Against the Craze for Foreign Goods

Fast-rising ceramist May Okafor holds a Bachelors degree in Fine and Applied Arts, as well as a Master’s in Art History, both from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Though formally trained in ceramics, Okafor enjoys expanding her boundaries by exploring the potentials of various types of material including clay, through different firing techniques, as well as familiar and unfamiliar forms. She continues to investigate critical societal issues ranging from procreation to consumer culture, and in her recent solo exhibition at the Revolving Art Incubator, taken to employing mainly apple trays in her installations. May Okafor’s several honours include the National Art Award (2015) and the Best Graduating Student, Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (2010). She presently lives and works in Nsukka, Nigeria.

Alongside an active studio practice, you’re also on the academic staff of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. How are you able to cope with such a busy schedule?

It is not easy, especially with the Nigerian system, in which one’s promotion is mainly verified by the number of published papers in impact factor journals like researchers in the sciences. Although, exhibitions are also considered, the emphasis is on publishing, which creates the need to write. Most times I am in between writing, publishing and creating, which could be challenging. As a fine artist and lecturer, I must practice what I teach by creating too. I wouldn’t say it’s been so stressful as it has been fun all the way.

Your work deals with consumerism. Is that a direct influence by El Anatsui whose impact seems overwhelming on students of Nsukka?

Yes, El Anatsui has greatly inspired me. But for the idea of consumerism, I have never considered him as a direct influence; the idea was inspired by the nation’s economic recession, which we have all been facing since the 90s. It has never been this bad, and a majority of the masses, both rich and poor are not finding it funny. As an artist, I was concerned about the issues surrounding the recession and found that outside government policies, the decisions we make as individuals matter a great deal. Indeed, the crave for foreign goods has consumed most of us. The other day, I listened to a woman advertise her clothes and accessories at her shop in Enugu. I was interested, so I listened for the address, but she kept emphasizing the fact that her goods were all foreign. That pissed me off. It meant that if goods are not foreign, then they are not good. I later realized that it is not her fault. By the law of demand and supply, you have to give people what they want.

From your title, the word cannibalism is used in a different context from its usual meaning. Why is there a play in the title?

I don’t think cannibalism is used in a different context from its normal meaning, because it has to do with something eating another of its own kind. It could be a human or animal eating the flesh of its own kind. In languages the word cannibalism could apply as well. Relating it to the exhibition, I use the apple, which seems to have cannibalized over local fruits, as a metaphor to explain how foreign goods have cannibalized most of our local ones. For instance, foreign clothing is preferred to local ones.

Much of your success as a ceramist hinges on the combination of separate materials including clay in your work. Please tell us a bit more about that.

I don’t restrict myself to a particular set of materials; it depends on what I want to create. I make use of any material that suits my creative language, so, in this particular project, I have used apple trays in addition to clay. The apples come in cartons and trays, which are thrown away after we eat the apples. As I mentioned, this fruit is my metaphor and on one hand, I am recycling the waste from apples in form of the cartons and trays, and on the other, talking about the issue.

What are you trying to achieve with the exhibition and is this your first solo exhibition in Lagos?

Yes, this is my first solo exhibition. Basically, I am asking Nigerians to stop pointing fingers, mind their choices, get involved with ensuring the economic growth of the nation and quit blaming the government during this period.

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