(ARISE magazine, issue 14) A mutual love of eavesdropping inspired illustrator Olu Oke and writer Michael O’Kelly to create a graphic short story set on a London bus. Now the duo’s four-page creation, Ding! (above), has been named runner-up in The Observer/Cape Graphic Short Story Prize 2011.
It’s a welcome validation for Oke who has been working in the industry for almost ten years, supplementing her work as a freelance illustrator with part-time jobs as a cinema projectionist and theatre manager. Born Oluyinka Adunola Omoyeni Oke to Nigerian parents in south London, Oke says her family’s background is a major influence on her work. “As an illustrator you tend to draw from life; if someone asks me to draw a large granny, it’s not your ubiquitous Red Riding Hood granny; it’s my granny, who is big, colourful, wears a headscarf, is always feeding you.”
However, these drawings aren’t always received well in the industry, says Oke. “If you, as a black artist, draw black characters, no one will employ you because they think that’s all you can draw. And I was told quite clearly that if I wanted to work I needed to draw white people. It’s good that someone’s that honest but really? Now?”
Oke’s decision to ignore that advice and draw as diversely as she wants has, in the end, made her work stand out. There are plans to release a short edition of Ding! in February, Oke and O’Kelly are working on another four stories – each set on a different form of public transport, and then there are children’s books for Oke to illustrate. The five-year-old Oke, who drew on walls at the family home and precociously declared she would one day be an illustrator, would have been proud.