Kelvin Okafor reflects on the milestone moments of his ten-year career so far, ahead of his first ever retrospective exhibiting at Mall Galleries, 11 to 15 September.

It's easy to mistake one of Kelvin Okafor's meticulous pencil drawings for a photograph. So detailed are they, that each and every pore, eyelash and wrinkle is visible on the page. Despite their impressive specificity, the real force of Okafor’s portraits lies in their perceptiveness. Whether it is Naomi Campbell, Adele or Okafor’s friends and family, the essence of the person is always palpable. Each and every one packs a distinct and powerful emotional punch. This ability has won the artist much critical acclaim. Art critic Estelle Lovatt has dubbed his incisive style as “emotional realism”, while The Guardian's art critic Jonathan Jones deemed Okafor “a miraculous artist.”

This month, Okafor will host his first ever retrospective at Mall Galleries. The focus of the exhibition is the unveiling of a specially commissioned portrait of John Lennon, based on a photograph by the famous rock ‘n’ roll photographer Bob Greun. At 215 hours, this is Okafor’s most ambitious portrait yet. Alongside this landmark piece, the exhibition will feature a series of milestone works created over the last ten years.

Kelvin Okafor Timeless, Graphite and Charcoal Pencils on Archival Paper, 42 x 59 cm & Melvin, Graphite and Charcoal Pencils, 43 x 61 cm

Two beloved portraits of Okafor’s relatives will be on view. ‘Timeless’ depicts Okafor’s cousin Jamal. In Jamal's thoughtful expression, Okafor aimed to capture a sense of stillness and presence, something he felt reflects the gracious personality of the subject. This drawing was awarded the 2013 Runner Up Best of Show Prize at Cork Street Open Exhibition.

‘Melvin’ was awarded the prestigious de Laszlo Foundation award for the most outstanding portrait by an artist aged 35 years or under at the 2013 Royal Society of Portrait Painters exhibition. This portrait invites the viewer to see Melvin through Okafor's eyes, as someone who the artist perceives to be “wise beyond his years.” These early works are indicative of a perceptiveness that would endure and evolve throughout Okafor’s practice.

Kelvin Okafor Maya's Interlude, Black Coloured Pencil on Archival Paper, 72 x 67 cm

More recently, Okafor's ability and desire to imbue his drawings with a contemplative stillness has developed into a series titled ‘Interludes’. In these portraits, all of the models have their eyes closed. “The meaning behind ‘Interludes’ for me,” Okafor shares, “is a meditative reflective state. It’s about all the possibilities we have within us.”

The collection began with a piece titled ‘Mia’s Interlude’. Okafor has been drawing his friend’s daughter Mia every two years since he first met her in 2009 when she was just three-years-old. He recalls feeling a sense of awe the first time he met her: “I just saw a beaming light proliferating from her and I was like, dude, I need to draw her.” Since then, he has captured her at the ages of three, seven, nine and eleven. This retrospective is the first time that all of the portraits will be shown chronologically together.

Kelvin Okafor Mia I, Graphite Pencil on Archival Paper, 29 x 40 cm & Sensitivity, Graphite Pencil on Archival Paper, 42 x 59 cm

Okafor's portrait of the late British Labour Party politician Bernie Grant is a source of great pride for the artist, having been commissioned by Parliament to create it in 2017. This piece was important to Okafor not only because of his admiration for the radical figurehead but also for the sense of validation it provided. “It gave me a recognition that felt very integral as an artist, to be commissioned by Parliament and to be recognised on that kind of scale.”

His depiction of Mother Teresa holds particular resonance for Okafor as it signifies a turning point in his artistic journey. “This drawing, on so many levels, but on a deeper emotional level, is very dear to me,” he explains. It was created in 2011, two years after Okafor graduated from university at a time when he had hit a plateau. “I was at a place where it was just really difficult, financially, emotionally, mentally,” he recalls, “my family and society was just showing me that this thing that I'm doing is not proving to be lucrative.”

Kelvin Okafor Mother Teresa, Graphite Pencil on Archival Paper, 41 x 28 cm

During this period of creative block, Okafor was desperately searching for inspiration to start drawing again. It was during a conversation with a close friend when Mother Teresa was mentioned. Okafor, a deeply spiritual person, recalls this moment as a pivotal one. “Before putting pen to paper, I was in quite a depressed state. When I had the inspiration to draw her it felt like it was bigger than me, this thing that I'm doing, it's not just for me,” Okafor explains. Immortalising Mother Teresa in this way prompted a period of reflection for the artist. “I had to go back into myself and really understand why I'm doing what I'm doing in the first place and what is it I truly want to gain out of it,” he reflects, “Ultimately at that time it was to share work, whether it was bringing in income or not.”

Kelvin Okafor Lucid, Graphite & Charcoal Pencils on Archival Paper, 65 x 52cm

Self-admittedly, Okafor has come a long way since then. "I would never have expected myself to be someone who is doing interviews and seminars," he reflects, "I was extremely introverted. It was hard to begin with because it was so out of my comfort zone." He adds, "I want people to feel encouraged to come out of their comfort zone and to do something that they truly love and embrace it."

“I draw not just to enjoy the aesthetics of it, I want to capture something that's in all of us and connect people together,” he explains. What does he hope visitors will take away from the exhibition? "It hasn't just been a smooth sailing journey since graduating university. There has been a lot of trials where there was a real test of faith to see whether this is truly what I want to do." Okafor concludes, "I would really love for artists and people, in general, to be honest with their expression and to keep going, regardless of the resistances we have and the obstacles we have in life."


Kelvin Okafor: Retrospective is on view at Mall Galleries 11 to 15 September

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