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“Virginia is for Artists” brings a colorful perspective to McIntire

The Connaughton Gallery, located on the third floor of Robertson Hall, features the work of U.Va. alumna Uzo Njoku from March 19 to June 14

<p>According to Dorothy Kelly, Lecturer of Personal Finance and member of the McIntire Art Committee – the group responsible for the selection of exhibits for this gallery – Njoku’s distinct, eye-catching style was one of the reasons her work was chosen to be displayed.</p>

According to Dorothy Kelly, Lecturer of Personal Finance and member of the McIntire Art Committee – the group responsible for the selection of exhibits for this gallery – Njoku’s distinct, eye-catching style was one of the reasons her work was chosen to be displayed.

Art might be the last thing on the minds of busy students rushing through the McIntire School of Commerce’s hallways. Yet if anyone is in search of a world-class respite from their studies, they need to look no further than the John P. and Stephanie F. Connaughton Gallery on the third floor of Robertson Hall. The gallery currently features the paintings and prints of contemporary visual artist Uzo Njoku in “Virginia is for Artists,” an exhibit on display until June 14.

Njoku, who refers to this exhibit as a “homecoming” on her Instagram, graduated from the University in 2019 with a degree in Studio Art. The works displayed in Robertson center a variety of Black figures in different states of community, from the neighborhood to the dinner table. While she uses a range of artistic mediums in the exhibit, such as acrylics, oil and print, the exhibit remains cohesive through the utilization of bold colors in each work. Viewers will immediately be struck by the wide swaths of blue, green, orange and more upon entering — a rainbow of bright hues that compel even the most casual onlooker to linger and look further.

The McIntire Art and Commerce Committee, a group composed of Commerce faculty and staff, is responsible for the selection of exhibits on display in the Connaughton Gallery. Njoku’s exhibit is one of a few examples of alumni-created work highlighted by the MAC Committee. According to Dorothy C. Kelly, MAC committee member and lecturer of personal finance, Njoku’s distinct style was one of the reasons her work was chosen to be displayed. 

“Her art is large, it’s big, it’s bold, it’s colorful,” Kelly said. “Having art that is different encourages different conversations, and that is part of creative problem solving.”

Furthermore, Njoku’s artistic trajectory combines both creative and business expertise. Njoku was born in Lagos, Nigeria and moved to the United States at age 7. Now, almost five years after graduating from the University, she is a prolific artist with exhibits in Washington D.C., brand projects with Walmart and 53,000 Instagram followers. In addition to canvas paintings, Njoku’s website features links to her art in other forms, like puzzles, prints, shirts and more. Her ability to translate her creative visions to commercially appealing products is a perfect example of how art and commerce can intersect.

Because of Njoku’s successes as an artist and as a business woman, Kelly said that showcasing her work is important for both McIntire and the University community at large, serving to inspire those who interact with the exhibit everyday. 

“[Njoku] is what she calls an ‘art-preneur’ — she’s very entrepreneurial,” Kelly said. “She’s using the kinds of skills we teach McIntire students to promote her art.” 

One student who has been struck by the presence of the exhibit is third-year Commerce student Jennifer Ferrufino-Morales. She said that the paintings have added a new sense of creativity to the atmosphere of McIntire.

“I think the paintings are very unique and attention grabbing, I honestly was mesmerized by the one with the person laughing and smiling,” Ferrufino-Morales said. “I think they’re really great paintings with lots of detail.”

One key piece observers should make sure to view is “New Rules,” which depicts a tennis player in pursuit of that perfect hit. The tennis court is eye-catching with its simple blue and white acrylics. The centerpiece, however, is the player herself — a young, Black woman, hair flying and arm outstretched. A pinpoint of green denotes the tennis ball just out of reach, about to make contact with her racket. The juxtaposition of the tension and fluidity of her body with the strong, rigid lines of the court makes for a visually memorable piece.

In this piece, Njoku has perfectly captured the physicality of what it means to be in the moment working towards the singular pursuit of a goal — a universal theme that surely resonates with hardworking Commerce students passing by on daily walks to class.

Third-year Commerce student Rachel Lin offered her perspective on why it is important for McIntire to exhibit such visually stimulating art, saying that studying how visuals can promote different messages has been a primary focus of her classes. Lin said she has enjoyed interacting with the exhibit because it exemplifies the connections between creative practices and her Commerce coursework.

“[In] communication and marketing, visuals play an important role in conveying one’s objectives effectively,” Lin said. “I believe the exhibit is a fantastic initiative that aligns well with the values promoted by the [Commerce] school.”

Other paintings in the collection that offer grounds for interesting conversation are “There was a Country” and “Jamboree.” Both feature a variety of Black figures dressed in light orange against a backdrop of olive green. They joyously converse and dance in different pairings of all ages. Yet when examined closely, the small details of each work reveal a possible divide in place and time period between the two paintings. 

By using past tense in the title and featuring sparse illustrations of grass, water and cows, “There was a Country” suggests that onlookers might be looking at a historical landscape. In contrast, “Jamboree” uses small details such as a stereo, a New York Yankees hat and a child playing hopscotch to allude to a more urban and modern setting. 

The structure of the gallery itself smartly invites further comparison of “There was a Country” and “Jamboree” by placing them on opposing sides of the same archway. Viewers can hold both in their eye at the same time, highlighting how a spirit of connection persists across external changes in place. 

Kelly said that this unique vigor has made the exhibit a must see for non-Commerce students and faculty as well. According to Kelly, many members of the University community routinely make the effort to pass through the Connaughton Gallery when on Grounds. 

“They work in different parts of the University, but their route always carries them through the third floor of the McIntire School so they can check out the latest exhibit,” Kelly said. 

From students to staff, “Virginia is for Artists” has already captured the attention of many University community members. With the exhibit set to remain in Robertson Hall through June 14, all those from across the University — not simply Commerce — should prioritize a trip to the Connaughton Gallery to engage with Njoku’s work. 

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