Stacey Okparavero on Urhobo Deities and the Niger Delta

Adopting several approaches, multidisciplinary Nigerian artist, Stacey Okparavero works across various media and genre, including watercolour, acrylic, pastel, video, sculpture, poetry and performance. In her work, she addresses a range of issues from the social, political to mental health, the environment and the spiritual. Okparavero studied art at the University of Lagos, as well as the University of Warwick, United Kingdom and Institut d’Etudes Superieure des Arts in Paris, where she majored in the study of the history and business of the contemporary art market, to improve her curatorial and marketing skills while introducing her to the mechanics of the international art market.

In June 2011, Okparavero was awarded the Best Pastel Artist by Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Arts Foundation during an art entrepreneurship workshop, held in Lagos. Her participation in the 2016 Dakar Biennial with a performance piece titled La Puissance du Toucher, established her presence on the international art scene. She also showed at the Suba Biennale in the prestigious Centre International de Conférences Abdou Diouf (CICAD) with artists such as Ousmane Mbaye, Marc Montaret, Delphine Diallo and Loza Maleombho. Stacey Okparavero has participated in the Brush Tu art residency program in Nairobi Kenya, furthering her ongoing research and experiments on mind states, politics, and her commentary on mental health. Her works have been exhibited in Nigeria, Senegal and the United Kingdom. In this interview with Omenka, she takes us through her creative process to further our understanding of her work.

How long have you been practising for?

I have been practising for the last 13 years.

Where did you study?

I studied at the University of Lagos, the Institut d’Etudes Superieure des Arts in Paris and the University of Warwick.

You studied in Lagos, as well as Paris. Has working out of the UK and Lagos had any impact on your art and experiences and how are you able to bring these experiences into your work?

I think studying in Lagos has given me an introduction to the way the art ecosystem here runs. Paris opened up my mind to how artistic practices have developed over the years, as well as the use of completely different materials (even the mundane) to create a high quality of colour pigments, compared to what is available here in Lagos. It also showed me the difference between the quality of pigment in Paris and London. It exposed me to the quality of the curating and the difference in art shows, like gallery and museum exhibitions.

All these have definitely impacted my work a great deal, especially seeing Marina Abramović’s work at the Serpentine Gallery in the UK. It just blew my mind. I was able to meet with her, and being in her presence, feeling all that energy, as well as experiencing her performance, was completely revolutionary. I was also inspired to create works in metal, by Sokari D. Camp, after meeting her in London.

In terms of how I approach my work and how I see myself as an artist, it opens me up to the fact that art transcends so many things. There are so many layers and things to explore, and I am very experimental. I’m constantly experimenting with colour and performance. I express what I feel represents my thought process. Today, it could be sculpture, tomorrow performance, painting, or poetry. I like to experiment and bring all these different facets together and unify them, morphing into one hybrid of artistic expression.

I see that you have kept true to your roots by employing masks, knowing how important they are in African tradition. What have you been able to do in re-interpreting them in a contemporary manner?

I have been able to look at several of these African ideologies and fuse them in my work process. I have worked closely with Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya, who has greatly impacted my work, not just the aesthetic, but the thought process in terms of storytelling, narrating, and documenting. His process is very experimental and almost scientific. He documents every single thing so that when there is an accident, it creates something new. That’s how some of his plastocast methods were born. It’s something he’s told me to do many times: to just document, write down processes and tell stories about our tradition and culture.

I don’t speak fluent Urhobo, but every time I’m around him or the Harmattan Workshop, I try to because it’s our identity. I’m learning more about the culture, history, traditions, and deities, which are all very evident in his work. He tells a lot of stories and folktales. I try to use the resources I have, which are my family, people based in Delta, older generations that know all these stories that you can’t find anywhere, as there is no documentation.

For instance, I heard there was a god called Uriapele of Sapele River. I checked online, everywhere, and I couldn’t find a single thing on it, so I spoke to an aunt of mine who documents Urhobo culture and traditions. She was so excited that I was interested in learning about the culture because we’ve never really had that type of conversation before. She gave me a list of different gods of each village, what they do, and where they are from, including the festival periods. I was surprised to hear about these festivals, some of which occur only every 21 years. It’s so exciting as the more I dig, the more I find out there is a plethora of things to explore. There is so much cultural history to explore through the arts, and that has definitely impacted my work, so I fuse some contemporary issues and create a narrative that is so compelling.

What contemporary issues are dearest to you?

