In a world where gender stereotypes and stigmatization prevail, Helena Nelson, a multi-talented creative force, fearlessly breaks the mold. In this exclusive interview with Apples Bite Magazine, the MTV Base Shuga star and body artist reveal her remarkable journey, embracing art in all its forms.
How did you first become interested in body arts, and what drew you to this unique form of expression?
I’ve always been interested in body art from a young age. I’ve played with charcoal designs, pen designs, and even eye pencil designs. When I became independent, I decided to just go ahead and do me. I would have started having tattoos a lot earlier than 24 if I could afford them.
Can you share a bit about your creative process when designing and applying body art?
Well, my body art can take years to plan. It depends on the ideas behind each design and also putting the right pieces together. I like to tattoo things I love and things I love to remember. My tattoos are inspired by my love for life, myself, nature, and its elements. It’s a means of self-discovery and expression for me.
What inspired you to merge traditional and contemporary elements in your body art creations?
Honestly each body tattoo represents something different. Its representation is solely dependent on the components and placement. For example. My first tattoo is the collar bone “I am enough” with an infinity sign to remind myself that, till forever, I will be enough for myself.
How do you approach collaborating with other artists to create visually striking and impactful body art pieces?
So, my tattoo plug is Bizzyaski Beauty Studio. Usually I put together the pieces of each tattoo myself. Sometimes I employ the services of artists to bring an idea or image to life. Then I take it to the studio, and we decide on the size and placement and get it done.
Could you discuss a particular body art project that challenged you artistically and resonated deeply with you?
That would be my full back tattoo. I’ve been planning its pieces for almost 4 years now. Since I had my moon phases on my spine, I’ve been carefully putting together things I’d like to represent on my back.
So far, I’ve gotten almost 60% of the full image. I believe it’s time for me to start drawing what I’ve seen so I shall be getting it soon.
The arts on your body, do they have or portray special meanings, or do they remind you of events in your life?
My body art has different individual meanings and was inspired at different phases of my life. I have the Yin Yang ☯️ tattoo on my chest to signify the balance between good and bad. I have the three dots on my left collar to signify that life continues, regardless of the occasion or experience. I have the black woman power tattoo to signify that woman is a superior being. I have the butterfly with closed eyes on my belly to signify introspection as the key to self-discovery.
I have the braille tattoo that says “created to create”.
I have the old map of Ugep, my sweet village.
I have the perspective tattoo with the letters scattered in different directions to show that it comes from different directions.
I have the tattoo silhouette for my late cat.
I have my native name, Yanen Wen, on my right shoulder. My name means Girl Child. And so on.
What initially inspired you to become a bead artist, and how have you evolved your style over the years?
I’ve always been interested in creative arts and bead making. In fact, when I was younger, I used to make elaborate designs like beaded bags and shoes and a few necklaces here and there. After some time growing up, I ditched the habit to pursue other interests like dancing and entertainment. So, when it seemed acting wasn’t paying my bills and I also needed another source of income to foot my acting career, I decided to venture into bead making, this time personalizing on body accessories like waist beads, necklaces, anklets, as well as home deco beaded accessories. It was just easier for me to pick up the habit I already loved and enjoyed to make money from it.
Can you describe the significance of beads in various cultures and how you incorporate this symbolism into your work?
African beads signify beauty, royalty, confidence, and authority. That’s why at ArtYanen, we inspire body adornment and beautification through our beaded accessories. We promote body positivity through the use of colors and patterns, and ArtYanen accessories are known to encourage self-confidence, increase self-esteem, self-love, and self-acceptance.
How do you balance the intricate details of beadwork with your artistic vision and personal flair?
Honestly, it’s been hard because I’m multi-talented and super creative. What I am working on actively is a timetable to plan what days or weeks are for what, as well as relegate some of the tasks I have to do for my personal brand and business to assistants. It’s a work in progress.
Could you share a memorable experience or project that showcased the unique beauty of bead artistry?
I’ve spent the last three years in business trying to ‘demystify’ the believe that waist beads or beads in general are diabolical. Beads have been demonized for so long in mainstream media and it’s been a lot of work trying to rewrite the general mentality and bad publicity surrounding beads. However, this year 2023 I will be having a bead art exhibition to showcase the unique beauty of bead artistry. Anticipate.
How do you source your beads for work, which markets do you buy from? And what other sources?
I buy my beads from Accra, Makola Market, that’s where I get most of my yearly bulk stock, I shop from trade fair at Badagry Road, I shop at Lagos island, Arena and Ogba sometimes for smaller orders. Sometimes I have no choice but to ship some beads from China.
