• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Celebrating Nigerian Folk Tales

The illustrated children's book Nkemdiche: Why We Do Not Grow Beards is the first publication of Ọkpara House. The author, Obiora Nwazota, describes Nkemdiche as a genesis story of African women and their knack for beautiful and elaborate hairdos. It's an Igbo-centric tale that captures the power, creativity and sacred practices of feminine beauty. The book's folklore celebrates the long-forgotten feminine beard, and the cover depicts our protagonist, Nkemdiche, and her beautiful beard by setting it to break from the color-blocking, creating a sense of dimension. Nkemdiche is an Igbo term that translates to "mine is different."


The shapely typeface Minérale was used for the title to reflect the creative uniqueness that Nkemdiche was known for. The cover’s secondary typeface is Kigelia, the first system of fonts for the most prominent writing systems throughout Africa.


I spoke with Nwazota about the book cover (which was selected as one of AIGA's 2021 50 Books | 50 Covers) and the tales that his Okpara press wants to bring into the world before they are lost forever.

You were born in Nigeria to a father who was a chief/judge and an agricultural scientist mother. This implies certain privileges. What inspired you to become an author/artist? Yes, I grew up privileged, but strict upbringing that curtailed life’s frivolities. As such, I sought solace in alternate spaces, forever lost daydreaming. I mainly lived in my head, dreaming up and creating escapes from the prison of my reality into imaginary worlds of freedom and play. In my teens, I left for America to study architecture and, in my practice, I naturally pushed against the restrictions and dictates of my discipline. I find no distinction between architecture, writing or being an artist. I find inspiration in the things I found to be necessary as compliments living and yet are missing from the world around me. The African (including all persons of African descent in the Diaspora) was once free both spiritually and materially. It is no secret that we as a people and race continue to be strategically miseducated. Our children are raised predominately in institutions dominated by a singular narrative. Our society lacks the inclusiveness of other narratives representative of the cultural diversity that is the Diaspora. In this case, the stories of my culture and traditions are not common knowledge to those that it concerns primarily. First off, I have to give special thanks to Nick Adam and Bud Rodecker of Span Studio for their submission and their excellent work on the cover and particular typesetting of Nkemdiche. I did not study graphic design and typography formally. However, I have practiced in this area since the beginning of my career under the tutelage of Eva Maddox. She instilled the seeds of incorporating a cross-disciplinary approach to design in me. My country of birth, Nigeria, is a melting pot of various tribes/mini-states with rich traditions and fascinating cultures. We have over 500 languages spoken in the country. For this book, I was interested in highlighting Igbo culture, and so began my 18-month extensive research into this vibrant culture. I aimed to distill my research into elements that would inspire a graphic style and language that our amazing illustrator, Lucie Van der Elst, then channeled into her vibrant illustrations. Later, when we began work with Span Studio, I encouraged Nick and Bud to go places unfamiliar to them and seek a language and style that was indigenous to the project. Inspired by the book mockup, storyboard, illustrations and research documents assembled, they proposed Minérale, designed by Lyon-based Thomas Huot-Marchand's 205TF studio, for the cover. For the body of the book, they presented Kigelia, designed by Neil Patel and Mark Jamra of JamraPatel. However, Kigelia wasn't yet available in the market, but we just had to have it, and JamraPatel was gracious to make it available for our use.



I come from the Igboland in Southeastern Nigeria. We are primarily an oral culture, although we had a writing system called Nsibidi, practiced by members of certain secret societies. Kigelia is a first-of-its-kind, 10-script, multi-style family developed to widen the accessibility of the internet and digital tools to African language communities. Beyond Fula visual languages like Adlam, Ajami alphabets, they designed a Latin alphabet that visually relates to Africa's most prominent writing systems. It contains a typographic richness and technical functionality previously unavailable for several languages on the African continent.

What was the motivation for creating this incredible book? A lack of representation of the African and, by extension, the right to define our image, has been the subject of sustained misrepresentation in literate history. As a result, I launched Okpara House publishing to create beautiful books that reimagine the vibrant Igbo folktales I grew up with in Nigeria. Spurred by a lack of representation, we create new narratives and assert control over our image and knowledge assets. We want to stimulate and normalize our story by connecting our present to our past. We are setting standards for African-inspired storybooks while making relevant our cultural assets on contemporary lifestyles.

Do you believe there is an increase in curiosity in the study of African culture and art that has spawned a book such as yours? I firmly believe that the world, and in particular the African Diaspora, has awakened to the idea that there is more to storytelling that goes beyond our current offerings.

Today, the Diaspora is at the vanguard of the Black mind's emancipation, and perhaps ultimately the instigator of any Black renaissance. The BLM protests in 2020 ripped the covers off and exposed a gaping hole in Black lives' concerns. A void created by a history of deliberate and institutional exclusion, normalized over time, continues to undermine our progress as a race systemically. This void should otherwise be the repository of our knowledge assets, spanning across time from our ancestral beginnings in Africa. There is a lot of work to be done moving forward. Institutionally, the right policies have to be in place to right the systemic wrongs against Black lives.

We have to be accountable and intentional in curating the quality of content we produce to address and fill this void of our life concerns. We have to create content that celebrates our beautiful essence, content that heals, nourishes and makes us stronger.



What was the most challenging aspect, if any, of telling your story?

One of the significant challenges of telling this story was a simple question: Can a storybook about bearded women be accepted and considered beautiful? How does one illustrate this novel idea in light of the standardized and all-too-familiar and powerful Western beauty standards that are narrow in their perception?


As so many other trends in the West have been adopted or stolen from indigenous cultures, do you see women wearing beards as possible here?

The critical element stolen here is not the beard used here as a metaphor but the meaning of hair in the African community. This hairstory is about the vibrant culture of power, creativity, sacredness and beauty of the African woman and her cosmos. It took a bit of brevity and self-belief that we could present a compelling albeit otherworldly narrative about a topic that continues to be subject to persecution to this day. Think the persecutions instigated by the Tignon law and current efforts to right things such as the Crown Act, etc.



What do you have planned as your next project?

I am already working on four illustrated storybooks. Okpara House will be expanding beyond books as we reimagine various aspects of Igbo cultural and knowledge assets to create new and exciting content. We are thrilled to bring attention to Ikenga, a sacred object and a powerful masculine spirit force of the Igbo people, reimagined and designed for contemporary lifestyles.



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