Zizah Okeugo: The Story Behind the Brushstrokes

Re-Route Magazine
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9 min read
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May 18, 2024

From the Oxford Dictionary:

ei·det·ic (adjective) - relating to or denoting mental images having unusual vividness and detail, as if actually visible.

In a world where verbal communication is the norm, non-verbal communication can be seen as a disadvantage. However, Zizah Okeugo defies this notion with his extraordinary talent for art.

As an eidetic artist, Zizah has the ability to recall images he has been exposed to briefly and put them on paper in detail. His mother, Esther Okeugo, shared with us the journey of navigating Zizah's autism diagnosis and how their family came together to gain a deeper understanding of him.

Photo of Zizah, a 12 year old boy from Nigeria. His skin is black and eyes are brown. He is smiling at the camera. And wearing a gray camo shirt under a white one. He seems to be indoors. There is an african mask artwork behind him.
Zizah Okuego

Despite the lack of formal art classes, Zizah uses art as a means of communication, creating his art from his eidetic memory. His favorite subject was Simba from The Lion King, but he has now progressed to creating more complicated abstract art with bright colors, working with pencils, crayons, and acrylics on paper or canvas. Although limited in verbal communication, Zizah's talent has been recognized in exhibitions such as Eidetic Impressions and A Solo Art Exhibition in 2021 in Nigeria. He is a natural musician and loves swimming, taking pictures, and horse riding. Through his art, we can catch a glimpse of the way Zizah sees his life and the world around him, inspiring us all to appreciate the beauty of our unique perspectives.

Zizah's journey to understanding himself hasn't been without its challenges. Still, his story highlights the strength and growth that can result from unconditional love and acceptance. With the support of his family and the growing Nigerian advocacy for neurodiversity, Zizah's future as an artist and advocate looks bright. His unique talents can inspire others and raise awareness about inclusion and acceptance in our society.

Re-Route Magazine (RR Mag): Hi Esther, it's great to speak with you today! Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to chat with us. We have been researching Zizah's art career in anticipation of our conversation with you. We are excited to learn more about his journey and artistic process. I would also like to commend you on your efforts to support autistic children through the Haven for Autism Foundation, and I'd like to hear more about your goals for the organization. Thank you so much for sharing your family's story with us.

As I learned about Zizah, one thing that stood out consistently was the loving and supportive family dynamic shared by you, Paul, and Zizah. Could you share your family's experience of navigating Zizah's autism diagnosis and how you all came together to gain a deeper understanding of him?

Esther Okeugo: It was obvious to us early on that we had a child who was not meeting developmental milestones. At some point, we even convinced ourselves that he was deaf. He was exhibiting behaviors that were not typical and personal research of those behaviors pointed toward autism. As parents who love their child and want the best for him, we knew we had to do our utmost best to help him in any way we could. For us, there was no time to be in denial as we learned early intervention was important. Our first reaction was feeling relief at having an explanation for what we suspected and being hopeful that we could finally get the help we needed. However, finding the right resources, especially in Nigeria, where resources were not readily available, was tough. It impacted our family emotionally, financially, and psychologically. When we started the intervention, therapy took place both at school and at home. We all knew it had to be all hands on deck, so we had to reinforce what was taught at home. It meant learning what his triggers were and dealing with them accordingly. Being non-verbal in the early stage was difficult. He couldn't communicate verbally, so we had to learn other ways of communicating with him to understand what he needed.

Simba from The Lion King drawn with a crayon by a young child.
Simba from The Lion King was Zizah's first favorite character to draw as a child.

Can you explain what it means to be an eidetic artist and how it relates to Zizah's artwork?

Eidetic means having the ability to recall an image one has been exposed to briefly. Zizah, as early as 3 years old, showed an uncanny ability to recall images and put them on paper in detail. He would just see everyday things and sketch them on paper. His all-time favorite was The Lion King. He sketched so many pictures of Simba, and it was amazing how detailed they were. Basically, most of his artwork is things he's seen and stored in memory.

Tell us how did Zizah's interest in art and music develop?

We didn't expose him to art or anything. We picked him up from school one day, and the therapist had a sheet of paper where Zizah had sketched the Angry Birds from memory. He didn't want to do any schoolwork except draw. We were excited he had found a means of expression, so we encouraged him and exposed him to different art mediums. With music, he was just a natural. We were having family time at home when we heard music from upstairs. My husband went to check and found Zizah playing the piano like someone who had been taught. We learned he was playing by ear.

What other forms of art does Zizah enjoy?

It's amazing finding out the things Zizah enjoys. He enjoys music especially singing and playing the piano. We observed that he loves cameras too. Any time he sees a camera, he's ready to take pictures or start filming.

Who are his role models?

It's difficult to say for someone who has a few words. Still, someone we really love is Stephen Wiltshire, who also has a photographic memory and whose videos we've had Zizah watch. Another person is [autist artist] Willard Wigan, MBE, who does amazing microscopic art.

Fine art by Zizah of a pear.