What motivated you to pursue a career in acting, and how do you choose roles that align with your artistic values?
I’ve always been an entertainer from childhood. I can’t count how many church and school plays I did, or dance competitions I won. I attended a lot of weddings as little bride. I’ve been a Star since birth. Even my birth story is very unique. I was the only child and girl delivered through vaginal birth and mother and baby were fine, meanwhile about 9 other babies that were born at the same time were all boys. My mum said even in our compound when she got home, I was the only girl child out of 5 new babies. So, I am born to shine and what better way to shine and showcase yourself than Arts, Entertainment and Creativity?
Starting out as an upcomer, I got a few roles but I’ve only rejected maybe 4 so far and that’s because the pay wasn’t good enough or I felt the storyline wasn’t good enough to have my name on it. Sure, I’ve done a few wacky jobs in the past but that was to grow my CV lol.
Nowadays, I scrutinize not just the script, the production house, the film crew, my co-stars, etc. if it’s not good vibes and a wonderful filming experience, I don’t want it.
How do you prepare for emotionally challenging scenes, and what techniques do you use to bring depth to your characters?
For emotionally challenging scenes I isolate a lot. I prefer to be by myself and break down the intricate details of the character, the emotion range, the highs and lows.
I practice different facial expressions and eye emotions in front of a mirror (or my phone) at least once a day.
I imagine the character in all their different scenes that make up the sum of the movie/show.
I stay in character on set and only come out of character when I’m off set.
I also always remember that the character in the job is not me, they may have some similar traits with me but they’re definitely not me; this inspires me to confuse/convince the audience that they are me. That’s how I sell my depth.
Can you discuss the importance of diverse representation in the entertainment industry, and how your roles contribute to this?
I think Nollywood is still trying to understand diversity in both person and character. I love the fact that culture and tribe wise, we have different representations of perspectives from filmmakers and I’m talking Yorubawood, Asabawood, Arewa, and others.
However, we tend to type cast actors a lot and it’s really no longer selling. Nowadays, viewers can guess the storyline of a movie when they see the person playing the character. No atom of surprise, sometimes no cohesive direction.
One thing I’m thankful for about myself was breaking away from secondary school roles because that’s only a scratch of my acting range. Agreed, my body can fit into a uniform and wear it a little too well doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t be approached for other MORE TASKING roles. I want to be an old woman, I want to be a general. I want to be a pilot. I want to be a nurse (oh I’ve been a nurse in a movie sha. My first ever movie: I was Nurse Flora.) Basically, I found the opportunity to leave acting for a bit and focus on my business because most of the gigs I was getting were basic and with no real challenge. I am however looking forward to Netflix worthy, Amazon worthy flicks that will test my creativity.
What is your most challenging role yet?
They’ve all been a breeze except for “My Tomorrow”. I cried a lot and too much. At the end of the set I was drained from bodily fluids.
What led you to explore voice-over artistry, and how do you use your voice to convey a wide range of emotions and characters?
Have you heard me talk? I’ve always had an amazing range of voices that are very melodramatic. I love the sound of my voice and luckily, I worked in TV stations where I did free voice jobs and by 2016 I signed up at the Voice Over Academy to fine tune my talent and get certified. It’s in me like Peak Milk.
How do you adjust your voice to suit different projects, such as animations, commercials, or audiobooks?
I guess it comes naturally. Sometimes I watch people within different age ranges and try to mimic them. Nothing better than learning from your environment. Then practice, practice, practice.
Could you share an experience where your voice-over work had a significant impact on a project or its message?
Well a lot of my animation jobs (most recently Yazi Kids) was very significant because of how my voice portrayed the message. My voice is very emotional and can also affect listener’s moods. I’ve known that and used the skill effectively to add more value to paid jobs.
In your opinion, what is the cultural significance of body arts and bead wearing, particularly among African women?
Body arts are personally very significant for me because in my culture we have nsibidi markings on our bodies as maidens. These markings are called Mblemi. They’re a means of beautification. All forms of bodily adornments are very encouraged culturally. In Africa and Nigeria especially, women should not be ashamed to adorn their bodies with colourful accessories and body art. It is our identity as African women.
How do you aim to preserve and celebrate cultural traditions through your artistic endeavours?
By continuing the re-education of the minds of Nigerians and Africans surrounding beads, body art and other forms of adornment. As a brand I hope to daily encourage more women to embrace their divine identity as beautifully adorned beings. I also aim to through festivals, events to celebrate the beautiful ways of our culture and encourage more positive publicity about African accessories and body art.
