Self-portrait by Olufemi.

Self-portrait by Olufemi.

17-year-old Anisa McGowan, aka Olufemi, is a Maryland-based artist who paints powerful portraits from a tarp laid out on her bedroom floor. Her involvement in the Art Hoe Collective informs her work, which is concerned with lifting up young black women and spreading the word of intersectional feminism. I spoke to her about her ambitions as an artist, the people who inspire her, and the meaning behind her aliases.


What started you on the path to making art?

I’ve always had a natural gravitation toward the arts. When I was younger, I spent my extra time in class doodling cartoons, or something like that. My teachers complimented me on my art, rather than telling me to stop. There was a period of time when I gave up visual art because I was in a really dark place. After a few years of dealing with messed up personal circumstances, I got tired of confiding in people because they just couldn’t understand where my head was at, or what I had been through. I decided to put my emotions into something beautiful. I was in my sophomore year of high school when I started getting back into my sketchbook.

I like that you have a “preferred alias.” How did you adopt the name Olufemi, and does it have special meaning to you?

Olufemi means, “God loves me,” and it’s actually my middle name. My father gave it to me. He always nurtured my creativity; he saw it in me even before I did. My social media handle is Ohlaafemi, but I consider that more of a stage name, for lack of better words. It’s a name people use when they don’t know me all that well. Whereas only the people closest to me know my middle name. I sign all of my work with Olufemi because I feel like it’s the real me—it’s genuine and intimate. It’s as intimate as my truth, which is translated into my art.

The renderings you favor look predominately digital, but other work I’ve seen of yours can look sketch-ier and hand-drawn. What materials do you use to make your work?

My preferred media is acrylic on canvas. On my site, there are mostly digital image replicas because I resent how cameras don’t capture the real thing like they should. At the same time, even my canvas paintings can sometimes look very digital or illustrated because I have a tendency to use really clean lines, shapes, and bold colors. I’ve reached the point where I pretty much hate drawing. I’ve grown to love the way paint spreads onto a canvas, the way you can manipulate layers and colors. It’s like a dance. Drawing or digital art just doesn’t do it for me.

Can you describe the place where you make most of your work?

I literally have a massive blanket laid out on my bedroom floor with a plastic tarp on top of it. It’s almost like you’d imagine a child’s playroom, with toys spread out everywhere, but instead of toys there are palettes, paintbrushes, tubes of acrylics, a couple lamps, and a speaker. That’s my big, fancy studio! My back hurts almost all the time because I sit in awkward positions holding a canvas for hours every night. I love myself too much for this, though, so I’m plotting on a more efficient setup.

What does your commitment to the Art Hoe Collective entail?

Art Hoe Collective is a platform that was started on Instagram, and it promotes and uplifts creative people of color. If you’re a talented trans woman, we will support you; if you’re a talented cis man, we will support you. We try to create a safe space so that artists can be unique and honest. I’m a visual arts curator, so I select some of the submissions that get posted every Thursday. I also help out with things outside of my role, when I need to.

Your portraits have an incredible weight and importance to them. The figure always appears to be posing with purpose, and that makes them very powerful. Do you know the people who are your subjects, and if so, what kind of relationship do you have with them?

I love making portraits because there’s so much you can do with them. There are a million different ways to get your message across with the slightest body language. My subjects are personified concepts that relate to intersectional feminism. Usually, I’ll reference pictures of women of color from the internet, but that’s just the foundation. Because I don’t know them, I start making up their personality traits, personal lives, et cetera. It’s like character development. I feel like a mom because other people will look at my work and see a portrait, but I see Tabitha, a girl who recently dropped a potential boyfriend because he said she was insecure for wearing protective styles rather than her natural hair.

The colors in your work appear as though they are chosen for their contrast and impact. Why are you attracted to using specific combinations of color?

I like using complementary color schemes because they create intensity and draw more attention to the women I paint. I love vibrant colors. I’m not sure why. Like, there’s no reason behind that—I just do. Sometimes I’ll also select certain background colors based on the mood I want the piece to emanate.

What kinds of messages do you hope for your artwork to communicate?

I direct my message toward young black women more than any other demographic. I want them to know that you determine your identity, not society. I want to help them feel content with being human, being flawed and imperfect. It sounds really cliché, but I want them to know they are capable of anything despite all of the adversity they face. Say what you feel, do what you want, love however you please, be proud, be passionate, be unapologetic.

Who are some other artists whose work you find inspiring or interesting?

Juliana Huxtable’s work has been a huge inspiration. Her work is very expressive, and her perspective is so intriguing. I also love Monica Hernandez’s work. It is amazingly realistic and enchanting. I can tell she puts a lot of herself into her work, which is always a beautiful thing to witness.

Do you have specific aims for yourself as an artist?

Yes and no. I have lots of specific short-term goals, like having my solo art exhibition next year. Other than that, I don’t think too far ahead. I mostly live in the now. We’ll see where that gets me as an artist in 10 years’ time. I’m constantly developing. I know that if I try to set a long-term goal, it’ll change.

What are three words that describe your artwork?

Subtle, feminine, symbolism. ♦

If you’re a bad-person painter and want me to check out your work, please email [email protected] with the subject line “Bad girl painter.” Please include a link to your blog, Instagram, or website.