Morgan Udoh has been researching her lineage since 2012. She craved knowledge about her African American ancestors, wanting to fill the gaps on what she already knew about her heritage.
She took an ancestry DNA test and collected photos, stories and names from her family members. She gradually accumulated a collection of meaningful artifacts to preserve her family’s legacy and trace their roots back to Africa. Piece by piece, her family’s story unfolded.
By 2018, she was ready to rechannel her passion for genealogy into a new creative business: her jewelry line, Okoye Couture.
The 31-year-old sells polymer clay jewelry and art inspired by Africa’s vibrant landscapes, cultures and wildlife. From her cozy, at-home workspace on Jefferson Highway, she hand-crafts dangling earrings, studs and cuffs from clay, tassels and metals.
But these aren’t just any accessories. Each collection has a story.
“I feel like this is a good way to bridge the gap culturally,” Udoh says. “As the wearer, you have the opportunity to share about the culture, because you’re learning about it while also showing it off. You may not get to visit that country, but you have something that represents it.”
After researching a specific African country, Udoh pulls colors, patterns and textures from plants, animals and textiles native to the area to inspire one-of-a-kind polymer clay designs.
The Sorrel collection—earth-toned earrings with lush green, rich brown and shimmery gold polymer clay—was inspired by the leafy wood sorrel plant used in a medicinal stew by the Khoi-Khoi people of South Africa.
The Iboga collection—tropical earrings with bright orange, sage green and peach polymer clay—calls to the psychedelic healing plant iboga found in the African country Gabon. The iboga plant has bright orange fruit, long green leaves and brown roots, which are consumed for natural healing and spiritual ceremonies.
Udoh’s pieces all begin from a single slab of clay. Using paint brushes, ceramics tools and a pasta maker, she blends different clay colors to create abstract art. She creates vibrant and earthy colors by running lumps of clay together through her pasta maker to produce unique mustard yellows, iridescent purples and marbleized blues. Once her base is established, she adds lines and shapes to the slab like paint strokes on a blank canvas. She stores her clay creations in Saran wrap and Ziploc bags until they’re ready to cut and bake for a happy customer.
“Of all of the mediums I’ve tried, (polymer clay) is the one that really fits me,” the self-taught artist says. “It’s a very forgiving medium.”
For the full-time insurance agent, launching Okoye Couture was deeper than starting a side hustle. Okoye Couture is named in part thanks to Udoh’s admiration of the Black Panther character, but mainly after the Nigerian surname Okoye. It’s derived from the central Igbo name Okorie and translates to someone born on a market day.
By sharing her love and knowledge of African cultures with customers at local markets, Udoh felt, in a way, she too was reborn on a market day.
It’s been seven years since Udoh began her journey of self-exploration. It started with her learning more about her African origins, and it’s culminated in her now educating and empowering others.
“I want my art to highlight the continent as much as possible and to show a side of Africa that’s not just what you see on BBC [News],” Udoh says. “I want to show the beauty and intricacy of the continent and its countries.”