Nengi Uranta: On being a multidisciplinary artist, attending law school, and her love for cinnamon rolls and lego flowers — #011
I am a multidisciplinary artist. I practice string and digital art... Even though I am currently in Nigerian law school heading toward being a lawyer, I always go back to arts.
Hi, thank you for joining us for another issue of our interview with African Creatives. In this issue, I spoke with Nengi Uranta, a Multidisciplinary Artist currently expressing her creativity through string art, illustration and digital painting. Nengi is a graduate of law currently in the Nigerian Law School studying to become a Barrister in Nigeria.
If you are curious to know what led her to art, what it takes to pursue her interest in art and law at the same time and her plans for her law degree, what drives and motivates her, the challenges of being an artist and how she navigates them, her favourite projects, the people that inspire her, and the people and brands she would love to work with, you should continue reading. You will definitely love and enjoy reading this!
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Tell us about yourself
My name is Nengi Uranta. I am a multidisciplinary artist. I practice string and digital art. On the physical and traditional side of things, I do string art; where I create images with nails and thread. On the digital side of things, I do digital art which is subdivided into two; illustrations and digital painting.
My illustrations are more cartoon-like. It is where I came up with my original character, MIND. MIND is literally a reflection of my mind. I use MIND to maintain the fun side of my art practice. I enjoy what I do but because a lot of it has now become work, MIND is really an escape for me. MIND is also a way for me to reach out to my audience in a day-to-day and relatable way. When I create webcomics about MIND, people can relate to them and even find them funny.
Because the other sides of my work are fairly thought-provoking and deep, MIND provides that break and light-heartedness to my practice. So in terms of illustration, MIND kind of represents the cartoon-style illustrations that I do.
Digital painting is the other side of my digital art practice. It has more of a realistic but surrealistic appearance. This is where I paint my “colourful glass-like figures”. It is the part of my work I put out there the most because it's a style I spent most of last year developing and it's something I want to be known for apart from the other two.
The reason people don't see my string art pieces often online is that it takes so much time and the most effort out of all the three techniques I use. I'm trying to get my String pieces into physical spaces and galleries. I want each technique to be in different spheres, which is why some people might only interact with one of my techniques depending on where they first come across my work.
Some people would say I have an unhealthy obsession with cinnamon rolls, but I think it's quite reasonable. I don't think it's unhealthy. I think everyone needs to have their own thing. Cinnamon rolls and Lego flowers are mine. So I am very much obsessed with these two. They keep me going. They give me a reason to live.
I'm a pretty simple person. Just give me a cinnamon roll and some Lego flowers to build and stare at and just maybe I'll think about making you my friend, that's how it works, haha.
How did you get started with art? What led you to art?
I've been drawing since I was four. As a kid, I was inclined to art. My parents noticed this and nurtured it. They got me these art sets containing markers, pencils, and all sorts that come in boxes. I got a few of these boxes while growing up because they saw that I was interested in art, so it has always been a part of me.
Even though I am currently in Nigerian law school heading toward being a lawyer, I always go back to arts. Anyone that knows me knows this. There have been interests that have slowed down how quickly I develop my work or establish a presence online but I always find myself doing this and I would say it is very natural for me.
Arriving at the three techniques I currently work with has involved a lot of trial and error to see what is most practical for me because I was moving between Lagos and England for almost a decade. The need to have something more mobile and flexible led me to digital art because string art was a lot. The string art pieces are always big and heavy. Moving around with physical paintings too was a lot. Also, I was scared because I had this irrational fear of painting on canvas. I always thought the paint would never mix for me. So I became intrigued by digital art and decided to try it out.
I have limited physical painting to the backgrounds of my string art pieces. I mainly paint digitally. As for illustrations, I started developing my style from the beginning of 2020 through 2021. While growing up, I watched a lot of cartoons and there are many distinct styles that I loved. A bunch of these styles have influenced my imagination. I've also tried to simplify my style so that it is recognizable. I want my audience to see my work and say, “That’s Nengi’s work.”
How do you manage to combine your pursuit of art and your pursuit of Law?
