Art Study: Ivie Akinwumi’s work celebrates global surf culture

Ivie Akinwumi can sense water from a distance. Yes, like a dowser of old. When she discovered surfing she felt complete and her art found a muse. She now has built a cottage industry with her designs adorning everything from bags, clothing, iPhone cases and pillows.

Akinwumi’s perspective is a world away from the SoCal surf industry aesthetic. Her art celebrates women, particularly of African descent, who embrace and nurture their connection with water. Surfers like Nique Miller of Hawaii and Sambe Khadija are favorite subjects.

Ivie says that with her art she hopes to encourage those who are still hesitant to surf to just go ahead and jump in already. She sees wave pools as helping facilitate this new generation.

She teaches business English between prolific bouts of digital creation and somehow found time to talk to us about art, surfing and more.

Ivie’s work often incudes surfers like Nique Miller of Hawaii and Senegal’s first female surfer Sambe Khadija

First, tell us briefly about yourself and your art studies – you have a fashion business but are obsessed with surfing. How did that happen?

My name’s Ivie Akinwumi (pronounced “eve-yay Ah-KIN-woo-me”) and I am a Nigerian illustrator based in France. For as long as I remember, I have always been that person with extra pencils in my bag and a thousand and one sketchbooks of ideas ranging from clothes to comics laying around the house. I moved to France years ago in order to study design in the hopes of becoming a designer. 

An Art Foundation, a Fashion Communication Masters and a few jobs later, I grew increasingly frustrated with the limiting nature of the work I was getting in the fashion industry; I wanted more. After another disappointing job experience, I took to drawing again. The more I drew, the more uplifted I felt and the stronger my desire grew to use this as an expression of self. I started looking more introspectively, recalling all the things that really filled me with inner joy and brought me to life. It didn’t take too long before surfing emerged.

It would be impossible to talk about my fascination with surfing without discussing my intense love of water. From the age of 1, I was constantly said to have had a relationship with the element. My father, an avid swimmer and waterman himself, would give me my first taste of the ocean when I was but a year plus and that was it – I was hooked! “Yeye jump wata”, Yewande (my other name) jumped in the water, I would scream to all who cared to listen. What was even stranger, my father tells me, was my ability to sense water from a distance. I would scream “yeye jump wata” until my parents had had enough and would go searching until they came upon a large body of water, lake, ocean – it didn’t matter. I felt it, and I wanted to be in it. This love gradually made its way to all forms of water activities including surfing, which I had always admired and recently have taken up. Uh-oh kook alert!

Ivie Akinwumi
Ivie Akinwumi’s work encourages women to get in the water, whether it’s surfing a wave pool or just feeling the waves

I’ve always had a ton of respect for surfers. The sport is beautiful as it is baffling. There’s so much to take into account, your physical strength, the board, the waves, the currents, the sea creatures and did I mention your mind and emotions? Kelly Slater really hit the nail on the head when he said “it’s all about where your mind’s at.” 

Surfing attracted me for a plethora of reasons, the most obvious one being any excuse to get in the water. Secondly, that feeling of gliding through the ocean waves. Also, after paddleboarding a few years ago, surfing just felt like the next natural step – and boy, is it a hypnotic one!

The easygoing surfers, the smell of the ocean, the crashing waves, the different surfboards, the sunsets, the whole vibe of it all – it’s not hard to see why I was seduced into wanting to live it and paint it. 

I recently moved from Paris to Normandy because I wanted to be closer to the sea. Granted it’s not the Atlantic but the English channel has its charm and is just about an hour away from home.

I am still learning about wave pools and have flirted with the idea of going to one. I think it could be pretty useful for inland folks who don’t get the chance to skip town for the coast ever so often and for those who would love to discover the sport before venturing out into the ocean.

I remember being told about women who were often encouraged to go bathe in bodies of water and seek out venerated water goddesses like Yemoja, Oya or Mami Wata for children, husbands or wealth; goddesses known for granting wishes but also notorious for claiming many lives who encroached their territory. Women being labeled Mami Wata, an evil sirene, because they were too “seductive” and were out to ruin men.

What do you hope to share with your art – good vibes and/or social, climate or political commentary?

Definitely good vibes but I would also say social commentary. My art celebrates women, particularly of African descent, who embrace and nurture their connection with water. By doing this, I also hope to encourage those who are still hesitant to do the same. Kind of like that friend in the water who won’t stop telling you how much you are missing out on, you know. “Just get in already! This could be you but you’re too busy holding back”. 

