Tobenna Okwuosa On History, Religion, Politics and the Artist

Alongside a successful studio practice, Tobenna Okwuosa (PhD) lectures in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, Niger Delta University, Bayelsa State. He is well-known for his academic approach towards his art, which is strongly passionate in upholding an African identity against the “nihilistic effect of globalisation and the current Western aesthetic regime”. Through his work, he engages a broad range of issues from the expansion of digital technology to increasing conflict caused by differences in ethnicity, religion and spirituality while encouraging Nigerian artists to revisit such historical events as the Biafran war, to address prevalent problems like misrule, corruption, nepotism and terrorism. In this interview with Omenka, the artist debunks the often complex thematic structures his oeuvre consists of.

The Beginning of a Great Narrative, 2018. Acrylic on canvas, 76 x 51cm.

Alongside your career as an academic and writer, you have established a successful studio practice. How do these separate disciplines inform your art?

I need to begin by stating that before I became an academic and a writer, I was a full-time studio artist based in Lagos with a burgeoning career. Then in 2005, I got employed by Niger Delta University, Wilberforce Island in Bayelsa. My employment came a few months after I returned to Nigeria from the United States, where I had completed a three-month residency at Worcester State College, Massachusetts, as Philip L. Ravenhill Fellow. I was the first to receive the fellowship (2004/2005), which the Fowler Museum (University of California, Los Angeles) administered. By the time I became a lecturer at Niger Delta University, I had already done two solo exhibitions: Motherhood, Femininity, and Values (2003) at the French Cultural Centre in Lagos and The Igbo World (2005) at Worcester State College.

I never thought I would become a writer. My friend, Ozioma Onuzulike, said something to me sometime in 2000 or 2001 that made me realise I could write something worth reading. He said he liked the way I argued and that my ideas would make an interesting read. He encouraged me to start writing articles. In 2001, I wrote my first one, “Eleven Years after the Futurist, Nelson-Cole”, and it was published in The Guardianof December 30, 2001. After that, it took ten years before I started writing academic articles. This was in my fifth year working as a lecturer.

To write a good article on any subject, one has to have a good knowledge of it, which mostly comes from reading. Reading is no longer just what I need to do to write or teach, it has become an essential part of my creative process. To me, painting is a form of research, and I read in order to paint. I don’t make vacuous art. My academic work enriches my art practice, and my experiences in the studio enrich my academic work.

Please tell us more about the predominant use of CDs, red and blue hues, and detailed lines in your work Connectivity and the Digitized Space.

Connectivity and the Digitized Space, a 2013 work, is about the ease of communication and digital connectivity that came with the introduction of GSM phones in Nigeria in 2001. The predominant use of CDs in the work reflects the expansion of digital technology and widespread use of CDs in storing data, images, and music. The textile-like design with a yellow background running across the six panels has a cell phone motif, which is painted red. The numerous vertical and horizontal black lines that form a structured overlay express density and connectivity.

Connectivity and Digitized Space, 2013. Mixed media on canvas (6 Panels) 124cm x 153cm

The noteworthy Soulcentricism (2008) delves into the narrative of religious ideology and the spirituality behind life and death. What objectives did you hope to achieve with this exhibition, and what can you say about contemporary art from Africa assuming an increasingly Western colouration from globalisation, in marked contrast to the religio-social sculptures of traditional African society?

Soulcentricism: A Recovery of Ancient Universal Truths and Indigenous Scripts (2008) was my third solo exhibition. My main objective with Soulcentricismwas to offer an ideology that can check the increasing conflict and acrimony caused by perceived differences in identity, race, ethnicity, nationality and religion.From my studies of different religions and the teachings of some mystics, I have come to the understanding that we are essentially souls who are undergoing material experiences. There is one race, the human race. There is only one God, who is known by different names such as Chukwu, Jehovah, Olodumare, Krishna, or Buddha; and the only path that leads to Him is the path of love. Love for God and man is the essential teaching of every religion. When these commonalities are celebrated, we are guaranteed a better and more peaceful world.

For the works shown in Soulcentricism, I explored ideas and scripts drawn from ancient religious traditions and “indigenous” African scripts. The Igbo traditional belief, Hinduism, and Buddhism were my primary references for the ontological cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. This cyclical progression is expressed metaphorically in my work process, where painting a work means birth, cutting it into pieces becomes death, and using the cut parts to create new works enacts reincarnation. The exploration and application of a range of ancient spiritual philosophies was a conscious effort to redress the lack of spiritual essence and value in most modern and contemporary African art, whose status of authenticity is based only on form.

