BEHIND THE SCENES: How London Artist Illestration brought 2Pac and Obama Together
A thought we all have from time to time is wishing we could change the course of history. I, myself, have pondered several what ifs, including: what if 9/11 hadn’t occurred, what if the internet had never been born, and, what if 2Pac had never died.
For an artist with such a short lifespan, 2Pac made a considerable impact on the world. In his sphere of influence as a rapper, he advocated political change and opened up debate on key topics including gender inequality and police brutality. While many of his songs are true to their time, he spoke about a lot of stuff that hadn’t yet happened – his death, for example.
In Changes, he downplays the idea of a black president getting into office, oblivious to the fact that in 2009, that very event would take place, with Barack Obama’s inauguration:
And although it seems heaven sent
We ain’t ready, to see a black president
Obama’s appointment was, for many a ground-breaking moment in American history, that brought with it a tide shift in how certain things are done. Had 2Pac been around to witness Obama’s tenure, it’s anyone’s guess what the two of them might have said to each other. In all fairness, ‘Pac probably would have been on Obama’s back from day one for the very same stuff he was rapping about in ’96.
In September 2017, London-based artist, iLLESTRATION, did the unthinkable and produced a 2Pac meets Obama painting centred on this very conversation. Taking inspiration from the same Changes lyrics mentioned previously, her artwork represents a coming together of two not so distant individuals, united in their missions for social reform.
iLLESTRATION, real name Olivia Odiwe, has made a living out of drawing, painting and sketching the heads of famous people. Her work is bright and bold, somewhat pop-artish, and combines various different mediums. The manner in which she dissects faces is unique. Rather than focus exclusively on surface detail, Olivia uses fluorescent colours to bring out a visceral side in her characters.
Her Obama painting was one of several artworks that featured in our 2Pac Changes exhibition in September, and people absolutely loved it. It was photographed countless times, and, due popular demand, was made into prints as well.
We decided to pick Olivia’s brains about her craft. Here’s what we found out:
What are the defining characteristics of an iLLESTRATION portrait?
I would say my use of colour and the way I connect faces together. They’re two elements I’ve built and worked on over time. It’s a great feeling when someone recognises an iLLESTRATION portrait by its style and composition. My ultimate goal is to have my work recognised worldwide, even if you don’t see my name.
The way you dissect faces is incredible. Why have you chosen to focus on this part of the anatomy in particular?
I find faces so fascinating. Facial expressions reveal a lot about a person, especially the eyes. Even if someone is smiling, their eyes could be telling a completely different story. The eyes never lie.
I also enjoy the challenge of painting someone’s face – there are so many details to factor in. All it takes is the smallest mistake for things to go wrong. However, there’s something really rewarding about expressing a different side to someone’s personality that doesn’t immediately come across in their face. That’s the power of art.
Which feature on the human face is hardest to draw?
I would have to say the eyes and hair. I think I’ve definitely got a lot better at painting eyes, but there’s still loads to learn. Getting the balance right between light and dark in the eyes is very difficult, but, once you’ve got the reflections sorted, they really come to life. I think the eyes make or break a portrait as they convey so much character in a person.
As for the hair, painting all the different strands and getting it to look realistic can sometimes be challenging, and it takes a long time. But, as they say: practice really does make perfect, so painting hair is going to be my Christmas holiday homework, haha!
We’re a big fan of your colour structure. How did you come to doing such bright, textured pieces?
A lot of my early work at university was made using spray paint and bright colours. Spray paint taught me the importance of adding texture to work – with a few spray drips and blotches you can turn a 2D canvas into a 3D one.
This was instrumental in building my relationship with bright colours, and a lot of what I learned was carried over to working with acrylic – my preferred medium. I also make a conscious effort to choose colours that reflect the person I’m painting.
For example, in my Bob Marley/Usain Bolt piece, I deliberately used notes of black, green and gold-yellow to convey their Jamaican heritage. Other times, I will look at an image and just exaggerate the predominant colours that are already there. Our faces are made up of so many different tones and shades. No one is just one shade so there’s always plenty of inspiration available.
Talk us through some of the recurring themes/messages in your work
I don’t know if it’s a theme per se, but I want my work to be about the connection between people. What brings them together? What sets them apart? Why have I put these particular people together? What connects them? Those are the kind of questions I want people to have when looking at my work.
What’s been your most exciting commission to date?
I think one of my favourites was an EP artwork I did for an up and coming rapper from New York called Taro. He wanted me to create a NYC street scene combining light and dark. There was so much material to work from. He had a very clear vision of what he wanted, but was totally open to my interpretations.
What made this commission exciting was the way we worked together and brought the project to life. I find that when you and your client inspire things in one another, you create something really special.
What important projects have you been involved in in recent months?
I recently created a piece to sell at an exhibition, with all proceeds going to the survivors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The event was hosted by Art Meets Music and FerArts, and they did a terrific job.
I think it’s really important to give back when you can. The fact that I can do so through art is a great feeling.
You’ve built up an impressive social media following. How important is an online presence for artist these days?
I think having an online presence is pivotal for getting your work seen by a large audience. Social media allows you to connect with people in different countries who you might otherwise never meet.
I find it absolutely mind blowing that I’ve sold pieces to all parts of the world. I’m thinking to myself “how do you even know I exist?” And that really is the power of social media because, without it, I doubt I’d have the same reach.
Where do you see the iLLESTration brand going in the future?
I hope to create some custom clothing, but I want the work to remain as pieces of art. That way, if you’re wearing a jacket of mine, it doesn’t just feel like merchandise.
I also really want to get into using oil paints. I love how they look on a canvas and the textures they create due to the thickness of the paint.
Your 2pac-Obama piece was really well received. What made people connect with it in the way that they did?
I think choosing that specific line from Changes helped to draw people in. It resonates with stuff that’s happened in recent history, and, together with the painting itself, shows the changes that have happened since 2Pac left us.
I wouldn’t want to speak for everyone though, as I think it’s a piece that inspires different reactions and interpretations.
Talk us through the creative process behind it?
To begin, I just played the song repeatedly and sketched out my initial thoughts of it. I wanted to pick a specific line to work to, to give myself a clear focus.
I eventually settled on the line: And although it seems heaven sent/We ain’t ready to see a black president”.
I had a pretty strong idea of what I wanted to create. I knew I wanted to blend 2Pac and Obama with the American flag behind them as a nod to the American dream: Obama fulfilling his dream of becoming president. I also wanted to have them positioned facing each other further down the canvas to create a feeling of dialogue.
Most of the drawing was complete at this point except for a part of the background. It took a while for me to decide what to do with that last section. With some paintings, I find that inspiration comes during the painting process.
It was only once I started painting the flag that an idea came to me. At the top of the piece was the ‘American Dream’ but towards the bottom of the flag I wanted to project an alternative story.
My ambition was to call into question whether the Obama/2Pac ‘American Dream’, has really been achieved? A black president was a dream that was realised, but, in some parts of America tensions between police and black communities seem more strained than ever.
This is exactly the reason why I ripped off parts of the flag to reveal to police tape underneath. The police tape adds a sociopolitical dimension to piece, and allows people to engage with what’s going on in the world today.