Presently, my practice explores Urhobo Deities and experimental materials such as metal. I’m also conducting research on the Urhobo Deities at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, while preparing to exhibit at art expo New York. It is contemporary because it’s happening and evolving. It is also an issue that has been tackled in the past. So, I’m using the Ogoni—Ken Saro-Wiwa’s story—as a point of reference because it’s still happening now. The present government has not done anything to make sure that the rivers are clear or to tackle the environmental impact of drilling and oil spills. It is important that through art and performance people come to understand that this is a serious problem. If this problem is not addressed now, it will only lead to further deterioration. It’s such a sad thing because it’s the Niger Delta that feeds the nation, as it supplies Nigeria’s major resource. It’s one of the richest states but it doesn’t filter down, as the government has mismanaged funds. Everything is in decline, and nobody is doing anything about it. I feel it’s the responsibility of the artist to draw attention to these pressing issues in order for things to happen, because change starts from awareness. This is what my current body of work explores.

Tell us a little bit about your creative process, your techniques and underlying philosophies.

The process is not linear. Sometimes it begins with writing about my opinion on an issue that resonates deeply and drawing different energies from around. I then talk about it. The more I do this, the more it manifests and fleshes out. One can draw inspiration from mundane things around you, like the movement of water or the sound of the wind. All these filter down until an aesthetic is created from the process. The masks evolved from line drawings. The ‘We the King’ series began last year at the Harmattan Workshop. I was experimenting with this new technique, viscosity. It’s monoprint of viscosity, and it just happened. Forms evolved even before the story; it was very interesting. The process of monoprint involves putting the paint on a plate or glass before drawing whatever print or image in reverse (kind of like a negative), then you print it. It is not as intricate as line drawing. When I saw how it turned out, I interpreted it in pastel. After drying, I used pastel in some parts and found it very interesting, as I liked the forms. I transformed the forms into line drawings then simplified them. From there, they started evolving. I moved from monoprint to pastel, pastel to pencil, pencil to ink, to canvas and then metal assemblage. I also experimented with priming the canvas with sawdust to give it texture, which evolved to what you see now. It’s so exciting to see the trajectory of how it has evolved over time.

At the last Harmattan Workshop, I moved this same aesthetic to wood. I’m currently experimenting with metal and plastocast, and it’s interesting to see how one thing can morph into all these other things. I thought to myself, “This looks like a head.” In African mythology, the head is the sacred part of the body that controls everything. I then referenced it to Urhobo and Benin mythology; you can see some of the aesthetic, the ukuku beads showing royalty. This is how the work evolved from feeding it different things. It’s also contemporary because it’s happening now.

My work draws from the thought process that as long as you can think, you can create. Thoughts become things, and we have to wake up and take responsibility for the choices we make. It’s about waking up to the power that we have. We’re almost like a sleeping giant. We Africans are powerful and need to stop making excuses. Enough is enough; the West is no longer an excuse. There’s always that feeling of not having enough and looking to the West for options, but we have so much. Africa is rich and blessed, but we mismanage what we have.

Even now more than ever, it becomes more relevant because there is a global awakening. You will see on some of my pieces words like, “Awaken each day.” “We the kings awaken each day.” “We are waking to our power.” “The time is now.” I embed such texts into the work because I feel some people may not successfully connect to it. Sometimes you need words to understand the thought process of the artist, which is why I write on some of my recent works.

Someone drew a connection between the very popular movie released last year—Black Panther—and my work. The person asked if the body of work was in tandem with Wakanda because one can draw so many parallels. It’s crazy and almost feels prophetic because the actual thought process for my work began two years ago. You can draw the trajectories and see that the work itself and thought process are constantly evolving.

So you incorporate some text into your work?

Yes, I’m actually planning to gather most of the text that I’ve incorporated and put them together as a book.

When is it due?

Hopefully, by the end of the year. It’s one of my projects.

I know you’ve just recently participated in an exhibition that deals with projecting female artists, what have been your challenges as a female artist and do you think anything can be done to project more female artists?

First of all, I don’t really identify as a female artist. I identify as an artist, and have always identified as one. The exhibition I participated in was interesting, because if you noticed, the works I exhibited We the Kings do not really address being a female artist. It’s rather deliberate and conscious, because me being female is obvious, and I don’t think my gender should precede what I do, which is my art that is bigger than me.

Have you had to challenge this stereotype?

I have had instances where people underestimate me because I’m a woman, but because it’s not in my consciousness, it just goes over my head. I face the same challenges men face. For example, a lack of particular materials I have to import from London or Paris.