First of all, I don't. For the three years I spent at the university pursuing a law degree, my pursuit of art was slowed down. Interestingly, it was during that time I decided that I want to be more professional with my art sooner than later.
I knew I was going to be professional eventually. It was in my second year of university that I decided I wanted to properly look into building an art career. The need to balance both became a reality for me when I had my first few commissions and orders. It was really thrilling for people to actually like my work and want to pay for it or gift it to other people. It was crazy to me.
I've come up with a system that allows me to sort through orders or requests because I don't have an assistant yet. I have templates of documents that guide me so I won't get overwhelmed when I have to respond to requests, inquiries, or emails.
The truth is that I do not plan to practice as a lawyer. It's just me trying to finish what I started and also, somewhat, for my parents. My parents understand that I don’t intend to practice law. I just want to see this through, get those transferable skills and face art.
How will you describe what you do to a 5-year-old?
I would say I create art with nails and thread. I also paint people that look like shiny colorful glass, and I also draw cartoons.
What is your day-to-day routine? What does a typical day look like for you?
I have one or two days every week dedicated to administrative tasks like making sure the prints in my shop are updated and my website is functioning and updated with new pieces, and also make sure that I have not missed any emails and then I reply to necessary inquiries and messages.
On the other days, I'm typically working through most of my ideas. They usually come to me in the shower or randomly as I walk. It is never when I sit down. I also have areas and themes that I explore for the sake of having a coherent body of work but I try to make sure this does not limit me because I like to feel free and create what I imagine. So I find a way to fit whatever I come up with into the areas and themes I choose to work on. I like to work in series so I tend to have about three to six pieces in a series with a particular theme. While I like to explore, there's also the research part. I don't just sit down and spend hours sketching and practicing; even though it is important. I feel like I've gotten to a point where I know my techniques, so I tend to spend more time researching.
I spend time on Pinterest researching the ideas and themes I want to explore. I love Pinterest. It gives me so much joy. Although it can be tricky if one doesn't know how to use references - that's a whole other conversation. I also spend time watching cartoons and just anything to make me feel inspired. I look at colours, shapes, or plants. I just spend time looking and observing and when I'm ready to execute, I narrow down and get to work. I do what I can and put the piece aside. I spend time away from it and come back later with a fresh pair of eyes to analyze it. As much as I love sharing my work with the world, I share it with myself first. So this is a very important step for me.
What I do for the week depends on what I choose to focus on for the week whether it is an illustration, digital painting, or string art. I sometimes let my Instagram feed guide what I work on because there's a pattern to my posts.
What is the best career investment you have made as a creative?
Interestingly, it’s not something I bought. I would say it is the people I have met. I'm not the most social person but the people I do make time to interact with have been worth it. I've learned a thing or two from them. I've shared experiences with them. We've shared what we have in common, bounced ideas off each other, and inspired each other. I have a good circle of artists around me who have become great friends. I also have people that I can reach out to outside of this artist’s circle.
The friends that I have are very supportive. For example, the apple pencil I currently use to paint was gifted to me by a friend. He was like, “I want to see how far you go in this journey, I believe in you”. He's one of my biggest supporters. So every time I draw, it is almost literally thanks to him. So I would say the best career investment I have made is taking out time to really connect with the people that come across my art.
What are the challenges you face as a creative?
One challenge is when I have an idea in my head but my hand is not cooperating with my brain to execute the idea in the magnificent way I've imagined it. This can be really stressful.
Another challenge is the prices of the materials I use for string art. The materials I use are quite expensive because of the quality of materials I get to make sure my works are durable. Also, getting the materials I use can be tricky to source in Nigeria. The type of nails I use are pretty small and are made with stainless steel to avoid rusting. So the materials are more expensive and it can be difficult to find a reliable supplier.
Networking can be a challenge for me. I mentioned earlier that I'm not the most social person. I like to take time away for myself a lot. So being as approachable as I want to be is not always easy. It influences the way I interact with people. It's a little different with clients because there's an end goal. I know exactly what I need to ask them to get the answers I need to do the work they want me to do. But connecting with others is usually tricky. For example, a collector that wants to connect with me may not be able to because I am on a break and wouldn’t be able to respond to anyone. To the collector, this may come across as me ignoring them and that could make me seem unapproachable. This is a challenge because I can't control how people react to that.
