A ‘Soft and Spiritual Way’ The Restrained Dreaminess of Isabel Okoro’s Normatopia

In response to the violence Black people around the world routinely face, Nigerian photographer, Isabel Okoro has been situating her work in what she terms ‘normatopia’. A normatopia is normal, not perfect; a middle ground between the harshness of reality and the dreaminess of utopias.

The first time I meet Isabel Okoro is in the lobby of her apartment building in Toronto, Canada. It is mid-April 2022 and I have commuted 40 minutes on the Toronto Transit Commission’s subway line to pick up her then-newly released book, Friends In Eternity. The exchange is brief, and she tells me thanks for the purchase, as I cradle the text in my hands. I respond that I am looking forward to thinking with it. The purchase and interaction buoy me home with enough excitement that it almost makes up for the wintry chill and the long ride back.

I had only just begun to follow Okoro’s career. While we had briefly attended the same high school in Hamilton in Ontario, we had never spoken. I barely knew of her and likely would not have noticed her work till years later were it not for a recommendation from my cousin on a trip to Halifax, a few months prior. I had been bemoaning my lack of awareness of any interesting Nigerian artists in the diaspora. A literary lover all my life, I was somewhat well acquainted with what books to read and which authors were doing interesting work, but with visual art, I was a neophyte.

I could not have picked a better entrance into this world. Okoro’s work manages to pull off that magic trick few creatives can accomplish: be warmly welcoming to a lay audience, and simultaneously layered and complex for the more critical eye.

Friends of Eternity. Image courtesy of Isabel Okoro.


Our interview for this profile happens over Zoom in late Fall, 2022. We have both turned off our cameras to accommodate for connectivity issues—she is visiting Lagos, while I am in Toronto. Her voice is slow and unhurried, and the absence of any visual cues forces me to listen intently so as not to interrupt before she is done speaking. (Quotes have been edited for clarity and conciseness.)

Okoro tells me she is a self-taught photographer who was introduced to pictures as a child growing up in Lagos by her mother. She narrates to me:

My mom is someone who is really big on photography. Not necessarily taking photos, but modelling and documenting photos of the house, of the family and the people around us. She always had cameras. I would take note of what was going on there. 

I ask if it was love at first sight. She says it was not, but instead, a gradual process that began in exploration and culminated in a realization that this could be a way to tell intentional stories and to document the moments she was living through.

A key hindrance to this realization was of course the narrative of the ideal career path—that is, Nigerians should be lawyers, doctors, and engineers—which renders artmaking into a hobby. Moving to Canada, however, and seeing the work of other young Black artists like herself helped displace this limiting view and revealed a horizon she could make her own. She reflects to me that:

I didn’t have my own personal camera until I moved to Canada a few years later, but just being in certain environments allowed things to seem more possible, in a way, and I could share it on Tumblr. It basically gave me access. That access was definitely a privilege.

When I asked her what she studied at the University of Toronto Scarborough, I am tickled by her response—Neuroscience and Psychology, two very practical majors that reveal the pressures of societal expectations, but also the desire to live up to the dreams of your family. Like many other young Nigerian immigrants, Okoro confides that her parents sacrificed a lot so she could move here to study medicine and become a doctor. While she has carved her own path, it is clear that her success was made possible by the love of her family, and that the lessons along the way have indelibly shaped her practice.

Friends of Eternity. Image courtesy of Isabel Okoro.


In August 2022, I encounter Okoro again. This time it is via her work in an exhibit curated by Roya Del Sol, a Toronto-based media artist. BLACK_BOX is an immersive experience that was housed at Trinity Square Video during its run. The artists behind it include instructions on how to interact with it and I take my time wandering from piece to piece. I am struck by BLACK_BOX’s ambition—it positions itself as an archive of Black knowledge, and simultaneously a speculative space that suggests future paths.

I sit in front of Okoro’s contribution, a short film titled the other side of Dreaming. In it, two Black boys laze on the shores of Dreaming, a small coastal town in Okoro’s imagined world ‘Eternity’. Responding to an invitation culled from British artist, John Akomfrah’s film, ‘The Last Angel of History’, the two boys race to discover another world on the other side of Dreaming and find a black box nestled among rocks.

Okoro’s title sits with me as I leave the exhibition. What might it mean to attempt to reach the other side of our dreams? I take it out every once in a while, and chew on it. I had never been arrested as much by a phrase and the intellectual labour it demands.


Matters of the Heart. Image courtesy of Isabel Okoro.

Isabel Okoro. Image courtesy of Isabel Okoro.


