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Investigating how the pandemic influenced Vanessa Mwangi's digital imagery

Illustrative Chronicles: Examining the illustration approach of Vanessa Mwangi, creator of Gucora Andu, and how she uses her art to support black lives, feminism, and other causes.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Sep 28, 2022

Vanessa Mwangi is a Kenya-based illustrator who established Gucora Andu, her digital art platform. The artist particularly picked the name Gucora Andu for her works, as it translates to ‘draw people’ in Kenyan language. That's basically her objective - to 'draw people’. The artist states that when she is not sketching people, she is watching the news to know what's happening in and around the world, such as the Black Lives Matter movement that was the focus of her practice earlier. She has always enjoyed sketching since she was in high school, but she did not begin until this year due to the COVID-19. Her feminist art is a combination of pinks, browns, and warm colours, which has become a recurring subject for her. She draws in her own style, inspired by intriguing things to draw, and discusses this in her work. The woman in art also created a report on mental health awareness to represent what people were going through, particularly in the start of the pandemic when everything was so difficult to absorb and digest. The pandemic provided her with the impetus for her platform and social art, as she gained insight into how others dealt with it through time and contemplation.

Armpit, Digital image, Gucora Andu | Illustrative Chronicles | STIRworld
Armpit, Digital image Image: Courtesy of Vanessa Mwangi

1. Would you consider your work as ‘illustrations’ or ‘art’? Is there a difference according to you?

Both! Art because a majority of my pieces are a result of an idea or inspiration I have come across. Illustrations because my art reflects these ideas and serves as a depiction of them. My art is inspired by feminist values and general social issues experienced all over the world. However, initially and even occasionally, the art stems from my own feminist perspective. Before I became an illustrator, I was a feminist. Vexed by the discrimination of traditional gender roles, especially in my own environment, combined with a keen interest in illustrations, Gucora Andu was born. Though it didn’t happen automatically.

In 2020 during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself working from home. With all the social distancing protocols, I had more time to pursue my interests. I had always loved illustrations, and over time Gucora Andu took shape organically.

Vitiligo, Digital image (L) and  Love is love, Digital image (R), Gucora Andu | Illustrative Chronicles | STIRworld
L: Vitiligo; R: Love is love; digital image Image: Courtesy of Vanessa Mwangi

2. What is at the core of your expression? How do you aspire for your work to be experienced and interpreted?

My work focuses on illustrating people, especially women, and issues that concern them. In a country where aspects of African tradition contribute to widespread chauvinistic attitudes, Gucora Andu is a platform that promotes and encourages feminist values. This is the core of Gucora Andu as a brand. I keep Gucora Andu's look and feel consistent and simple. My goal is that people recognise my work anywhere. My illustrations aren't hard to interpret. I intend to make my work relatable, impactful, or both. If my art can spark conversation or emotion, then I have done my job.

Pleasure, Digital image, Gucora Andu | Illustrative Chronicles | STIRworld
Pleasure, digital image Image: Courtesy of Vanessa Mwangi

3. Please tell us about your creative journey – how has your style evolved over the years? What/who are your biggest influences?

Initially I just knew I loved illustrations. I’d follow illustration pages and buy art from other illustrators. Then I decided that I’d start something of my own. I choose the name ‘Gucora Andu’ because it meant ‘to draw people’, in my mother tongue, Kikuyu, a Kenyan language. From the start, I knew I wanted my art to focus on people. I initially started by illustrating celebrities, and that got me some traction, but I knew that was not what I wanted to be known for. I started creating illustrations that were more in line with my values. I’d find inspiration from local and international news and trends, other artists including photographers, as well as reflecting on my own perspective.

When I got my first client, an NGO called Girls Not Brides, I knew I was moving in the right direction, and began to focus my work more on feminist values and social issues, things I already cared a lot about. 

Now that I know what I want Gucora Andu to represent, the sky is the limit.

Curves, Digital image, Gucora Andu | Illustrative Chronicles | STIRworld
Curves, digital image Image: Courtesy of Vanessa Mwangi

4. A body of work you created that you are particularly proud of? Please share details of how you conceived of it.

I love all my artwork, but my favourite has to be a Vitiligo piece that I created for African Women’s Day for the Say Enough Campaign, a product by Oxfam International. The campaign theme was #FlipTheScript, and I was meant to share my concept of ideal black beauty.

The concept of ideal black beauty focuses on the embrace and appreciation of melanin, but what about those melanin does not fully embrace?

Vitiligo is a rare and misunderstood skin condition, and its sufferers are often stigmatised and isolated, especially in Africa.

As a black artist, I wanted to portray a strong black woman with vitiligo embracing her skin, because when it comes to beauty, there is no box, it's diverse.

Misogyny, Digital image, Gucora Andu | Illustrative Chronicles | STIRworld
Misogyny, digital image Image: Courtesy of Vanessa Mwangi

5. An upcoming project that excites you? Or an unrealised project that is close to you? Please share details.

Like I said before, the sky is the limit. I am working to get funding for a few projects I’d like to kick off. One of those is creating and distributing more merchandise based on my illustrations. However, what a majority of my projects rely on is the creation of more art.

As a result, I am excited about creating a body of work that focuses on the African woman’s female body and its experiences, for example, the menstrual cycle, inspired by an illustrator called Pink Bits.

Artist Vanessa Mwangi | Illustrative Chronicles | STIRworld
Artist Vanessa Mwangi Image: Courtesy of Vanessa Mwangi
Vanessa Mwangi talking about her digital art platform Gucora Andu Video: Courtesy of Vanessa Mwangi

Click here to read more about Illustrative Chronicles, a collection of STIR articles that examine illustration as a discipline for narrating stories of the contemporary urban.

(Research Support by Vatsala Sethi, Asst. Editorial Coordinator (Arts))

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