Painter Monica Ikegwu originally wanted to be a pediatrician. Instead, when she was 17, her father convinced the Carver High School graduate to apply to MICA, where she is now a senior best known for her arrestingly lifelike portraits of her peers and, frequently, her five siblings. Earlier in 2019, she sold out a solo show at the Los Angeles gallery Band of Vices and in 2020 she will have a show in Baltimore’s City Hall galleries, so it’s safe to say 21-year-old Ikegwu’s career is on the fast track.
In person, Ikegwu is reserved and allows the other person in conversation to draw her out. She found her passion for figure painting in high school and enjoys painting portraits, which she calls “the most interesting part” of the human body. Ikegwu says that she spoke very little before she was 14 and began painting portraits as a way to start having short conversations with people. Last semester at MICA, she focused on studying fabric textures, highlighting jackets, which she feels show some aspect of her subject’s personality or style. “When I paint people I want to capture the person for who they are, their essence,” she says. “I think people can be represented in clothing.” For this reason, she allows her young subjects to wear their own clothing and pose however they are comfortable. She lights the setup and takes photographs and then paints from the images in her attic studio at home or in her studio at school, one day a week. Ikegwu has also been playing with color, using monochromatic palettes to highlight the contrast between her subjects and their backgrounds.
In her portraits, Ikegwu’s goal is to take “ordinary people and make them [into] art in the ordinary clothes that they’re wearing. [The subjects themselves are] nothing special, but then it becomes art.” She is interested in that perceived elevation in status. With her technical skills, it seems Ikegwu could paint anything she wants, but she is interested in painting people because when “you’re painting a person, you feel like you know them but you don’t really know them, you just painted their picture.” At shows, people have come up to her and said that her paintings of her brother look like someone else they know. This excites Ikegwu, who says, “I don’t think you would’ve seen my brother before, but now you can see him.” She’s made him visible.
In our interview, I caught up with Ikegwu about her career so far, doing her sisters’ hair, and the contemporary figure painters who inspire her.
SUBJECT: Monica Ikegwu, 21
WEARING: Blue and white striped shirt with shoulder cutouts, black Reebok leggings, and hair pulled back into a low bun.
PLACE: Station North
Suzy Kopf: What is the best career advice you’ve received?
Monica Ikegwu: I was in an art competition during my senior year and one of the judges gave me some great advice. He said, “Don’t chase the money. If you do what you love and what you are good at then the money will follow.” I believe that and have seen it for myself that he was speaking the truth.
If you couldn’t live in Baltimore, would you live in either New York City or Los Angeles? Another city?
I’ve been to New York and it was so loud and busy which wasn’t appealing at all. I’ve also been to California, but not long enough to decide if I want to live there yet. I actually might choose Miami. I went there in 2017 and had a nice time, I would definitely go back again. I’ve never actually left home, I’ve lived in a hotel for a week but nothing long term.
Did you have a favorite toy as a child? Do you remember what happened to it?
I know that when I was younger I was completely obsessed with baby dolls. Not the cartoony-looking dolls, but the ones that looked real and came with diapers, pacifiers, and bottles. I kept them for a good while before I just passed them down to my little sisters. I even monitored the way that they played with them and would take them back and keep them somewhere safe if I didn’t like the way that they used them. I don’t remember which age, but I eventually just let them go and my sisters could do what they wanted with them.
Who do you admire? Why? Do you think they know they’re a role model to you and would they be surprised?
I admire my mother a lot. She is a beast when it comes to working and getting what she wants. She stands her ground and doesn’t cave in when faced with a situation. She probably doesn’t know that I think of her as a role model because of how different we are.
What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for?
I hope I’m remembered as a clean person. I personally love, love, love to clean. If I’m bored my first thought would be to find something in my vicinity to clean. Even when I paint it has to be clean. I hate the idea of having my clothing ruined by paint.
You recently deleted all your music—why did you decide to do that? Do you see music and visual art as being related? How so?
I’m a good Christian and before I was listening to music with a lot of cursing. So I decided to start over. I’m listening to Lauren Daigle and her type of music now. For some people, the music that they listen to can influence their work. For me, the process of art isn’t related to the music I listen to; the music for me is more like a mechanism that helps me to keep on working for a long period of time so that I don’t get bored by the sounds of my brush hitting the canvas.
Religion is important to you. Has that always been the case or was there an event that happened recently that caused you to think, I need to take this seriously? What has made you want to be more intentional about your relationship with God? Other than changing your musical preferences, has this come through in your art at all?
Last year I went to the Bethel Campus Fellowship conference in North Carolina and I realized, okay, I need to change myself. So I stopped listening to the cursing kind of music. I paint other people so this hasn’t affected my art at all.
What’s the best local restaurant and what is your go-to order?
The restaurant that I always go to would be Hibachi Grill. Technically, it’s not even a restaurant, it’s a buffet. I just like it because you pay one set price and have unlimited access to all the food there! The options are diverse as well which helps when I want to try something new. Every time I go there I always get the lo mein with fried shrimp and sugar doughnuts. Weird combination, but it tastes good!