Like my artistic and academic curiosities, Okoro’s work straddles Nigeria and the diaspora and seems unafraid of syncretization and hybridity—it lays claim to our heritage while steadily extending its reach for generations born elsewhere. This might be one reason I and so many others are drawn to it. Her work also rejects disciplinary boundaries, and her answers reveal an unwillingness to be boxed neatly or categorized. For instance, she notes to me that while she is in a community with a number of artists who would lay claim to the alté label, she herself does not.

Okoro eschews identity politics noting that her roots influence her work on an innate level, but her Nigerian-ness, African-ness, Black-ness, and queer-ness do not comprise a hyphenate bounded space into which her craft can be shoehorned. She prefers, instead, that her work be defined by the values it engenders instead: ‘love, friendship, kindness, community, communication, movements, and just hope’. These are values that one might argue are universal themes across most human cultures. Certainly, she confides her interest in the idea of journeys, movement, the search for harmony and community, and unity across differing spaces. From a specific locus of experience, Okoro wants to speak across borders, tribes, and siloed-off groups.

In our present socio-political moment of japa—the mass abandonment of Nigeria for imagined greener pastures—can one expect anything different from young Nigerian artists? If we are caught in a flow of migration that moves us between multiple locales, then what does authenticity look like? How is emerging Nigerian art responding to the new sensibilities of a swelling diaspora? By leaving behind the local for the universal? By taking up a studied cosmopolitanism? We are almost all moving toward a foreign and distant hope—innumerable Naomis off to our Moabs for some respite.

As John Babalola observes for The Republic, ‘perhaps the most prevalent prayer in the minds of young Nigerians…is the acquisition of Canadian citizenship or residency.’ Both Okoro and I, who have studied at the University of Toronto, can be numbered among those who have left in search of other homes. Unlike me, however, Okoro can be numbered among those on the flipside—those who return. While at times residing in Toronto, she regularly returns to Lagos where she collaborates with other artists. She is critical, however, of the conditions that prompt so many of us to leave. She tells me:

For Nigerians and Africans in general, and quite frankly People of Colour from a lot of third-generation countries, it’s quite unfortunate that we have to leave our home countries in search for better lives. It’s always that idea of leaving to go to the West for the better. And just considering how that situation is based on something that the West inflicted on us, it’s kind of fucked up.

While she moved to Canada in search of a better life, she is also aware that the circumstances motivating such a choice are enacted by structures beyond her control. Here, Okoro expresses a political consciousness that is critical of the legacies of colonialism and its afterlife in structuring Nigerian ruling relations. A consciousness that is not dissimilar from earlier Nigerian artists whose art, literature, and poetry have always seriously reckoned with the conditions that contributed to the formation of the contemporary Nigerian state.

In response to the quotidian violence of the Black experience, Okoro posits what she terms ‘normatopia’. She sites its development amid the outcry from Black populations in North America and Nigeria in 2020. A normatopia is normal, not perfect, a middle ground between the harshness of reality and the dreaminess of utopias. Normatopia, one might venture, is a where. She begins by telling me about how the idea of Black utopias had become all the rage in creative spaces following the resurgence of Afrofuturist modalities. Discontent with the idea of utopia—‘I didn’t want to spend my life trying to create this perfect world because that doesn’t really exist,’ she says—she develops normatopia as a practice that enabled her to attend to the vagaries of reality while still moving forward to somewhere better. What happens in this slippage? Okoro tells me that normatopia allows people the right to be, the freedom to express themselves and reckon with human imperfection.

One might therefore understand normatopia as the making of relational waystations between the now and the next. Okoro’s particular normatopic universe is called Eternity. Eternity much like Lagos and Toronto features coastal areas and is influenced by water aesthetics. Okoro is still defining Eternity, establishing this world, and watching it acquire further textures with each return she makes to it. There is something about this iterative process of world-building that strikes me as escapist, a crevice within which to burrow and shelter from the bullshit of the world but Okoro shies away from this label. She corrects me when I miss her point: ‘An escape, but not necessarily an escape,’ she says, ‘because I still want people to see that our realities are not too far off from this place, more so like a little chamber of reflection, a space for meditation.’

I find myself thinking of recent calls not for safe spaces, but brave ones. Leftist rhetorical wrangling aside, Nigerians do not need safe spaces that lull us into complacency and allow us to pretend we are not engaged in struggles for survival. Things are far too gone for that. Art that holds us a mirror while still asking us questions about where we might go next, however, is a different bargain altogether. We need spaces in which we might bravely confront our past, reckon with our present, and chart our futures. Normatopia might be one way of building such places.

