In the third in a series of studio visits with leading contemporary artists from Africa, Omenka interviews Bob-Nosa Uwagboe who has been highly successful in creating a unique voice in scathing attacks on power structures, the political class and poor leadership in Nigeria. Born in Benin City in 1974, he first studied under painter George Olisa Nwadiogbu from 2000 to 2002, before enrolling at the Auchi Polytechnic, where he received a Higher National Diploma in Painting in 2004. Uwagboe continues to exhibit in Lagos, where he lives, as well as internationally, showing recently at Art Basel Miami.
How would you react to comparisons of your work to that of Jean Michel Basquiat?
I respect Jean Michel Basquiat very much because he was so vibrant but by the time I started my career, I neither had an encounter with him nor knew him. However, when I had a salon show for the French women at the African Artists Foundation in Lagos, one of them walked up to me and said she admired my works, and that they remind her of Jean Basquiat. It never stopped there, each time I showcase my works, most people mention Jean Basquiat, some even say I look like him because of my dreads. Later on, when I saw his works, I had this feeling that I could have created them. I could see that the connection we have is like that of kindred spirits, he tries to paint like a child, which no one can hold claims to. I had a show at an art fair early this year in West Africa. The media over there described me as the Nigerian Basquiat. At some point I didn’t like it because I think it’s unfair to compare my works to those of Basquiat, having practiced for 12 years and proven myself to be creative. I believe in my ability but I am just weighed down with the fact that I don’t have enough platforms, space and facilities to fully express my potential. If I live in a well-developed country like Basquiat’s and have almost everything I need, then the sky will not just be my limit but my starting point. However, I think comparing my works to Basquiat’s is not a bad idea, even when Joseph Gergel saw them, he said they reminded him of Jean Dubuffet, who was like a mentor to Basquiat. So there is a connection because we were all tapping from a ‘free spirit’ kind of art.
You once described your creative process, as “a moment of calmness, anger, pain, passion, is therapeutic and evoking emotion…”. In explaining your technique and working methods, please can you expatiate on this statement?
What I meant by that statement is this; most times when I work, I don’t like distractions or anyone around me because I don’t use drawings or sketches but work from my inner mind as I would have built up the content from inside before execution. Therefore, I need a calm, serene environment to enable me bring these ideas out. Most times when I am working, I communicate with the piece, so if the environment is not calm, I can’t concentrate but when there is total calmness, that’s the only time I can bring out the best from the inside.
Egbeda in Lagos has become a Mecca of sorts for several leading Nigerian painters like Duke Asidere and Ben Osaghae, who much in the same way address various socio-political issues in their work. How much has this proximity impacted upon your art?
These two artists are very lively and being around them, more especially Ben Osaghae, has helped me very much. They both have the same free spirit, one that tries to have its own voice. To me, that’s very inspiring. Seeing the belief and passion they have towards their works lights up my spirit. When I am down emotionally or find some work very challenging, I visit their studios and come back with much enthusiasm and many positive ideas; being around them has been quite encouraging and fantastic.
What can you say about the “revival” of painting as a medium of contemporary art expression, having been declared “dead” by critics several years ago?
Painting as a medium cannot be declared dead; that was just an idea to push other media like photography and performance on the art scene. However, most times it’s not really about the medium, but the content—that unique message passed across to the audience. I could put up anything but with an interesting theme and significance. I am into protest art and don’t use one particular medium. I believe that art, especially painting is dynamic and is evolving.
Alongside conventional media like oil, acrylic, crayon and charcoal, materials like fabric, sand, paper, sack, rope and even your hair, feature prominently in your paintings. What role do they play besides a textural or decorative one?
All of these materials have their significance; they have connections with my life in relation to the concept, idea or theme of my work. For instance, I incorporated my first dreadlock into a work. Initially my dad never accepted my dreads, I couldn’t even come back home because he kept shouting at me. I felt caged because I was striving for acceptance, but it got to a point I could not bear it anymore so I had to cut my dreads. However, I decided to include them in this artwork I titled Decaying Head. I chose that title because the head is sacred and contains a lot but sometimes the situation would not allow you express yourself.
For over 12 years, you have maintained an active studio practice and been successful in creating a unique voice in criticism of the political class in Nigeria, as well as police brutality and societal decadence. How effective has your voice been in bringing about positive change?
To an extent it has been effective, but change in a country like Nigeria, can’t just entirely wipe out corruption in one day. Therefore, what I do is a gradual process of creating awareness to fight corruption. With consistency, I try to create room for changes, as well as effect them. As much as we live in a corrupt country, we cannot look up only to the government to change in the twinkle of an eye, the change has to start individually. The majority of my work aims at socio-political errors. Therefore, I am trying to make my voice as audible as possible, but it’s not something I can do all alone. Everyone has to contribute till it gradually gets to the government. Though it will be hard, I believe it’s possible.
Your works are laced with satire and possess a high degree of dichotomy between the abstract and the figure, where mostly square-shouldered males, display their genitals in full view. What do you hope to communicate by this?
The whole concept is a deliberate attempt to make mockery of bad leadership. For example, it’s only an animal that doesn’t have direction, it overdoes everything and abuses anything. I am trying to liken the attitude of our leaders to that of animals. They are just animals in power, they are already rich but still loot money. They take more than what they need, leaving the poor masses in abject poverty.
What are your plans for the nearest future?
I have great plans for the future, but in actualizing them, I will keep up with my style of art, as well as establish an academy for protest art where emerging artists will learn the rudiments of art, what it means to live as an artist and how to use any medium as a social weapon. I also want to make sculptures in my own style. Besides these, I hope to complete some smaller projects including a series, which I titled Life Without Protection.