How do you navigate these challenges?
As for ideas, I've learned to not be too hard on myself. If I cannot draw or I feel like I am experiencing a creative block in the form of not being able to execute what I've written down or thought of, I just step back and go to my inspiration sources like Pinterest or cartoons. I try to unwind and look at the work of other artists that I like to inspire me and this usually does the magic when I eventually get back to it. I don't give up on a concept that I want to explore. It might take me more time to get there but I always find a way to execute it.
When it comes to prices, cost, and availability of string art materials, I haven’t completely figured it out yet. But I have a carpenter that helps me source the plywood I use for the string art pieces. I am yet to get a reliable source for the nails. It’s a work in progress. When I get back to making string art in full swing, I will work it out.
How do you navigate networking and interacting with potential clients and partners?
To be honest, we're human and I try my best to be open with people and let them know when I am available. I have been lucky enough to come across clients and people that are patient and understanding so that has been a saving grace so far.
What is your creative process and workflow?
The first thing I do is establish the channel of communication. People prefer to reach out to me via Instagram because it seems to be quicker and easier for them but for the sake of formality and documentation, I take the conversation to email after establishing the brief and agreeing to work. I send the contract/agreement to be signed which includes a requirement for a deposit to be paid, before I start to work on the project.
As for the creative process, if for example I am commissioned to work on music cover art, I try to get into the client’s head by asking them questions about the project and even asking them to share a snippet of the part they love and want me to visualize and communicate to the audience with the design. I never ask them for the full song because I might get overwhelmed by listening to the full song. From listening to this snippet, I have at least one colour that usually comes to mind and with that, I have some substance that makes me feel a bit more confident to continue.
I proceed to create an inspiration board with images that I share with the client to get their feedback on the visual direction I want to go. After getting feedback and approval, I go on to create sketches (about three to four) and a written description of the concepts I am working on and share it with the client to get feedback. I always ensure to carry the client along through these processes so as to get feedback and make revisions to avoid wasting time on a direction that will be discarded. After getting the go-ahead, I move on to create a colour palette and start working on creating the final painting based on the approved sketch. I never shy away from asking for feedback until the final output is ready.
What part of this process do you enjoy the most?
While I enjoy the painting part, the part I enjoy most is the ideation phase. I enjoy the process of getting ideas from visual references and narrowing down to the three to four concepts I proceed with after going through numerous visual cues and options.
What are the essential gadgets, tools, and software you use for work daily?
I have an iPad pro and an Apple pencil I use for drawing. I work mainly on Procreate; it is my favourite app and it works for me. There are one or two other apps I play around with for textures and brushes but the bulk of the digital art and illustration work I do is on Procreate.
How did the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown impact you and the work you do as a creative?
The pandemic was really bad. I couldn’t use the period to my creative advantage. I was in my final year at the university at the time, so it was a tough time for me. I saw how the ‘non-typically creative people’ stepped into their creativity and it was encouraging to see but I didn't quite have the resources, especially the time because of school. The little time I had was when I started doing more with digital painting though I hadn't developed my current style then. I was really big on realism and tried to practise at the time.
I worked on a series called ‘Colour Me Cultured’ with about six pieces. I wanted to master how to paint dark skin because I wasn’t too inspired by the way people painted dark skin. I experimented a lot before arriving at my current technique.
I also worked with traditional mediums during the lockdown even though I didn’t have much time to practise and explore like I wanted.
How do you handle creative blocks and client rejections as a creative?
As a way of handling rejections, I tell myself the opportunity was probably not meant for me. Though this is easier said than done because there are times I really want an opportunity and just won't get it. I have grown more confident in my work and skills to the point where I know the opportunity just wasn't for me and not necessarily that my work was not good enough.
