Artist Alexandria Eregbu grew up in Iowa, but she and her family would often travel to her great-grandparents’ house in East Garfield Park.
“My great-grandfather was a photographer who built a dark room in the basement,” she recalled during a recent interview. “Seeing his work over four decades, and Chicago as it changed over time, is inspiring.”
Her great-grandmother, a master quilter, was another major source of inspiration.
“She was one of the reasons why I learned and started to sew,” Eregbu said. “And perhaps one of the reasons why I’m so obsessed with cloth and fibers.”
So when it was time to go to college, she knew that she wanted to study art and that she wanted to study it in Chicago. She attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
By Eregbu’s own account, actually becoming an artist wasn’t easy, but her work and persistence eventually paid off. Now living in Austin, she specializes in three-dimensional pieces that feature a wide variety of materials.
Eregbu draws upon her family’s legacy, as well as the traditions of African Americans and Nigeria, her father’s homeland.
According to her website, Eregbu uses a wide array of materials in her work — including feathers, obsidian, indigo dye, granite tombstones, cowrie shells, daisies, rhinestones, cotton, linen, Kanakelon hair and black vinyl.
She uses them to create objects and installations of various sizes. Photography is a component of many of her installations. While her great-grandmother’s work was a major influence, Eregbu said she gravitated toward textiles in large part because of the energy of “communities of people.”
In college, she said, the art history curriculum lacked any information about black artists—American or otherwise. She added that it wasn’t until after she graduated that she really started to explore her heritage on her father’s side of the family, delving into the culture and art of the Igbo and Yoruba people, who live in Nigeria and other West African countries.
“I have been looking to the philosophy, culture and traditions of West Africa as a way to not only approach things differently in the studio, but also add the new dimensions on perspective [and] also engaging the audience and how we present and talk about art,” she said.
She found that many ideas that are part of her heritage — such as the dualism motifs, how what people observe in heavens reflect what they experience on earth, the view of nature as “a resource of knowledge and answers”— were missing from her college curriculum.
But Eregbu believes that many of these elements were influencing her even without her consciously aware of their influence.
“I didn’t understand what it was that was drawing me to those things until I understood energy and spirit, the use of spirit to conjure, to protect,” she said. “This is all deeply embedded within not only the artistic practices of the Igbo and Yorrba people, but the values and philosophies of the people.”
After Eregbu graduated in 2013, she, like a lot of her peers, struggled not just to make a living through art, but to make time to create art at all.
“It was difficult.” she said. “I was struggling through work, I could barely afford my rent, yada yada.”
Eventually, Eregbu realized that, even if she couldn’t make the living through art, she should at least make “a very intentional effort” to find ways to be involved in the art world.
She applied for artist residencies and became a curator, which turned out to be just what she needed.
“Learning from artists who were my peers and colleagues was really inspiring,” Eregbu said. “And I think the few years’ time I spent in this endeavor was the motivation to get my butt back into the studio and start making work on my own. And that’s when things started to unfold. I started getting more shows, more residencies.”
In 2016, Eregbu had her first solo exhibition outside of Chicago. Since then, she has exhibited in many other places. Most recently, she was a visiting lecturer at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Ore. She’s also completed a Camargo Foundation residency at Cassis, France.
While Eregbu said that, as a woman of color, she experienced discrimination, she doesn’t believe she experienced it when she pursued her career as an artist.
“I don’t really like to think about race and gender really being a factor,” she said. “At the end of the day, I know that I put my intentions forward and everything that’s come to me is supposed to be.”
Eregbu has been living in Chicago for the past 7 years, and she’s been living in Austin with her maternal grandmother, a long-time community resident, since 2015.
“It’s really strange to say, because Chicago is histrionically a black and indigenous city, but it’s a breath of fresh air to live in a predominantly black neighborhood,” she said. “Being able to walk down the sidewalk and seeing folks not only who look like me, but who knew my family — it’s something that’s becoming rare.”