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Stroke of genius: Award-winning pencil artist Kelvin Okafor

TALENTED: Kelvin Okafor

TOTTENHAM, AN area situated in the north London borough of Haringey, hasn't had an easy ride in the media.
It's been marred by riots, a spate of notorious killings and remains one of the most deprived areas in London.
Yet, despite its reputation, the area has birthed numerous success stories.

Be it UK rappers Wretch 32 and Chip to multi-million pound singer Adele, Tottenham - even with all its shortcomings - runs through the veins of some of the most notable and applauded names in music.

And award-winning photo realistic artist Kelvin Okafor looks set to keep that trend going.

Born to Nigerian parents in 1985, Okafor was raised in Tottenham and is proud to say he still resides there.
“Tottenham for me, despite the media and the tainted image it has - especially from the riots, it has always treated me well,” he says.

“Sometimes people [in the area] find themselves in unfortunate situations, but it's a very homely community. It makes you want to prevail and push forward. For some people it can be discouraging, but for others they can see it as a reason to push forward and work harder to get out of there.”

Okafor is definitely the latter, shedding the negativity associated with his place of birth to become one of the leading young artists in his field.

His detailed photo-like portraits, which range from celebrities including Michael Jackson, relatives and inspirational figures such as Mother Theresa, are created with the “humble pencil” - Okafor's signature instrument - and has seen him win praise from celebrities and collectors alike.

The Middlesex University fine art graduate has stunned critics with his incredible life-like drawings and has been showered with awards in tribute to his talents including The Catherine Petitgas Visitors Choice Prize, part of the National Open Art Competition.

And as of last week, Okafor can add his debut solo exhibition in Mayfair to his list of career milestones.


TINIE TEMPAH: “This is one of my earlier drawings of a favourite musician of mine, [UK rapper] Tinie Tempah”

“I would see it as one of my biggest achievements,” he says of the show, which runs until May 31 at the prestigious Albemarle Gallery.

The exhibition, opened by Tottenham MP David Lammy, has been frequented by a number of local stars, including fellow north London rapper Wretch 32.

“The thing about Wretch is he came to the private viewing on the Thursday and it was the first time I met him in person and it was a delight and honour. He's worked hard to get where he is,” Okafor says.

But there's one person he's hoping will add the royal seal of approval to proceedings and that's his most recent subject, the Duchess of Cambridge.

“The portrait I did of her has caught a lot of eyes at the exhibition,” he recalls. “I'm hoping her family has seen it. My business manager invited them to the private viewing, but I'm not too sure if she's seen it.”

Each piece of photo-realism, as the genre is known, takes between 80 to 100 hours to create using pictures or life models as inspiration, though Okafor admits it may have taken a little longer to complete his self-portrait.

“That was the most daunting experience I've had. I've always known I've had bushy, thick eyebrows, but wow,” he laughs. “It was a bit weird studying myself because I spend 100 hours on average drawing other people, so when it came to drawing me, it was a really tough experience.


SELFIE: Okafor said he noticed “just how bushy my eyebrows are” when completing his self-portrait

As a self-confessed “sensitive guy”, Okafor says a lot of emotions and memories flooded back to him while he was drawing himself.

“It was a really wonderful drawing experience, but at the same time it was a bit weird and a bit strange. I had to turn myself into a subject and study myself how I study other people. Just remembering little scars on my face when I cut myself trying to climb a fence, there were lots of memories flooding through.”

But he admits that challenges are what keeps him going. Since discovering his love of creating with a pencil, Okafor, who can now command £22,000 for one piece, struggled to show his traditional Nigerian parents how much potential value lay between him, his pencil and paper.

“I remember vividly falling in love with pencils. I found it fascinating how humble of an instrument it was and what it could do. I didn't understand at that age what hyper-realism was or the genre of that art was, but I loved creating things.


DUCHESS OF CAMBRIDGE: Okafor hopes the future Queen will one day see his portrait of her. It has been particularly popular at his exhibition

“There was some discouragement from my parents initially,” he admits. “They came from Nigeria and they wanted me, my younger brother and two older sisters to work in a place with secure income like a doctor or lawyer. They just couldn't understand how I could profit from art. But I kept on building my portfolio and working on my craft. I wasn't trying to get their approval, I just wanted them to see the passion I had.

“After my university end of year show in 2009, where one of my drawings sold, I think my dad was like, 'ok, maybe something could happen.’”

He adds: “ You can either get discouraged and not do something or it can fuel something inside you to prove to people you can do it.”

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