This interview with the leading Nigerian contemporary artist, Rom Isichei, is the third in the continuing series of studio visits of African artists, started recently by Omenka magazine, with Ebenezer Akinola.
Rom Isichei has gained a reputation as a leading contemporary artist in Nigeria. He was born in Asaba, Delta State and earned a Higher National Diploma in Painting from the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos in 1984. On graduation, Isichei worked at three advertising agencies in various management positions before channeling his energy into full-time studio work in 1997. Following a successful practice spanning over 25 years, Isichei pursued further studies in the UK, gaining a Post Graduate Diploma, and a Masters in Fine Art from the Chelsea College of Art in 2013.
To date, Isichei has held seven solo exhibitions and several salons, joint and group exhibitions in Nigeria, Germany, the United States, Switzerland, Greece and the United Kingdom.
You had already gained recognition as a leading contemporary artist in Nigeria, following a successful practice spanning over 25 years. Why did you then decide to pursue a Masters degree at the Chelsea College of Art, one of the most prestigious institutions in the UK and what impact has this experience had on your work?
It has always been my wish to do a post-graduate programme in a noted school outside Nigeria. There was no specific time frame for when that will happen, it was mostly dependent on when I could muster the funds. Art practice and its teaching in Nigeria is in a way, limiting, and still traditional in scope. The world has become a global village, and like they say… ‘You cannot watch a masquerade from one spot’. Art is dynamic; and nobody is isolated in this technological age; everybody knows what is going on everywhere as it happens. So art and artists should not be divorced from these contemporary interactions. I needed to move away from my comfort zone and to challenge my creative edge in a way that would further my visual vocabulary.
The experience is subliminal, in the sense that it is not something overt. The two-year programme, though challenging, was not enough to sever the underlying sentiments and traits that have enfolded my practice over the years. Rather, it emboldened my exploration of material aesthetics and process, as well as repositioned my visual narrative.
You work largely in a figurative mode, many of your earlier paintings depicting fractured faces with separate areas covered in different colours. Do these fractures and distinctive colours have special meanings for you?
They do because colours have special meanings to everybody and each individual interprets them in his or her peculiar way. Red to some connotes love; yet to another, it signifies danger or blood. Some say blue is as calming as the sea, while to others it forebodes ‘evil’ sea creatures. However, the whole idea is for me to move away from the traditional practice of portraiture, so I needed to do portraits on my own terms and by doing so, hope that the variant colour shades resonate heartfelt dialogue with the viewer.
Are your sitters well known to you or are they part of your daily existence?
My models are chosen from varied sources. Sometimes they are friends around me, other times they’re sourced from random pictures, and the mass media. They are not meant to be known faces, otherwise it takes away from the exploratory nature of the composition and process; as such, it has a beginning and an end. If appropriated from the media, I reconfigure the features to suit my purpose as my interest is in mostly capturing moods and expressions.
Your recent work shows an increasing incorporation of found materials, away from your better-known highly textured canvases. What is your thinking behind this direction and is this departure a result of influences from your time in the UK?
Yes and no. No in the sense that I have been doing experimental works before I undertook the UK graduate programme. Going there to learn more, meant I had to have an open mind like a blank canvas while leaving behind my existing knowledge. Yes, because my UK experience has impacted more since I came back as mixed media allows me to have different voices to express my viewpoint. There are some themes that cannot be justifiably expressed in the usual traditional method of oil on canvas, so one needs other means to actualize those ideas. These other means are those things one finds around one, with a voice of their own waiting to be used—reinvented or re-purposed, and added to a composition.
Do these material hold any personal histories for you?
They must have a personal history before I am attracted to them; we need to be attracted to each other to agree to work together. I have personal histories that are subconscious, not things the naked eye can see. When I want to use 2 or 3 bottle tops in a composition, I choose from a thousand. So how do I choose those few I put to use? There is a kind of communication between me and the chosen few. I work with corrugated iron and rusted zinc, but how do I choose when there are several hues of rusted zinc sheets available? There has to be some kind of subconscious agreement between the materials I put in my compositions and I because they are the ones that have the kinds of textures and colour hues that would interpret what I have in mind; they are personal.