Aside from creating beautiful artwork, does Zizah have any other hobbies or interests?

He loves to swim! From the moment he saw a pool, it was love at first sight. He actually taught himself to swim. He also loves to be on Youtube watching videos and horse riding.

Does Zizah have any specific pieces of his artwork that he favors?

I'd say he loves his drawings of Simba in the Lion King. He must have drawn hundreds of those.

What are his favorite mediums to work with?

Pencil, crayons, and acrylics on paper or canvas.

His work succeeded in a few exhibitions, such as Eidetic Impressions and A Solo Art Exhibition in 2021. You must be so proud of him! What has been the response to his pieces by both the general public and the art community?

Yes, we are super proud of him! What started as an outlet of expression became a tool for advocacy which we termed "art for advocacy." We began to share his paintings on social media to demystify autism. Who says just because a child has autism, they can't do or achieve anything? The paintings were there to show other parents like us that deep down inside, our children have talents and abilities and are able to do amazing things just like any other person and thrive. The general public has been amazed at the quality of art he has produced. They're surprised to learn he's a teenager and autistic. The response from art enthusiasts has been positive.

Can you tell us if you think this has helped change people's perceptions of autism?

It has changed people's perceptions of autism. The familiar feeling that comes with a diagnosis is a feeling of hopelessness, of giving up on a child because of their diagnosis. Dreams can still be achieved. Seeing what Zizah and others have achieved through hard work and determination has given others hope. It has helped in changing mindsets and not letting people give up. Autism is not a death sentence and definitely not a lack of ability.

Fine art by Zizah. It is an abstract piece with bright colors. There is a blue brushstroke that is the focal point at the top of the painting.

Can you talk more about the role of Terra Kulture in promoting Nigerian art and culture and how it has helped to showcase Zizah's artwork?

Terra Kulture, an educational and recreational organization and a major cultural hub in Lagos, Nigeria, has been at the forefront of promoting the richness and diversity of Nigerian art and culture through exhibitions, partnerships, movies, and plays which have been performed around the world. The Terra Kulture gallery, which has become the art destination of Lagos, has played host to a number of budding visual artists.

In April 2021 (in partnership with the Pure Souls Foundation), they featured Zizah's artwork in a solo exhibition titled "Eidetic Impressions" to celebrate Autism Awareness Month. This has since become a yearly exhibition to showcase other artists living with autism.

What inspired the creation of the Haven for Autism Foundation, and what kind of support will it provide for autist children?

We started to share Zizah's art on social media platforms as a tool for advocacy which led to a lot of parents reaching out and wanting to know how to help their children, so I'd say that was our inspiration; it was a need to help people on the spectrum and their families. The Haven is committed to using art as a forum for advocacy, information sharing, referral, and community initiatives. It provides a safe space for autistics to create and express themselves.

What is the "TheraConnect" mobile application launched by the Autism Awareness Foundation (TAAF) in Nigeria? How does it help parents of children with an Autism diagnosis in Nigeria?

It is a mobile platform that aims to connect parents of children with disabilities to therapists within their proximity for easy access to early intervention and effective therapy. This was birthed during the Covid-19 pandemic. It helps parents connect with professionals even from the comfort of their homes and to have access to a large pool of therapists to pick from.

What is the aim of the TAAF annual autism conference?

It aims to raise awareness and sensitize people about inclusion and advocating for persons with disabilities. It is a medium for advocating for more inclusive learning while training teachers, caregivers, and parents.

The photo of the artwork by Zizah is of two human energies. They are made up of bright colors, and their faces are expressionless, yet have an expression.

How is the U.S. Consulate in Nigeria collaborating with TAAF?

As a Mandela Washington fellow,  the U.S. embassy was interested in the founder's work with persons with disabilities and has been willing to collaborate with TAAF.

What are some of the challenges faced by parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, according to the panelists?

Some of the challenges have been finding the right resources to help them on their journey and the finances to do that. The government has done little to nothing when it comes to supporting parents. It has also been hard for parents to find the right schools for their children.

We went through a lot today. I have just a few more questions. Can you discuss any future plans or aspirations for Zizah's artwork and his involvement in the art community? Are there any upcoming events?

We definitely see a future in art and music. Now all our effort has been to help him improve by improving his strengths and getting him to excel in those areas. With art, we hope to see him own his own gallery someday and inspire others like him. We hope that he will be known for his great work in the future. When Zizah succeeds, it also means success for all individuals living with autism who face daily challenges in their pursuit of accomplishments.

What would Zizah like us to know about him?

That he is different, and that makes him who he is, a unique individual who enjoys learning new things and doesn't give up even when they're difficult.

Esther, thank you again for your time today. How can someone purchase some of Zizah's work? How can someone contact you for more information about The Haven For Autism Foundation?

Zizah's work can be purchased through the Eartnet Gallery U.S.A., The children's art gallery in Lagos, Nigeria, and also his website www.zizahokeugo.com

For more information about the Haven for Autism Foundation, I can be emailed at mrsokeugo@gmail.com.

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