward to learning as much as I can to share with others when I go back home
Your work celebrates black women, but why black women particularly, why is it important to you?
My question to you is, why not black women? As a child, I was drawing black women mainly because I never saw black women represented in the magazines I read and in art. I just wanted to put a spotlight on black women because it didn’t make sense that black women weren’t represented in art.
What inspires the women that you illustrate in your artwork?
I am a curious person, read about and observe people around me. So I get a lot of inspiration from that, my friends, the ordinary black woman and the likes of Solange Knowles who represent black women in an authentic way.
One of the women here at the art exhibition said, ‘I see myself in this art’, which I think is profound, what message do you want African women to take from your art?
One woman asked me why I don’t showcase African women in my art and I asked what made her think that African women can’t be represented in my art? Being an African woman is more than carrying a baby on her back. We have to free our minds and start embracing who and what we can achieve, we can be entrepreneurs, doctors and define what success means to us. As African women, you have to love yourselves, humanise yourselves and stop accepting what colonisers taught us to think. You can be successful, you can work in that dream office and drive that fancy car and that is what I want African women to aspire to in my artwork.
How were you able to build such a successful and international brand?
When I started my work in Paris I was looking for a studio to print my artwork and when I found one and showed a worker there they didn’t take my work seriously. No one showed interest in me because of what I was trying to do, but I persisted and went there every day. I also wanted to publish my illustrations and took it to different publishers who told me that the women I illustrated weren’t ‘French’ enough and my argument was that there are many black French people living in France. I, like any black person, worked twice as hard to get to this point in my work. And funny enough the same studio I went to a few years ago now treats me like royalty because I refused to back down and give up. You have to be strong, and stay true to yourself because your talent can change the world. Even with my brand, I am still labeled as racist because I only represent black people in my work. In France, for example, white people can draw white people, but it’s racism when black people draw only black people. My advice is don’t give up, the world might not always embrace what you have to offer but you have to believe in yourself and the right people will embrace the value you bring to the table.
You are moving from France to New York, what prompted that decision?
I studied art history in France and I remember my teacher saying that I wouldn’t be successful in my career if I only drew black women so I worked at a corporate bank for ten years before calling pregnant in 2013. So in my maternity break, I remember going back to my passion and would draw ten illustrations a day, but didn’t know what to do with them. So I decided to have an Instagram account under a pseudonym. It wasn’t until I saw the encouraging comments in Instagram, especially in the US that I started taking my work seriously. What I love about the USA is the sense of community and support a lot of black people give each other and that’s a space you want to build your brand in.
What are your success tips to young people in Africa?
Sometimes the reason people don’t achieve their dreams is that they listen to naysayers. If I continued to bury my dreams because of what my teacher told me I wouldn’t be where I am today. You have to learn to listen to yourself instead of naysayers, work hard and refuse to give up because things always work out, eventually.
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