With many other artists today employing found materials in their work, many questions arise regarding durability. What measures have you undertaken to ensure the permanence of your work?
‘Different strokes for different folks.’ Some do it because it’s fashionable and everyone is doing it. Every artist has his or her methods of fashioning material durability. In my own case, I collect and put them through an experimental process. I don’t just pick them up for use unless they have been in my collection for a while, or observed them in their characteristic habitat. For example, I pick up materials and end up putting them to use three or more years later. A lot of the materials you see in an artist’s studio may look like junk to you, but to the artist, they are stored materials to be used in the future. Storing for long allows you to test their endurance and sustainability.
Several modes of expression are identifiable in your work; thickly applied oils on canvas that betray a fascination for the textural properties of the medium; the over layering of sheets of corrugated iron; archival prints depicting faces fashioned from found objects like corks, wire, plastic, soda cans and clips; and fairly recently, a strongly figurative linear system of lines against clear white backgrounds. How are you able to achieve a balance between these broadly contrasting styles?
When it comes to technique and style, I am restless and undisciplined. I can’t stick to the same mode of expression for long. I am constantly in flux as an artist—my practice is more exploratory as the process is far more rewarding for me than the finish. Yet, there is always a thread that binds all the styles together. The question then is, what is that thread? To me it is subconscious; I leave that to the viewer to determine, because if I tell what binds my works together, then I am leaving them with a biased and non-critical mind. There is need for constant motion and movement, that’s where it becomes irresistible for me not to stick to the same perspective. In addition, I feel artists should be more pro-active in exploring and juxtaposing other genres of art to enhance their practice.
What common philosophy binds your work?
Persistent exploration into object and material unification, as well as radical departure from orthodox methods of painting, underpins the philosophy of my practice.
Can you kindly shed more light on your working methods and styles?
My working techniques are not structured or engraved in stone, rather they involve going to the studio, having an idea, starting it and then if it’s not working out, trying something else. I am very experimental and open to new challenges because in the process of experimenting, one discovers new things; it’s a learning process. So I see my techniques as work in progress, it’s never finished. If I stick to a particular technique, whether it works or not, simply means I have not opened up my mind to any new adventure. This is what makes one distinct from the next person. As an artist there are many times when you start a work and it seems not to be working out so you abandon the canvas and do something else. You cannot get stuck to that particular work because you have expended so much energy, time and money but must find a way to move away from that original idea to something new. You must be open to new challenges and ideas— that’s more like modus operandi.
At your last solo exhibition held at the National Museum in Lagos, the ‘Deification’ series featured prominently. What is the inspiration and thinking behind this body of work?
The ‘Deification’ series is like a commentary on the excesses in not just fashion, but also in commodification and the worship of artificial things. I choose not to do the series in the traditional form because they embody the visual arts— photography and installation; some of the works do not exist as original pieces, but as photography of assembled objects that I did shoot myself. So they are both installations and documentaries of the process that brought them to life.
What artists have majorly influenced your work and career?
At any point in time, depending on what I am doing or looking for, I have different artists who influence my work. As a student, I had many tutors who I looked up to like Kolade Oshinowo, Yusuf Grillo and Olu Amoda. Internationally, I look at; Robert Rauschenberg; Anselm Kiefer; Jeff Koons to an extent, though he is controversial; Richard Prince; and Damien Hirst. I like his tenacious spirit though he is also controversial. Then there are Yinka Shonibare and Alexander Mcqueen, who though was a fashion designer, his creations have the same transformatory visual appeal. There are many others but those are presently, on my mind.
Please tell us about your forthcoming exhibitions or projects?
Presently, I don’t have any forthcoming exhibition or project. I am in transition. My studio is undergoing remodeling and won’t be ready till late this year or early next year. At the moment, there is nothing I look forward to as much as this new studio. After that I can make projections for the future, but for now I am on a sabbatical, just doing minimal work.