As a cultural geographer, I am excited about this larger conceptual project. I am reminded of her 2021 collaboration with noted Black geographer, Katherine McKittrick, in Is Love A Synonym for Abolition? While pressed on which schools of thought she grounds her work in, Okoro says none. Nevertheless, it is the art, stories, and scholarship of Black feminists who have been thinking and writing about flight, place, and power that I find myself lingering on as I think about our conversation. Okoro’s contribution to this collaboration is a transdisciplinary intermingling of poetry and photography that sketches intimacy and relationality. The spaces she builds transgress the violence of our moment to transport us elsewhere. Her subjects look past the camera with such tenderness, it is difficult to believe they are static. Is Love, indeed.

Matters of the Heart. Image courtesy of Isabel Okoro.


I have my first face-to-face conversation with Okoro months after the interview in May 2023. It has taken me almost half a year to transcribe the interview and write the first draft of this profile—my responsibilities as a graduate student take over my life shortly after our conversation. I apologize for this, but she demurs kindly. We are at her latest exhibition, Matters of the Heart, in Toronto’s Dovercourt village. I arrive over an hour late, nervous and sweaty and it takes me an extra half hour to find the entrance to the tucked-away gallery. After consulting social media, I realize that there is an Instagram story advising visitors to follow chalk-drawn arrows on the pavement.

The difficulty associated with finding the gallery perfectly mirrors an observation Okoro makes of her work at a subsequent artist talk. She tells us that she is most concerned that her work is accessible and available to people who she is in community with—those who look like her, family, and friends—everyone else is extra. I think immediately of the ways subaltern communities leave codes only decipherable to their members. Unintended metaphor, or practical consideration, it results in a show that feels intimate, private, and opaque to the peeking Western eye as well as a rejection of liberal preoccupations with being seen and understood in order to be rendered human.

Matters of the Heart is the most personal I have ever encountered Okoro’s work. On the walls hang images of her friends and fellow Black creatives in Toronto. A few of them, I can surmise from their names in the accompanying art statements, are Nigerian. Each piece in the exhibition functions as a ‘show and tell’ with the photographed subject often cradling a special object—their ‘matter of the heart’—with an accompanying statement that describes the personal relation being represented. Most of the pieces thread an ongoing theme of maternal love and affection by including objects that represent a connection to a mother or grandmother.  It soon becomes apparent that many of the gallery’s visitors are the pictured friends as they take pictures alongside their corresponding diptych or triptych. Many hug Okoro, and a few make her pose alongside the diptych revealing her own ‘matter of the heart’—jewellery gifted to her by her mother at birth.

At an artist talk on the exhibit, Okoro tells us that in making the images, she was intentional about practising care before, during and after each shoot. ‘People want to feel like they matter,’ she notes. ‘They do not want to feel used,’ and she certainly does not want to use people. During the Q&A session following the talk, an audience member describes her practice as a ‘soft, spiritual way’. I am struck by this quote, and the opportunities it outlines.

Nigeria and her people often express gra-gra. Even when we turn to religion for solace in the middle of our quotidian turmoil and overlapping crises, we are told to roar like wounded lions and make strident demands of heaven—at least in church. The notion of a soft spirituality feels almost alien to the Nigerian way. Yet, there is something compelling about the idea. That art can be a balm or a praxis of love and vulnerability that pushes us to openly connect with each other. Perhaps this is what is needed for those of us rebuilding our lives after japa. A modality of patience and gentle care that binds us together in the diaspora, makes space for us to hug each other, and reveal the matters of our own hearts.

Matters of the Heart. Image courtesy of Isabel Okoro.


Where is Okoro headed next? She laughs off my incredulity when she describes herself as still emerging: ‘I don’t think I’ve done anything yet’. I disagree, she is working as a full-time artist, has been featured in a number of exhibits, and her work was acquired by the Art Gallery of Ontario. She has also published a book and has a portfolio that is already a prolific body of work. She tells me, however, that she is always meeting people who have been working as artists for decades. Compared to them, she still has a long way to go. She wants to get to a place where the anxiety of what comes next does not hold her back from creating whatever she wants to create.

My copy of Friends in Eternity is starting to get worn from use, just a year after its publication. I find myself lingering on the images on its pages often. I have precious few visual art materials that speak of home. As I flip through it, I am struck by the question with which she closes her book—just how far are we from this normatopia?

On my fraying cover of the book, a girl stands, hands on hips, shoulders covered by a makeshift cape, and masked eyes looking forward as though already seeing the other side of that dream

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