Sunday sit-down with… Dr Claire Ogah, Overlay Couture
Our first ever billboard campaign is now up in full force. We’ve sat down with the nine inspirational women who feature on it for our Billboard Interviews series, and our next fabulous female to feature is Dr Claire Ogah – self-taught digital artist, PhD holder and bespoke jewellery designer.
In the North East, we’re blessed to have such a diverse community of talented creatives.
Whether that be artists, jewellery makers or musicians.
But Dr Claire Ogah really does have it all – brains, beauty and creativity. Talk about professional goals, right?!
Claire moved to the UK from Nigeria to study a Masters in Health Sciences Management and then went on to do a PhD exploring why health professionals in developing countries ignore domestic violence. But soon, after spending such long hours in the library, art became a kind of therapy for Claire and she started sketching.
Now using her African heritage as inspiration for her art, which celebrates women, fashion and culture, Claire has created her own creative business – Overlay Couture – where she sells her Afrocentric digital art and bespoke jewellery to her ever-growing customer base here in the North East.
A powerful entrepreneur celebrating women, fashion and culture, you say? Well, what a coincidence. That’s what we’re all about, too! Which is why there was no-one we’d rather have as part of our billboard campaign more than Claire.
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.
How did you get into art?
Art sort of became a 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.
How did the pandemic help to trigger your nostalgia?
What the pandemic did for me was, it gave me a chance to stop and look back. And, in looking back, I created my first 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 was a professor! 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.
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 do you love about HLN?
I love the fact that High Life North is particular about celebrating women. About fishing out women who may feel obscure, as it were, in a man’s world, but ensuring that their stories are captured and validated. I find that makes High Life North super special.
Why do you think it’s important to have a magazine which spotlights women and celebrates their achievements?
In my opinion, women in the North East have been underrepresented until now. In fact, women in the UK have been underrepresented. So, having a magazine dedicated to telling the stories of women here in the North East is super special and is needed in our society now, more than ever before. I think everyone should support that – not just read it, but share it and tell everyone about it! Because there are loads of very important women in the North East and from the North East doing extremely significant things that would inspire others. It’s a great thing!
What one part of High Life North is your favourite?
I enjoy the Sunday sit-downs. I always look forward to the Sunday Supplement generally, I love it. But I specifically love reading about other women doing fantastic things. It’s almost like rediscovering myself, because it makes me realise what can be done. I look at them and find inspiration. But everything about High Life North – and believe me, I’m not trying to flatter your ego! – but everything about it is fantastic. I feel like it’s very well curated and very thought out. You guys are doing a fantastic job!
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!