Sunday sit-down with… Dr Claire Ogah of Overlay Couture
Self-taught digital artist, bespoke jewellery designer, PhD holder and a day job in a local foodbank – Dr Claire Ogah is professional goals.
Your PhD isn’t in anything creative, right?
That’s right. I always knew, from being seven years old, that I wanted to do a doctorate. My friends thought I was crazy! But I just had this thing for studying. So, I moved to the UK from Nigeria when I was 21, first to do a Masters in Health Sciences Management and then on to do a PhD.
My PhD focused on why health professionals in developing countries ignore domestic violence, specifically focusing on Eastern Nigeria, where my parents are from. In the UK, when you go to hospital, especially if you have a bairn, you get asked: are you in a relationship? Is that relationship volatile? They look at your mannerisms and nuances, just to ensure that you’re in a healthy relationship for your child. It made me wonder why that wasn’t in medical practice in Nigeria.
It was so interesting when I went back home to collect my data. That was when I realised that, while I had thought I was an insider in the culture, just by recognising that I didn’t understand this aspect of their society meant I didn’t quite understand the people. I had become an outsider. The community’s answers to my research were just weird to me. I couldn’t understand why they were the way they were, and why I was the way I am. Having the thought to question the culture questioned my identity.
So how did you get into art?
Art became a sort of therapy for me. I was spending such long hours in the library that all the cleaners knew me! But I enjoyed it. I found a lot of solace walking through the aisles of the library and feeling like the books were speaking to me. There was this fulfilment and a sense of being in the right place.
But trying to make sense of the data was when I started noticing other things that weren’t my focus. I started zooming in on women, fashion and culture and how they each informed the other. So that’s how I started sketching. Art sprung from my academic work.
Do you think the pandemic triggered that nostalgia?
What the pandemic did for me was, it gave me a chance to stop and look back. And, in looking back, I created that collection. But it also gave me an understanding of the things I should be thankful for.
One of my illustrations is centred around the ABC fabric – which was the fabric women wore, literally emblazoned with the alphabet, to signify that they had successfully given one or more of their children an education. It made me grateful that the era I was born was one where education – and educating female children, in particular – was a staple. Unlike when my mother was born, and my mother is a professor now! But when my grandparents chose to send her to school, they were frowned upon. They’d get asked: ‘why do you want to educate a girl?’ So that fabric is very significant to my heritage, and it made me thankful for the fact that our culture has evolved since then.
Are there any other artists you really look up to?
There are two that stand out to me. One is a statement jewellery designer, Anita Quansah London. I feel like we’re kindred spirits. The first day I saw her work, I gasped and thought: she validates my madness! She makes bold, loud, impossible jewellery. She’s British-Nigerian too and her attention to detail, to expressing herself. Is incredible. She made me realise that it’s possible to be true to yourself and authentic.
The other artist is Njideka Akunyili Crosby. The work that made me fall in love with her is called ‘I Refuse To Be Invisible’. And that got my attention. Her style is totally different from mine, but I enjoy everything about her and her work. That’s another thing about art – you can use your art for good. And Njideka does that.
Which of your own pieces are you most proud of having created?
The next piece I’m going to create!
How do you get ‘in the zone’ with your work?
I love music, but on a very low volume. Most times when I’m creating, there’s either good music on or an audiobook on in the background. I’m a very spiritual person, so it has to be spiritual music. There’s a Nigerian artist called Sinach – again, going back to my roots! – and I love her lyrics. Most of the time, I listen to audiobooks just for the voice of the reader. That gets my attention, their artistic expression. But my favourite author is T.D. Jakes.
I love oud and frankincense fragrances as well, they always get me in the artistic zone! I’ll always have some incense burning. And I’ll have a cup of herbal tea or hot chocolate beside me, too!
You’re organising your ideal art showing – name 5 people you’d most like to invite.
I definitely want Njideka Akunyili Crosby there. And Anita Quansah, giving me a huge hug. I’d like our local MP, Chi Onwurah and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie there too. And also, if it’s possible, Oprah!
What would be your advice to other women in the North East who are looking to enter into the world of art?
Be you. Be true. Go for it. And don’t let anything stop you. I once had a boyfriend who said to me: ‘I think you’re demented and that’s why you create what you create’. That was a good reason to block him, delete him from my contacts and erase him from my life! So don’t let anything or anyone stop you on your journey. I’m not saying it’s easy, because it’s not. But it’s worth it.
What would you most like to achieve with your art?
For me, art is a way to keep becoming until I die. Getting into that space to continually become a better version of myself. So that would be the greatest achievement ever. And if, when people walk into galleries in the future and look at my work over the years, they see the work of a woman who has been continually committed to expressing herself. That, in itself, gives the art a strong voice.
What does the future look like for Overlay Couture?
I’m working on branching into fashion, as well as continuing my art and jewellery. So, at some point, Overlay Couture will have its own collection of perfumes, candles and clothing. It’s going to be loud and unusual. Kind of similar to how not everyone likes Vivienne Westwood, but some really appreciate her work. She’s another woman who inspires me, by the way – and I’d definitely want her to come to my art show! Vivienne Westwood has to be there!