With Lots of Eye Contact, Something Clicked

From the moment that Derek Fordjour locked eyes with Alexis Johara Fikira Hoag at a December 2019 holiday party in Brooklyn, “I just took an immediate interest in her,” he said.

Mr. Fordjour had attended the party, hosted by the visual artist Hank Willis Thomas, with a friend. Ms. Hoag was there on a date, but had lost interest in her companion by the time Mr. Fordjour walked over to where she was standing with a group of people. Though they didn’t talk much one-on-one, both remember sharing lots of eye contact.

When Mr. Fordjour, 47, was leaving the party, Ms. Hoag, 40, asked how they could keep in touch. Instagram handles were exchanged, and later phone numbers. A week after the party, he asked her to dinner, but she declined. She was leaving the next day on a trip to South Africa.

Being turned down didn’t stop him from messaging her as she shared her sojourn through Capetown, Johannesburg and Durban on Instagram. Mr. Fordjour, an artist whose work has explored themes of racial inequity, had been to South Africa six months before and he appreciated Ms. Hoag’s Instagram commentary on the country’s history of colonialism.

Mr. Fordjour met Ms. Hoag at the end of a breakout year in his career. In the spring of 2019, the Memphis native sold his portrait series “Top-Ten ALLSTARS” to Jay-Z and Beyoncé. That fall, his piece “Agency and Regulation (study)” sold at auction for more than double its estimated price. More recently, he has shown works in an outdoor series at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and in a solo exhibition at the David Kordansky Gallery in New York.

Though his messages with Ms. Hoag about her trip weren’t “very sexy,” she said, his interest in issues that she cared about was attractive to her.

From Southern California, Ms. Hoag, who has a law degree from N.Y.U., spent more than a decade working as a criminal defense attorney before joining the faculty at Brooklyn Law School, where she is now an assistant professor and the co-director of the school’s Center of Criminal Justice.

Following her trip, the two had a first date at Brooklyn Chop House, in January 2020. They talked until the restaurant closed about family dynamics and being first-generation Americans of African heritage — her family is from the Chagga tribe in Tanzania, his is from the Ashanti tribe in Ghana.

On their second date two days later, at the restaurant ROKC in Upper Manhattan, they were so wrapped up in conversation, Ms. Hoag said, “I think we forgot to eat.”

As their romance developed, Mr. Fordjour and Ms. Hoag, who both had been married before, say it benefited from lessons each had learned in their past relationships.

Mr. Fordjour came to realize the importance of what he called “intense self work” after his previous marriage of nine years ended in divorce in 2013. He has a son from that relationship, Langston Fordjour, who is now 24.

Ms. Hoag, who is queer, said that after divorcing her wife of two and a half years in 2017, she learned that relationships need continued nurturing and intention. Though she had primarily dated women before meeting Mr. Fordjour, the two forged a “deep soul connection,” she said, through a shared willingness to be vulnerable.

By the summer of 2020, while New York was in pandemic lockdown, the two had moved in together, into an apartment in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood. “This didn’t feel like something to run from,” Ms. Hoag said of their relationship, “this felt like something to run toward.”

They became engaged the following year, in December 2021, in a carefully planned proposal orchestrated by Mr. Fordjour.

He had his studio director send Ms. Hoag an invitation to a fake arts gala at the Prince George Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan. When she arrived in the suggested cocktail attire, “There was even someone waiting outside with a guest list and a clipboard,” she said. But when she entered the ballroom, she saw a lone table set for dinner for two and Mr. Fordjour, who asked her to marry him.

On July 9, they were wed before 180 guests at the Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in Manhattan. Ms. Hoag’s friend Anita Aboagye-Agyeman, whose family is from the same tribe as Mr. Fordjour’s, officiated after being ordained by American Marriage Ministries for the occasion.

At the ceremony, the groom’s son walked the bride down the aisle. “I really wanted to include Langston substantively,” she said. After being introduced as newlyweds to the opening beat of Gucci Mane’s “Freaky Girl,” the couple kicked off the reception that followed with a first dance to Prince’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.”