Reconstructing Reality: The Hyperreal Drawings of Chiamonwu Joy

When perusing the Instagram account of Chiamonwu Joy, one might assume that the stunning virtual gallery exhibits the work of a skilled photographer who is deft in the art of black-and-white portraiture. The images are stirring, intimate; the Nigerian artist captures the subtle expressions of her subjects and the fine details of their bodies. Fine lines and pores are on vulnerable display; front and centre are the creases of skin on hands as they hold aloft a bowl of kola nuts (a fruit native to the tropical rainforests of Africa), an onion, a one hundred dollar bill.

Instagram (@chiamonwu_joy_art)

But look again. The images here are not photographs; they are drawings so realistic that they have turned Joy into something of an Internet sensation. The artist and her large works of hyperrealism have been featured in the likes of Teen Vogue and on the distinguished art and design websites My Modern Met and African Digital Art.

Born in the southeastern state of Anambra in Nigeria, Joy is a native of the Igbo-speaking tribe. According to the artist, her interest in art blossomed early, at the age of eight, when she began sketching cartoons for herself and for her friends. Joy’s talent threatened to go unfostered; her school in Maiduguri did not have an art teacher. Despite this, the young and ambitious Joy took it upon herself to partake in the Fine and Applied Art division in the West Africa Examination Council (an end-of-year exam for senior year students in West Africa), and was the only student in her academic year to do so. She went on to study English Education at Nnamdi Azikiwe University.

Instagram (@chiamonwu_joy_art)

Joy developed an interest in hyperrealism in 2014. Hyperrealism is considered by scholars to be an offshoot of photorealism, a practice in visual arts that seeks to emulate the realism of a photograph via another medium, such as painting or sketching. Gravitating towards charcoal pencils on paper as her medium of choice, rigorous practice has given the young artist exceptional skill in the art of fine details. According to My Modern Met, this tool of choice offers her a freedom that graphite alone does not. “This utensil offers her the control of a conventional pencil with the ability to achieve rich black tones that give her work roundness and depth,” it writes. “With super dark shadows and bright highlights, the range of tones mimics a camera’s flash to produce the illusion of reality.

Her work is self-professed as being heavily steeped in the ancient symbols and cultural ethics of the African people. She is interested in the “source of life,” drawing inspiration from her environment and nature’s four elements — fire, earth, air, and water.

The artist’s latest series, entitled OLD TESTAMENT, features stunning portraits of girls and women. “OLD TESTAMENT is a series of works created in a bid to move its viewers to see with their eyes the closed chapters, lost pages, and the buried shells of what was; and to spring into being, even in the midst of these mists, the surge of nostalgia,” writes the artist.

In “Gone Are Those Days I,” a young girl stands with her back to the viewer. Her face hidden, her attire becomes the focal point of the piece: a traditional garment and elaborate hairpiece made with shells allude to the closed chapters that Joy endeavours to evoke.

In another piece, entitled “Faded,” a young woman hides her face in her hand as she kneels with a bundle of wood. The shell motif is again present. For this piece, Joy reveals that the muse was her sister, Ukamaka.

Instagram (@chiamonwu_joy_art)

Family plays an important role in this series; in her third piece, “Lost Page,” the subject is the artist’s mother, Mrs. Obianuju. The image, made from graphite and charcoal on Strathmore paper, depicts a woman weaving a basket. Basket weaving is a traditional art in Nigeria that is passed down from one generation to the next, an enduring custom of crafting beautiful, useful vessels from materials like bamboo cane and water hyacinth. An image Joy posted to her Instagram account recently depicts the artist at work on the image. Interestingly, the photo reveals a fascinating insight to Joy’s process of completing an image by sections, working from background to foreground. This structured additive process is not unlike the process of weaving, an interesting parallel to the craftwork depicted in the image!

Instagram (@chiamonwu_joy_art)

Despite the precision of the artist’s work, the focus for her is not on the science behind an optical correctness. “I do not draw to attain the highest level of perfection, but I draw to satisfy my insatiable lust for creativity,” Joy says in her artist’s statement. Her quest towards hyperrealism is a sensual one that, in direct juxtaposition to the realness of her work, is steeped in the abstract. “Every shade of charcoal I leave on my paper feels like love making. And I am yet to reach its climax, my climax.”