Nigerian Artist Tonia Nneji Weaves Her Health Struggles Into Her Work

The 28-year-old artist talks about religion, superstition, and her ”traumatic, dramatic” experience with polycystic ovarian syndrome

Nigeria’s Rele Gallery made its Los Angeles debut earlier this year with Orita Meta, an exhibit of works by Nigerian artists Marcellina Akpojotor,  Chidinma Nnoli, and Tonia Nneji.

Nneji’s richly colored and intricate works illuminate a painful subject, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and how her experience with the condition informs her feelings about religion, superstition, and more.

In advance of the exhibit’s closing on March 27, Nneji, 28, answered questions via email about her powerful practice.

Your art has served to draw attention to PCOS—what was your experience with the condition? Did you have trouble being treated in a meaningful way?

My experience with PCOS has been traumatic, dramatic, and life changing. I could go from being strong one minute, to feeling tired the next. PCOS is pain, depression, weakness, insomnia, hair loss, among other things. My experience with it has made me understand the value of being healthy. Yes, I’ve had and still have trouble being treated in a meaningful way. Every doctor wants to experiment and try their techniques/drugs on me. It kind of feels like being a lab rat. The collapsed health care system here in Nigeria also contributes to the stress of gaining meaningful treatment, financially and emotionally.

How does religion come into play in your work?

I come from a society steeped in superstitious beliefs and health issues tend to be considered as a form of attack by spiritual forces from home. Even in educated communities, a woman’s health issues can be seen as their fault or the result of a disagreement with someone else. My cousin took me to religious institutions because he felt I would get help there, not minding the fact that PCOS was a known medical condition. I went with him to appreciate his love and concern, and to gain first-hand experience of several religious practices. In the context of my work, I was interested in exploring the role religion has had in shaping our perception of health and illness.

Detail from Tonia Nneji, I Want to Tell You a Story, 2020

Ian Byers-Gamber, Courtesy of Rele Gallery

Why are fabrics so important in your pieces?

Fabrics are important in my pieces because they remind me of my mother’s sacrifice—she had to sell some of her precious fabrics to foot my medical bills in the beginning—as well as my journey to seeking healing and also as a testament to my engagement with religion.

What do you think is so powerful about the support women provide for other women?

The fact that there’s someone who fully understands your symptoms and doesn’t make you feel like you’re exaggerating or overreacting, is always a relief, and is the most powerful part of the women support groups.

Tonia Nneji, Sit and Listen (II), 2020

Photo by Ian Byers-Gamber, Courtesy of Rele Gallery

Have you had an opportunity to meet or bond with the other women in the show? Has there been anything new or remarkable about exhibiting in Los Angeles?

I know the other artists personally. We share a bond that actually got deeper when we started working with Rele Gallery and we’ve gotten closer over the years. Although this isn’t my first exhibition in L.A., it is such a welcoming place for art and that always makes it really special.

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