Can you share a specific instance where your body art or beadwork was used to convey a cultural narrative or tell a story?
Personally, my body art was used to convey a cultural narrative during Leboku; our new yam festival. Everyone complimented my art and stated that I was an authentic daughter of the soil.
Do you make a lot of money from this?
From what? Having body art? No. I spend money on body art, for some time most of my content partnerships have been based on collaborations.
Do you think people have a misconception about your personality?
Oh yes, I not just think it; I know it. People have walked up to me or written me about how they misunderstood me until they met me or experienced me bla bla bla. I think it comes with choosing to be different. I also don’t let it affect me anymore because guess what, it’s not on me to correct the misconception. I just need to keep living my life and ignoring bad vibes. Period.
Could you walk us through your journey of becoming a recognized body arts artist, bead artist, female actor, and voice-over artist?
A lot of sleepless nights, hungry days, sleep full nights, tears and laughter, failures and disappointments. Then finally realizing I just gotta keep at doing me. I also am a very consistent person. When I set my mind to something, I do it and ensure to finish. So yeah, years of putting in the work and waiting for recognition. So far, my career journey has been quite bumpy. I’ve had a lot of personal achievements, mental improvements and I don’t care much for awards but I believe when it’s time for them, I’ll make space for them in my house and even if they don’t show up, I’ll still be good.
What milestones or achievements in your career have brought you the most satisfaction and pride?
When my show MTV SHUGA was on Netflix. Yeah, I felt good. I’m looking forward to having more of my content on international platforms.
How do you handle challenges and setbacks in the competitive and ever-evolving creative industries?
I cry about it and sleep it off. I try to do my best and leave the rest for God.
In what ways does your acting and voice-over work empower you to explore different facets of your creativity and emotions?
It is my character and creativity that empowers me to voice and act. Empowerment comes from me; not from what I do.
What is your sexual orientation? Are you gay, straight or bisexual?
As an artist, how do you navigate discussions about sexuality and relationships within your work and public image?
Don’t ask; don’t tell. My working ability is definitely beyond my sexual orientation so I never even give room for such conversations unless they’re related to the job at hand.
Do you find that your artistic pursuits impact your relationships and interactions with the opposite sex?
Hmm, yes definitely. Average Men are worried about my ability to be loyal or faithful because of my career as an entertainer and I guess it comes with the average mentality surrounding entertainers. This also helps me separate men I don’t even want to have nothing to do with and I don’t mind at all.
Do you consider yourself a sexually expressive person? And do your arts express itself through your work?
I think I’m very sexually rigid and repressed. On purpose. Yes, my arts express itself through all my works.
Are you dating?
No, I’m not dating and currently not interested in pursuing any romantic relationships.
What is your take about self-pleasure?
Self-pleasure has saved me from the hands of Wicked Nigerian Men. I’m grateful for Masturbation.
How do you approach collaborations with other artists, and how have these partnerships enriched your creative process?
I am very pro-collaboration. I’ve been approached severally by other artistes and we’ve gone ahead to do magic. I won’t say they enriched my creative process, more like I brought color and added value to their creative processes.
Can you share an instance where working with others influenced your artistic perspective and opened new avenues for expression?
I can’t think of any for sure.
Balancing a demanding career with personal life can be challenging. How do you manage to maintain harmony between the two?
I’m trying my best by myself. Sometimes I have to outsource some aspects of my personal life to make time for my career AND business. It’s tough but we are still hard at it.
What are your aspirations for your future in body arts, bead artistry, acting, and voice-over work?
First, I’d like to be the future minister for Entertainment in Nigeria. I’d love to have a Film making institution. I’d like to have a production house. I’m working on having a physical store for my bead business as well as have a warehouse. I’m working on having some of my personalized bead accessories produced from China. I’m working at having a list of bead makers under ArtYanen to mass produce bulk orders for shipping outside Nigeria. I’m working on registering my NGO and having a safe house for women, in top cities in Nigeria.
How do you envision using your artistic platform to create a positive impact or inspire change?
I’ve been doing that. By self-expressing, I’ve really inspired mental, psychological and physical changes in the women who follow me on different social platforms. From the conversations raised, interactions and mingling, we’ve positively changed perspectives and encouraged a more communal, loving relationship amongst women within our reach.
What is your position in the family? How does growing up and family shape your artistic expression?
I’m an only child of my mum. I was just stubborn enough to not listen to my family. They really tried to change me to be like the average, pretentious, hypocritical, self-hating Nigerian woman but I was a little bit too stubborn and it didn’t work. Let’s us all just thank God for stubbornness if not I won’t be here today.