As for creative blocks, I run to cartoons and Pinterest. I also look at flowers, shapes, forms of things, and glass. My current painting style is heavily inspired by glass because I enjoy looking at glass as a material. It is so beautiful and reminds me of humans as my current practice revolves around me seeing humans as vessels. So any chance I get, I let my mind wander. When my mind wanders, the thoughts that run through help me to get out of any creative block when I am faced with one.
What is the task you don't enjoy doing but you have to do?
It might sound silly but it has to be adding hashtags to my posts on Instagram. It is so tedious because you shouldn’t use the same hashtags every time you post. I just find it so annoying but it is useful to use them to reach more people.
There’s also the task of sorting through emails. It can be stressful.
What are the favourite projects you have worked on?
The first one is my newest digital painting titled ‘Desire’ (2022). It is a series of paintings that, from my perspective, encapsulate "human desire". The concept was explored through the lenses of optimism, romanticism, materialism, envy, and freedom. It communicates the endless nature of humans to desire-to want— things to the point that we feel like we need them, Like a garden, our desires grow. Also like a garden, we may not see when the weeds begin to sprout.
Another one is my digital painting series titled ‘AM I HOME?’ (2021). It is a collection of 12 paintings that revolve around the same bored, exhausted, cynical straight-faced girl that gets to sit in my head and make comments while I experience all the things—good and bad—outside my head.
I also love the Illustration series titled ‘A-Z creative queens’ (2021). It is a series that highlights some famous/popular Black women in the creative industry.
What keeps you motivated to keep creating? What drives you?
My mind keeps me going. Seeing what it can come up with, I'm always surprised. Honestly, it baffles me. It is really fun because it feels unlimited. When my mind comes up with something, I want to find out how my brain will tell my hand to create it. I always want to find out. This is what has kept me going for the most part.
Another thing that has kept me going is people. The fact that there have been pieces that people have reached out to me about. Some people have been vulnerable with me because of these pieces. So the human element of having people relate to my art up to the point where they can feel and hear themselves through my work is really intriguing.
What do you do for fun? How do you relax when you are not working?
Cinnamon rolls and Lego flowers. I watch cartoons and series, especially sitcoms. I'm trying to watch more documentaries.
I also hang out with my friends. I have some really solid friends. There's a good mix of funny and reliable so I enjoy hanging out with them.
Who are the creatives that inspire you?
Who are the people you would love to work with or collaborate with?
What brand(s) would you love to work with?
String Art: I love Fashion brands, especially those who use their spaces creatively. I’d love to create String Art pieces for a brand like Andrea Iyamah.
Digital Painting: KAI Collective— I’d love to create a print or a range of prints with them.
Digital Painting/Illustration: I would love to work with publishing houses/authors to create book covers for fictional storybooks.
What would you be doing if you were not an artist?
I would be doing legal stuff for artists. Or I would attempt to be a psychologist.
What advice do you have for someone who is just starting out or is at the early stage of their creative journey?
Experiment!!! You never know what you might be better at. I feel like it's easier to find out what you’re good at than to find out what you're better at. So experiment and explore. A lot of people always ask me how I figured out I could do this whenever they see my string art pieces. I experimented and came across this technique and then found out how to do it for myself. I always encourage people to experiment.
Another one is “Don’t be afraid to step away from the canvas.” Some people feel like they can only get better by constantly putting pencil to paper. They don’t let their minds observe enough. At some point, I thought that I had to always practise how to draw something to be able to draw it. Whereas all I had to do was look and observe it first before even picking up a pencil to draw. I have come to learn that observation is important. It helps to draw the subject in a way that is personal to me.
What would you consider success and fulfillment in your career when you look back in the next 20 years?
A series of solo exhibitions across different countries. I also want to have worked on book cover paintings and illustrations.
I want to have uplifted and supported other artists in the form of mentorship. To encourage and let them know there are little to no impossibilities.
Whose story would you love to read about?
Hues of Gigi and Blessing Atas.
Do you have anything you would like to plug in or promote?
Check out my website! ( I have free colouring pages on the ‘SHOP - FREEBIES’ page)
Also, check out my print shop! (I have prints available and they can be shipped worldwide)
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