A few months ago, artist Uzo Njoku was in the market for a new coloring book.
She noticed that most coloring books geared toward adults, like the ubiquitous Enchanted Garden, featured densely outlined flora and fauna, medallions, and mandalas, and that most coloring books for children contained cartoonish figures.
Njoku, a UVA studio art major who paints large-scale works of dark-skinned subjects (most of them women) against bright, bold-patterned backgrounds referencing Ankara fabrics, sought a different type of coloring book—one with more realistic figures, but still with the density of pattern and sense of magic that makes coloring a therapeutic activity.
But she couldn’t find what she wanted, so she decided to draw and publish her own. The result, The Bluestocking Society, has sold more than 1,000 copies since it was released last month, and Njoku has consignment contracts with bookstores all over the East Coast, including New Dominion Bookshop and Telegraph Art & Comics here in town; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond; and Clic Bookstore & Gallery in New York City.
Each page of The Bluestocking Society shows a different aspect of femininity, with particular focus on women of color.
Njoku, who was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and has lived in the U.S. since she was 7 years old, says she wants to create art that is “meaningful…impactful,” especially for women and people of color in her own community, at UVA and in Charlottesville, two places where she says women and people of color do not always feel welcome.
With her paintings, Njoku aims to show how women and people of color are valuable, that they have voices that deserve to be heard. But she’s aware that not everyone can afford to purchase a painting or a print to hang on their wall at home and remind them of that message, so a coloring book was an accessible way to offer her work.
Njoku chose a title that invokes the Blue Stockings Society, an informal women’s social, intellectual, and educational movement founded and led by salonist and literary critic Elizabeth Montagu in mid-18th-century England. Members of the Blue Stockings Society championed the importance of education for women, and it inspired Njoku to include contemporary women like Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist who at age 15 spoke out against the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education and, not long after that speech, survived an assassination attempt on her life and now continues her work fighting for girls’ education.
Njoku wants her coloring book to be both therapeutic and educational. In addition to drawing the women in the book, she researched their lives and accomplishments for a one-page biography included next to each woman’s page.
Njoku also presents every woman as her own person, because she believes that too often, they are discussed only in the context of men’s lives. Take, for example, Dolores Huerta, a Mexican-American labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association (later United Farm Workers) with Cesar Chavez, the name and face more commonly associated with the movement.
Or Yoko Ono, a groundbreaking multimedia artist, musician, performance artist, filmmaker, and peace activist (John Lennon was her husband). “She’s amazing on her own,” Njoku says of Ono, just like every woman.
In addition to Yousefzai, Huerta, and Ono, there’s decorated tennis player Serena Williams, artist Frida Kahlo, political activist and writer Angela Davis, and sprinter Cathy Freeman, the first Aboriginal Australian woman to compete in the Olympics, in 1996. “And of course, I had to include Beyoncé,” says Njoku.
Njoku also included drawings of women with no specified identity—women graduating from college and graduate school, an Habesha, women cooking, mothers with their children. She included a drawing of a pregnant teenager, because in society’s eyes, young mothers are talked about as a sad thing, but “there’s beauty in it. You had a child. You brought a being into this world,” and it’s worthy of celebration and respect, says Njoku.
She drew women with specific facial features and body types, because to her, it’s not enough to present a blank page where a woman’s skin can be colored in any hue—brown, dark brown, tan, peach, blue. Even in the line drawings, she wanted to identify these women as women of color—with, for example, black facial features and black hairstyles.
Before one even gets to the drawings, the first page of the book includes a blank frame with the numbers 1 through 5, urging the person reading it to make a list of five things they like about themselves.
At first, Njoku imagined women and girls as the audience for The Bluestocking Society, but she quickly realized the coloring book is for everyone.
The Bluestocking Society urges people of all genders to see these women, and all women, for who they are and what they are capable of. Women contain multitudes, Njoku’s coloring book says, and all women—from the 16-year-old mother to Oprah Winfrey—are equally inspiring.