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Meet Nicholle Kobi, the Congolese-French illustrator of all the “Gorgeous Shades of Brown”

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Popular illustrator Nicholle Kobi is known for her representation of black women in all their variations in an online space that rarely features them and a country that shuns them. Her work is inspired by the simple manifesto “Carefree Yet Refined”.

Born in Kinshasa, Congo, but raised in Normandy, France, by her father, Nicholle Kobi has experienced two polar opposite worlds, one in which she was part of the majority and another in which she was the disenfranchised minority. Whereas in Africa she was merely another African child, in her life in France she experienced and witnessed as a black Parisian the racism and exclusion of black people in French society.

Through it all she had her art. “I think I have always been an artist. The weird one. The crazy one,” Kobi told Okay Africa.

“My earliest memory of drawing was when I was 5. I was drawing on my stepmother’s Amina magazines. It was black and white. When she had finished reading them, I would draw on the women’s faces and change their clothing. I studied art in middle school. Everybody hated art but I loved it. I loved to draw. People see art as recreation.”

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Yesterday getting in line to catch for Johannesburg there was a white guy who asked where are you from because we were dealing French are you from Ivory Coast? I said no I am from Paris,France. I looked at me suspiciously like really ? And I ask him and you where are you from? I told sure of himself I am South African and and look at him like really ? It’s very curious how it seems so natural to be white and South African more than black and Parisian 😊 Anyway I am here in Johannesburg for my last Exhbition in South Africa 🇿🇦 Tomorrow August 15 Impact Hub 158 Jan Smuts Building 4Floor East Wing Rosebank I am very exciting to meet you guys and heard about your beautiful city, country and culture !!! This event will hosted @mbewumovement founder Maxino See you tomorrow #nichollekobi

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Not only did she love to draw but she took it very seriously and pursued it in school. “I went to an art school for high school. We studied 10 to 15 hours of art every week. My father always told me I had to attend Beaux-Arts (one of the most notable art schools in France) in Rouen or Paris. I wasn’t accepted into the school but I moved to Paris to study art history, fashion design and modeling in a preparatory programme.”

But like many artists she relegated her passion in favour of more ‘practical’ work, as advised by her teachers. She changed gear to study banking and insurance, then went on to work in the corporate sector for a time. When she fell pregnant, she was put on bedrest and her time away from work led her back to her first love.

Read: Fire of The Gods – Reatile Moalusi on his art and society

She started putting up her illustrations on Instagram and so her black-centric brand began. When asked by Quartz Africa why black women are the main source of her inspiration, Kobi said, “Our strength, our beauty, our different shades – the ideas come as the days go by. Sometimes my inspiration comes from actuality, at other times from my friends and my children, from social media, from fashion. My illustrations reflect who we are.”

Kobi uses her art to highlight positive relationships between black people and she attempts to focus on the divisions that exist in the black community based on colourism. “Most of the time, people (in Paris) are implicitly racist, or use racism to be funny. But this kind of humour goes against black women: our hair, the way we do this or do that. Another thing is how people like to make distinctions between black women. I have been told that I am “pretty for a black woman” too many times and that can only be a source of animosity between black women.”

Although she is highly acclaimed the world over, her pro-black illustrations are not readily appreciated at home in France. The French idea of assimilation asks immigrants to abandon their cultures because it holds that there is no unity in diversity; it “is not ready to see a group of successful black women. They are not ready to see black love. Seeing a black family means you have a black husband and black children. This is how France has built the black French mentality. My children are the only black children with two black parents, from my generation, at their school,” Kobi observes.

This can be seen in the debates that were sparked surrounding the ethnicity of the World Cup-winning football team and the shutting down of Paris’s transportation to and from the black-populated boroughs for the celebrations: Embracing an identity that is both black and French remains fraught.

Thankfully, Kobi has found a community online that embraces her depictions of carefree blackness.

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