Figurative painting is having a real moment right now. Which contemporary artists do you admire?
Oh, I have a whole list of them—most of them are from Instagram, I don’t really look at the old masters. Aaron Nagel, Casey Baugh, Delfin Finley, David Cason, Michael Carson, Eric Jones, John Wentz, Jeremy Mann, Sarah Golish. There are also some artists that my art gets confused with, some people say it looks like Kehinde Wiley or Barkley Hendricks or even Amy Sherald, so that’s kind of weird too.
How do you feel about being compared to very established, now canonized artists? They are in museums and regularly selling work to high-profile collectors.
It’s a good thing that mine could pass for one of theirs but before, when I was doing more stenciled backgrounds, people would say, “Did you copy Kehinde Wiley?” And I was like, “No!” It’s completely different, he’s painting his designs and they are interacting with the figure while mine are flat forms I am stenciling, and they are forms that I create as well, they are not based off Rococo art.
How do your brothers feel about being painted and then having that painting of them, that looks so much like them, sold to a stranger?
At first, they were like, why would a stranger want to buy me? So I explained, people like art. And they were like, that’s kind of weird. But they weren’t really opposed to it, they’ve gotten used to it.
Do you feel like you’ve had a normal college experience?
No, not really. Freshman and sophomore year [at MICA] requires students to live on campus. But I live close enough that I said, can I just stay home? And they’re like, sure. So I stayed at home those two years because it saved me money. I didn’t have the experience of living on campus and I don’t know most of the people at the school because I only come for classes and then as soon as class is done I go back home so I only know people in my classes. So I’ve only met about 50 percent of my classmates.
Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What is it? How did you get into that?
I wouldn’t call it an unusual hobby, but I do like to do hair. When I was nine, my twin sisters were born and I started doing things by myself since my mother was preoccupied with taking care of the twins. I started watching YouTube videos on how to do certain styles and picked that up pretty quickly. I learned how to fully wash, condition, and flat iron my hair when I was 12 and I’ve been doing my hair and my sister’s hair ever since. It’s kind of like art because I get to think of new styles to do, especially when braiding.
Whose work would you want in your home or to wear on your body? Specific piece?
In 2016 I went to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. When I walked into one of the rooms there was one painting of Saint Sebastian done by Tanzio da Varallo that was hanging on the wall. I honestly loved everything about that painting and I always found myself going back to stare at it. The way that the lighting was set up, the emotion in the face of the figures, and the rendering is just mind blowing. I would love to have that painting in my living space so that I could stare at it all day long.
Your Los Angeles gallery found you on Instagram. How has the app been a tool for you?
That’s where most people know me from, Instagram. That’s where I know most of [my peers from MICA] from, Instagram, because I don’t really see them, but a whole bunch of them follow me. I use it a lot for connections, especially with people that I don’t know in person. Amy Sherald posted a picture of me and her with my work behind us on her Instagram and [my gallery] found it and they DMed me. I didn’t reply to the DM but then they emailed me and I thought, okay, maybe they are serious. That’s how I got started.
What are the last three emojis you used?
The last three emojis I used were the laughing face, the thumbs up, and the prayer hands. But my favorite emoji is a tie between the face with the sunglasses or the smirking face.
Do you have a typical day or not right now? Do you wish you had a routine if you don’t, or do you thrive on change?
My life is pretty boring at the moment. I typically wake up, drive to school, go to class, drive back home, do homework, and then eat and sleep. I do have some exciting moments where I can squeeze some Netflix in on the weekends (I absolutely love finding new movies and TV series).
Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?
Astrology is honestly so weird to me. How does a birth sign have the ability to completely define a person? If that was the case there wouldn’t be much variation among people. I feel that it puts people in a box where they can’t see outside of what their sign is telling them.
Is there a show you’ve seen in the last five years that you are still thinking about? Why do you think that is?
In 2016, my painting class went to the Baltimore Museum of Art to see the Matisse/Diebenkorn show. At the time I wasn’t going to any exhibitions, but this particular show was memorable mainly because of the works by Diebenkorn. The way in which he painted with such vivid colors and abstracted the landscape is so interesting. Also, the size of some of the works just encapsulates you within the painting as you stand in front of it.
What was the most memorable assignment you were given in school? What did you make?
The most memorable assignment would be during my freshman year of high school. My teacher at the time, Omead Afshari, had us use Illustrator to create a repeat pattern. He probably doesn’t know that he jumpstarted my interest in patterns, but I was sooooo interested in the method that I still use it today when I want to incorporate patterns into my paintings. I just altered it a bit so that instead of digitally moving vectors, I’m cutting the shapes into plastic material and painting over it.
What have you learned recently that kind of blew your mind?
I just learned about stocks and bonds! It was in class and the professor explained all the details of the stock market. People are always asking if I would consider investing, but I never knew what it was about so my immediate response would be no. Now that I learned about it I was a little stunned that it actually made sense.
Photos by Justin Tsucalas