I was very fortunate to have grown up in a household that encouraged swimming and water activities at a very young age. My father made sure we all learned to swim quite early and he and my mum would take us to the beach every Sunday after church. It was a family tradition. That or we would go boat riding in Ouidah, Benin. The point is, we were made to feel comfortable around water. 

Sadly, this wasn’t and still isn’t the case for a number of others. As a child, I frequently found myself in situations where I was one of the very few swimmers and usually when there were, it would be boys probably because the public burden of “concealing” their bodies was not placed on them as much as it was on girls. Besides this, there are a lot of cultural practices, myths, beliefs and history tied to water. In my experience, water always seems to simultaneously carry a sense of mysticism and menace in its wake.

I remember being told about women who were often encouraged to go bathe in bodies of water and seek out venerated water goddesses like Yemoja, Oya or Mami Wata for children, husbands or wealth; goddesses known for granting wishes but also notorious for claiming many lives who encroached their territory. Women being labeled Mami Wata, an evil sirene, because they were too “seductive” and were out to ruin men. The Igbo Landing (the historic mass suicide of the enslaved in search of freedom) is also a very present and painful memory. Basically, fun is not usually the first word that springs to mind when speaking of the ocean or any large body of water. Some of these reasons, I think, have colored the perception of water oftentimes in negative ways. 

There is much to be said about a woman who is able to drown (I’m owning this pun) or at the very least silence these voices and embrace the ocean, the sea or any body of water and claim it as hers. She is free. And don’t get me started on the woman who rides waves. Can you imagine joyously mounting the very thing you and others are taught to fear.

ivie akinwumi art

Hawaii’s Nique Miller is featured in a few of your works. Share with us some of the stories behind the subjects you chose to illustrate.

She is quite fun to watch. Watching her surf videos makes me want to hop on the next flight to Waikiki! More seriously, listening to and reading her interviews gave me a tiny insight into what an incredibly driven and passionate woman she is. She does not allow her circumstances to define her by any means and I think there’s a lot to take away from that. I also love that she profoundly enjoys longboarding. Something about longboarding just slows time and I like that.

Covid-19 has limited little treasured getaways with my husband so I have been getting a lot of inspiration from Instagram accounts and boy, have I come across beautiful and awe-inspiring women. 

I would say I am inspired by women who just go for it, despite circumstances, despite what society expects, despite feeling alone, despite pushback, or even despite their own personal fears.

Khadija Sambe also comes to mind. An amazing surfer, the first female one of her country, Senegal (another destination I can’t wait to visit). She overcame unthinkable odds to connect with this side of herself. And now, she has been nominated for a Webby award. How incredible is that? 

Women like Rhonda Harper and Gigi Lucas are priceless gems who have not only paved their way in the surf industry, but are carrying along girls and women alike and reconstructing their perspectives on water and themselves. 

Everyday water women who get so much pleasure in surfing and being in the water whenever they get the chance are also inspirational. Women who have found ways to incorporate the sport into their lives and use it as an expression of self-love and care. 

Women basking in the ambiance of other water activities are another source of inspiration for me. I remember coming across Zandi Ndhlovu and thinking wow, she just never ceases to amaze me with her freediving adventures. She just has this easy grace about her underwater and the way she shares her encounters and lessons is all so mesmerizing.

Ivie Akinwumi
étretat (image on the right) with its famous rock formation is the nearest spot for landlocked surfers in Paris – that is until La Vague Grande Paris wave pool opens up

How do you navigate the art world to earn a living?

This is a new venture for me, so living solely based on my earnings from art is not a reality yet. I have chosen to teach Business English which affords me some flexibility and time for making art. At the moment, I earn money through commissions and merchandise. I am looking forward to growing the latter, there are some pretty amazing mediums to explore. 

What is your favorite work of art and why?

I don’t have a favorite work of art because that changes often for me. However, I can mention a few artists that I greatly enjoy at the moment. I’m a huge fan of Nigerian artist, Ndidi Emefiele. I love almost every single one of her pieces, however, “They Came to See God,” has to be one of my favorites at the moment. I love it for its juxtaposition; it’s bold yet coy and sensual yet innocent at the same time. What I love about Ndidi Emefiele’s paintings are their playful, slightly sad and daring nature. The women almost always have this look they give the viewer – sometimes audacious, sometimes nostalgic.  

The British-Liberian artist Lina Iris Viktor’s “Syzygy” piece gets me every time. She does a breathtaking job of mixing paint and photography to create this bold, regal and somewhat mystical portrait in rich blue and gold. 

I most recently discovered Calida Rawles and I am smitten by the serenity and beauty of her work. Hopefully, some day I am able to make art as powerful as theirs.