Are These Digital Photo’s Or Drawings? The Amazing Talent of Kelvin Okafor

Lauryn Hill by Kelvin Okafor
Lauryn Hill by Kelvin Okafor

AFRICANGLOBE – Stare closely at the top picture on this page. What do you think it took to create this beautiful image? An expensive camera, a precision lens, hours of trial and error from a skilled photographer?

Well, the answer is none of the above.

This extraordinarily detailed picture is a pencil drawing, created purely by hand – with no digital trickery – by Nigerian artist Kelvin Okafor, whose only tools are a set of pencils, a piece of paper and the occasional stick of charcoal. Yet no matter how closely one looks, there’s not a pencil line in sight.

The artist’s story is almost as sensational as the pictures he has been producing since he was a teenager who was too poor to leave his house to socialise. Instead of drinking and clubbing, Kelvin Ofakor, now 27, stayed at home in Tottenham, North London, seeking solace in drawing. Now it looks as if he’s on his way to fame and fortune.

Today, an exhibition of his work opens at London’s Science Museum – and already some of his portraits are changing hands for £10,000 apiece. This week, a portrait he drew of King Hussein of Jordan is to be presented to the late monarch’s widow, Queen Noor.

Anyone can commission a portrait, though he will charge anything from £800 to £3,000 for his work. He says he prefers to work from photographs rather than real life – partly because of the length of time he spends on each picture.

Amy Winehouse by Kelvin Okafor
Amy Winehouse by Kelvin Okafor

So how does Kelvin Okafor create these incredible works of art? “Before I start drawing, I spend a few hours – even a few days – analysing the face from every angle. I usually start with the eyes. From there, I make the whole shape of the face and I work in the detail.

“I draw in sections. I’m right-handed so I work from left to right. After I’ve finished the left eye, I work the nostrils, then the left side of the cheek, then the lips. I always work in that order.

“I work for four hours in one go, take a half-hour break, work another four to five hours, then have another half-hour break. After that I’ll work for as long as I can. Sometimes I might work ten to 15 hours in one day. It takes me on average 80 to 100 hours to do a portrait.”

He says the importance of hard work was impressed upon him, his brother and two sisters by their parents. His father, who now works in the oil industry, was originally a warden looking after a council estate; his mother stayed at home to bring up the children. For this is a story not just about an incredible craftsman but of the triumph of the human spirit, the value of faith and a strong, loving family. “Absolutely. My parents came to this country from Nigeria so that their children could have a better life. They instilled the message that hard work pays off.”

Education mattered, too. His parents, practising Catholics, fought for him to attend St Ignatius College, a prestigious Jesuit school in Enfield, several miles away from there home – whose ex-pupils include Alfred Hitchcock and Beatles producer Sir George Martin.

Kelvin Okafor says: “Most teenagers experiment a lot with their life. They have their experiences.” He means drink and drugs.”I didn’t have that. But, to be honest, I didn’t want it anyway. I was too busy trying to focus on my craft.”

Kelvin Okafor, who had gained nine GCSEs, went on to study art at Middlesex University. It was here he found his true vocation. “When I draw, I’m doing something I love. I lose myself in my art. Time doesn’t matter to me.”

Incredibly, he was so absorbed in his work he was at first oblivious to the riots which were raging through his neighbourhood during summer 2011.

“I was drawing at the time. My house is a minute away from where it was happening. I heard helicopters and I thought: ‘What’s going on?’ Then I went outside and saw people running around, and I started getting phone calls asking: ‘Kelvin, are you OK? There’s a riot in Tottenham.’ It was a big shock to me.”

Princess by Diana Kelvin Okafor
Princess by Diana Kelvin Okafor

Kelvin Okafor believes he might never have become an artist had he not needed to look for a distraction. For his upbringing was far from privileged – not that he is the sort of person to complain about life.

He grew up in one of the country’s poorest areas, where he still lives with his family. As an 11-year-old, he returned home with his family from an extended holiday to find their house had been repossessed.

“It was just before I started secondary school and my life changed completely. We were homeless – not living on the street but we didn’t have a house for ourselves for the next three years. We moved from place to place, from cousin to cousin.”

He lived in five different homes over the course of just a few years – before eventually moving into a council flat, where the family remain today.

Why did the family lose the house? “I never knew. I just came back from Nigeria and found we weren’t living in that house any more. I’ve never really wanted to press my parents on the subject. I just accepted what had happened and moved on.

“It was a struggle. That’s why I spent a lot of time by myself, drawing. I didn’t have the luxury of going out and spending money.”

Today, his greatest pleasure is the pride he knows his success gives his parents. The other day, his local TV news carried a short item about him.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad cry before. But he cried when he saw me and my art on the BBC. And my mum. Everyone was emotional. I was crying. It makes me feel happy to know I am making my family proud. That means the most to me. It makes me want to work harder and do more.”