Knowledge. Exploration. Growth. Those are the trusses on which higher education is built. But the truth is, there’s really no way to know how those core values are going to manifest when you get to college. It’s an adventure; a leap into the great unknown.
No one understands this more than Emmanuel Olunkwa, a senior at The New School in New York City. Through his early education, Olunkwa uncovered a deep love for art. He knew it was a direction he wanted to explore further. He also knew the artist’s life was not an easy path to walk.
Olunkwa studied prerequisite college courses and learned the vernacular of an aspiring university student in high school. Meanwhile, he dove deeper into his favorite hobby, photography. What he sought, entering college, was something deeper than just lessons from a book. He was looking for a place where he belonged. A place where his creative voice could be clarified.
Arriving at The New School’s Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, he thought he would study English and fashion then get a job at a magazine. But once Olunkwa immersed himself in The New School’s curriculum, he quickly found that his curiosity carried him in a new direction. His desires shifted and a new set of goals began to take shape.
Olunkwa often talks about which teachers at Eugene Lang stood out to him. When asked, he’s able to quickly rattle off eleven names. Soon it becomes clear that as important as any single moment or conversation was for Olunkwa at The New School, the collective experience the university offers means much more. His deep connection to his work and his professors has sparked an exploration of race and identity that Olunkwa says he honestly didn’t see coming.
The university gave him space where he could manifest his art and square it with who he was as a person.
“I’ve always been interested in communicating and demystifying people’s expectations and beliefs for who they thought that I should be,” Olunkwa explains. “But it only was in college that I was presented with the language that had been informing how I negotiated myself.”
Being a minority in America is full of challenges large and small. Trying to make a name for yourself in the art world — which has been historically dominated by white gatekeepers — is even harder. Olunkwa had to come to terms with himself, a queer black man in America before he could fully step into his own. The New School allowed him that space of self-reflection with the support of his peers and the mentors the university provided.
The professors and mentors Olunkwa found at The New School prompted a level of self-reflection that shaped his approach to art through photography and later film. In his words: “It’s all about being able to step outside of yourself and see the situation from a different perspective and to investigate it in different ways. The works that I made have been born out of conversations that I had in class or things that I read that challenged a way that I once thought about the world.”
These days, Olunkwa’s photography leans heavily towards fashion, but there’s an underlying purpose that feels raw and urgent. Olunkwa roams The New School’s Parsons School of Design and his adopted city looking for inspiration, one shutter click at a time. He finds collaborators and muses amongst his fellow art students who are sharing the space with him at The New School. His pictures exude emotion, explore race, and dive into human sexuality.
“I think that my time here at The New School — and the professors that I’ve worked closely with — has allowed me to see things that are hiding in plain sight,” he says. “But it’s also given me a chance to search and dig for the things that aren’t readily available on the surface.”
This clarified artistic voice has led to success. Already, Olunkwa has landed a show at NYC’s New Museum. More venues have reached out, too. His slate is filling up. Meanwhile, the artist continued to expand his own ideas about his work. He picked up a video camera and turned the lens on himself.
Olunkwa’s first short film was titled, “Finding Me.” It’s part “thank you” note to the people who’ve helped and inspired him so far, and part meditation on what’s coming next. He washed the film in a dulled, early 2000’s digital video veneer to reflect the fact that this exploration is deeply tied to his personal history. The lesson he takes away in the film still rings true in the conversations he’s having about life at The New School today.
“I always walk away from shooting having learned something new,” he says.
Two more short student films have followed “Finding Me” — as Olunkwa navigates his way through his education at Eugene Lang College. Through class after class, shoot after shoot, project after project, his artistic voice continues to crystallize.
Olunkwa’s time at The New School has allowed him to see the connections his art has to race and identity. The university’s environment of guidance through mentorship and avowed openness to all people has given him the chance to tackle new projects that align with his identity. But, most importantly, he’s had the chance to recognize and appreciate the importance of not letting the outer world define his identity.
“Being a person of color isn’t something I let define me,” Olunkwa says. “But it is something that delegates how others see me walk through the world and I’m aware of that being a characteristic of my self-hood… but it’s not my defining feature.”
The New School has provided Olunkwa with a space where social justice is as valued as a pillar of the academic experience. This was instrumental in birthing the artist he is today. His unique journey has informed his grasp of his reality and the world around him. It’s given him strong core values needed to jump into the world of art, photography, and film.
Olunkwa ends his first film with words that feel hugely relevant to his time at The New School. “I’ve learned. I’m learning. And I’m ready.”