An assessment of the nature of contemporary African art today shows that African identity has been eroded further due to the nihilistic effect of globalisation and the current Western aesthetic regime that no longer desires any form of Africanness in contemporary African art.

Yes, I have an academic approach towards my work. For every work that I paint, I do some academic research on the subject. It takes me longer to make a painting than to write an article. This academic approach you noted is not common amongst visual artists in Nigeria. Most artists whose works can be said to be overburdened with “academic jargon” live in the West. Such works speak more to our intellectual side and show how deep art can be. I don’t have any problem with such works, because they complement the other kinds of art that are overburdened with banalities. In my own work, I strive to achieve a good balance between academic content and aesthetics.

The Passage: Naked I Stand, 2012. Oil on canvas, 171.5 x 122 cm

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Biafra, you drew inspiration from three major books. The Man DiedThere Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, and Labyrinths by Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Christopher Okigbo, respectively. What personal experience of the Nigerian civil war influenced your creations, and do you view them as a subtle form of protest?

My project, From Historical Facts to Poetic Truths, which commemorated the 50thanniversary of the declaration of Biafra, was not influenced by a personal experience of the Nigerian civil war, because I was not born then. I was born two years after it. The project was simply a commemorative act, 50 years after the declaration of the Republic of Biafra, which existed from 1967 to 1970. The project also celebrated the poetic work of Christopher Okigbo, who died on the warfront in 1967 fighting for Biafra. The work showed some events of the civil war at a time when the peace of the nation and her existence were being threatened by a renewed agitation for Biafra by a separatist organisation, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), led by Nnamdi Kanu. There were images of war and heroism. I looked at the war through the accounts in Chinua Achebe’sThere Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra and Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died. Christopher Okigbo’s poems published in Labyrinths also inspired some of the works that emerged from that academic and practice-based research.

It is unfortunate that the things that caused the first coup and, subsequently, the countercoup and the civil war, such as corruption, misrule, nepotism, and tribalism are now deeply entrenched in our polity and everyday life. Although much hasn’t changed since the end of the war, I do not support any kind of solution that is unconstitutional and can cause another civil war.

How would you want your audience to interpret these historical events, and how would you evaluate responses by contemporary Nigerian artists to such political happenings that affect them and the country?

Our postcolonial history is full of many unpleasant events: a civil war, bloody coups, fatal conflicts, militancy, and terrorism. Chinua Achebe, in his last book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra,noted that within six years of Nigeria’s independence, the nation was already a cesspool of corruption and misrule. History offers a large body of knowledge and events that artists can draw upon, but most contemporary Nigerian artists have no interest in that. The Black-British curator and artist, Eddie Chambers, has mentioned that most artworks produced in Nigeria are ahistorical and apolitical.

When the works that made up From Historical Facts to Poetic Truths were shown at the Modern and Contemporary Arts Pavilion of the African Culture and Design Festival, which Bisi Silva curated in 2017, it elicited strong reactions. Most people read it as a pro-Biafran project; their understanding changed only after listening to me or reading my artist’s statement. When Vice President Yemi Osinbajo got to my booth during the opening of the festival and someone mentioned IPOB, I quickly corrected that erroneous interpretation. I told the vice president that I was against the agitation for Biafra by any unconstitutional means, and laid emphasis on how great we could become as a country if we harness our diversity and potential properly.

It is sad seeing how we constantly sacrifice excellence on the altar of federal character, which encourages mediocrity. Critical existential issues are rarely the subjects of artworks produced in Nigeria. Most contemporary Nigerian artists respond to the issues that affect them the same way that most other Nigerians do: They just complain in private conversations and sometimes make posts and comments on social media, and it ends there.

What are some upcoming projects you have lined up?

My research on contemporary art practice in Nigeria and the Lagos art world is ongoing, and I am currently working with Jess Castellote on some research articles. I am also expanding my practice-based research with texts taken from modern and contemporary Nigerian literature. The art project I am giving more attention to at the moment is one that investigates the idea of traditional African masks as portraiture within a pictorial field. Here, elements of postcards and stamps are explored to counter the colonialist, voyeuristic, photographic gaze on African bodies, using contemporary African figures who possess the Afropolitan outlook. The first work in this series titled Afropolitan (2016) is in the collection of Robert Mbonu. The result of this project will be shown to the public when it is ready.

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