My art gives me an easier perspective on life – Obi Nwaegbe

Obi Nwaegbe always knew he was destined to be an artist and never let that dream die. In this interview, Obi speaks on his passion for art while sharing the experiences that shape him.

By Rosemary Bassey Etim

Why did you choose art as a profession? Pure intuition, I guess! And also, the result of being nurtured early in life by my parents towards that path, and particularly with my father. I would also refer to the more popular cliché ‘art chose me’ in the sense that my penchant for scribbling and doodling on paper, walls, and just about any surface I encountered dates back to childhood and at a time that I could barely read and write.

So, one could say it was a genetic disposition or ‘follow come’ as we would quip in the Nigerian social parlance. On a deeper note, I always felt like I had so much to share with the world about my personality and worldview, and these were best demonstrated through visual imagery. This enthusiasm to communicate visually, on paper, canvas or any other medium, transcended any other pragmatic considerations that there were about career viability and sustainability. Whatever was popularly regarded as practical in the pursuit of success or life’s goals (often calibrated in finances by the average human) was for me a secondary argument, while the art of self-expression through my visually induced talents were of primary concern. Perhaps also, the self-styled belief that I was cut out to apply unconventional wisdom in solving personal and collective problems was a driving force.

What is your background, and how does it impact your work?

My primary and secondary studies all happened in Nsukka, South-east Nigeria, where I grew up with my siblings and under the tutelage of my parents William & Maria Nwaegbe. My father (of blessed memory) was quite instrumental to my intellectual grooming and would see to it that creative inclinations were properly guided and given the desired impetus to thrive all the way into my adulthood. The university environment was a strong catalyst, as access to the school’s fine arts department exterior was without restrictions, even for us as kids as we waltzed through this space that beamed with murals and sculptures that told stories of the many art students that had passed through it and received the best possible trainings and mentorships from some of the country’s most astute professors and senior academics. This was in addition to a couple of masterpiece sculptures that littered the university landscape and provided vivid imaginations and inspirations.

Barely 200 meters away from

Mo Abudu, Idris Elba partner to promote African storytellers our street in Margarete Cartwright lived one of the country’s most renowned art historians Ola Oloidi, who retired as an emeritus professor at the university. Another 200 meters down and we would be at the home of El Anatsui, global icon and sculptor extraordinaire. He was also to eventually retire as an emeritus professor of sculpture at the university. Perhaps, the most impactful teachings as far as painting itself was concerned, was from Chike Aniakor, master painting theorist whose proficiency in the discharge of knowledge in its holistic form was unmatched.

His lectures often diverged from art theory to anthropology and classical literature, then he would delve into chemistry and quantum mechanics and then back to the social implications of your next brush stroke. He had a way with words and statements that were unfathomable.

The implication of all these childhood influences, from that of my father, who was a senior academic himself, to his colleagues under whom I had some of the most privileged tutelages, the inevitability of my practice was sealed. With them, art transcended mere painterliness and sculptural dexterity and draughtsmanship and unto the metaphysical. Ola Oloidi, during his art lectures in my first year in the fine art department, often hampered on the strategic importance of selfesteem and the power of presentation for the artist. It was for him, the mental disposition that was required for an artist to assume their elevated role in the society. “For you to be a great artist and an influential member of the society, you have to exude your art in a very exemplary way.” This was one of his statements that stuck with me all through my journey as a practicing visual artist and unto this day.

What is your chosen medium, and why did you choose it?

I work with different mediums, but my traditional material is acrylic on canvas. Being an expressionist painter, it is a symbolic one for me, because the medium of acrylic became loosely popular with the advent of the abstract expressionist movement, a framework within which I derive my technical backgrounds on canvas. I work with oil paint sparingly and often on smaller canvases when I intend to achieve more traditional ambiances with my work. For drawings and light painting sketches, I work with a combination of charcoals and acrylic. When I intend to make huge statements about environmental concerns, which has become and important part of my ethical pursuits, I inject the use of used beverage cans and discarded fabric on paper, canvas and board.

What inspires you?

I get inspirations from everyday life and sometimes from local and global events as they unfold. I want to talk about the society in which I live, and about its positives and its negatives. In the past three years, I have done a varied series talking about the environment, about the identity debate, which is both local and universal; the relationship between the character of a city and that of those who live in it. I have an exhibition currently ongoing, which discusses the incidents of homicides against women and the global statistics in a way that throws light on this persistent problem and what we can do to tackle it.

The exhibition, a brainchild of British artist David Palacios, is ongoing at the Arts Connection Foundation in Miami, Florida, and also features Nigerian artist and curator Terso Gundu. I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in painting and critical theory at the Federal University of Lafia and my work is currently having a critical take on the state of the Nigerian society with the lens of past modernist masters of the pre and post-colonial Nigeria as well as that of select expressionist masters of Europe and America of the pre and post-world II war era.

What time of day do you prefer to create?

I usually create about the time the average human is at work, which is something between ten o’clock in the morning and seven o’clock in the evening.

As an artist, how do you define success?

Success is about creating your own physical and emotional environment and away from people and events that work in adversity to your life’s goals. This might sound a simple thing to achieve, but perhaps most people go through their entire lives never being able to succeed at this one fundamental thing. Success for me is being able to go through life, building value around yourself, works and services without undermining the lives and values of other people in the process. Success is leaving a legacy that sustains decades and centuries after you are gone. These are some of the basic pursuits of life that keep me going.

Does art support your other interests in life?

Yes, absolutely. Art is my life, and it has done a great job of building and sustaining my emotional and financial needs. I think that my art has given me a perception of life that makes it easy for me to be compatible and tolerant of people around me. I have a good family life and a spouse that loves what I do, as well as sibling and the larger family and friends that are in awe of my person and what I have been able to do with my creative energy.

Are there other artists in your network, and how do they help you?

Yes, I have a lot of artists around me as friends, contemporaries, partners and staff and a combination of complementary exchanges with these people make life worth living. I also have a network of people outside my professional sphere as collectors, admirers and fans, who all contribute in one way or the other in honing the public persona and aura that I may exude today.

How do you improve your artistic abilities?

I don’t think anything else does it better than working and ready continuously. Whatever you do constantly grows on you and this includes making art. I wake up everyday and get to work.

Is there a particular environment or material that’s essential to your work?

Not necessarily. I work anywhere.

What will you consider to be your favourite project?

Difficult to tell. However, I love teaching and the opportunity to work with the Ministry of Lagos and the Ford Foundation to impact on secondary students since 2022 until now is an experience I cherish very much and hope to continue with.

How do you respond to criticism?

I take objective criticisms seriously and try to implement any solutions offered in the process if I think they will improve what I do. I ignore the unobjective ones.

If you could have one superpower, what will it be?

A nation run by income solely generated from art making would be my number one choice for a global superpower (if that is what you mean).






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