I don’t think that if I get married and have children it’s going to be a problem, because I don’t see why I can’t continue to paint or do what I do. I will be with a man who knows his role as a father. He has to be present and supportive. I wouldn’t choose to be with someone who has that backward mentality of “Your role is in the kitchen”. You have to be present, you have to be able to change your child’s diaper and take care of my children if I am out of the country. It’s a joint effort, which many people forget. I will find someone who complements me and works together to be better for each other. It’s not like I would give up my dream because I am married. Art is my life, and if the person I am with does not understand that, then he has no business being around me.

Right from when I was a child I always knew what I wanted. At age two, I started painting walls. My mum had to keep repainting. I also excelled in music and art and all things creative, including English literature. I sucked at math, and some other subjects that didn’t have the creativity I liked. I knew I wanted to be a visual artist, but also wanted to sing. I used to sing in the past and actually had a couple of singles out there. My experiments have included a bit of acting. I was featured on an episode of Tinsel though it feels like a lifetime ago,  I might return to acting at some point, especially because of performance. Interestingly enough, people always have ideas. When I was at the university, someone once told me that I act better than I paint. I was at TEDx last year and read a poem called Lady. I want to do more of those as well.

How has the reception been for your art internationally?

It’s been very good and exciting as well because I constantly get feedback. For example, Oprah Winfrey was at my show the other day, and Mrs Bendu Cooper, founder and director of Gallery of African Art (GAFRAAT), London said she loved my work. Someone else walked into the gallery intending to buy an old work but saw my work and chose to buy it instead. The feedback has been great.

There is so much I want to do that will be mind blowing because it’s a different medium and thought process from what people are used to. Most times, people in Lagos ascribe one thing to you and try to box you in. They say, “You work with watercolours; you are a watercolourist. Why are you doing this? This is not your usual style.” There is no such thing as my usual style because I’m constantly evolving, experimenting, and exploring. If I execute metal work for some time, then that’s what I want to do because it’s the best way to express my thought process at that time. Time, space, and thought are constantly fluid; they reflect in my work. It’s good you have an opinion, but if it doesn’t resonate, I let it go. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.

I know that you are writing a book, and possibly want to do your PhD on Delta deities. You’ve also talked about collaboration with a Canadian artist. Kindly tell us about him, what you are doing together and when it will reach fruition.

His name is Malcolm Emilio and he works with pyramids, copper, and metal, employing crystals to fuse metal in terms of healing and channelling energies. I thought it was interesting because I submitted a project for LagosPhoto 2 years ago (a performance piece). I made a demo with the help of a friend who is an architect. I drew what I wanted, which she visualised in 3D. It was a pyramid with a person sitting in it with plastic bottles of water. The idea was to reference the oil spillage in the water in Niger Delta. Initially, we were going to use doll heads but later decided to use Akwaaba dolls to reference the fertility of the land. You’ll find that these environmental issues cut across cultures, hence my decision to focus on the Niger Delta. But then you’ll see it touches on two different cultures to create a body of work. The performance will include a sound installation and cater to four senses: smell, sound, sight, and touch. Around the pyramids will be copper, which is Emilio infusing his own style.

We met and connected on Instagram when I saw his pyramids. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is exactly what I had proposed last year.’ I sent him a DM, and said, ‘I have to send you the proposal I wrote last year. It’s so crazy that you are actually doing what I had thought to do last year.’ He responded that he had never even thought of referencing something so important. For him, it was a mere aesthetic. I think there is a much deeper resonance to what he is exploring. Drawing on something as important as that became interesting, and so that’s how we decided to work around it. We began Skyping to flesh out ideas.

We are going to do a performance piece as both of us are creating that space. We are to meet and show the performance in New York. Today, I’m going to finish with a proposal, adding his bit, and then we’ll go through it together. Once satisfied, we will introduce both our galleries. We were meant to do a collaborative piece together in Ghana last year, but couldn’t make it in time for the Chale WOTE Festival. So I did the performance without him, though he was supportive in absence. We did meet in New York last year. My vision for it is to be a travelling performance. At the moment, we are still fleshing out ideas and watching it evolve, but it’s all very exciting.

I see that you’re on to a lot of big things, is it in your name and what does it mean?

Okpara is the village I come from. My great-grandfather was a warrior, so I think there’s some reference in between.

Have you done something to illustrate your surname?

No, I haven’t. I think that might be interesting to explore.


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