Back to his base in Germany after his participation in a group exhibition in Nigeria, Chidi Kwubiri shares the great moments of his art practice with Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
This was one of those experiences anyone would wish to fast-forward. What Chidi Kwubiri saw that Saturday, July 8 morning, as he peered out of his hotel window, gave him more things to agonise over than he cared for. It was as though the whole of Lagos was flooded. No car was in sight in the usually busy street. Not even the most powerfully-built SUVs ventured outside. Now and then, he spotted one or two people paddle their way through the streets.
All this was happening on the opening day of a group exhibition he was supposed to be a part of! And this was an exhibition he had so much looked forward to, on account of which he had reached out to the curator Sandra Obiago as soon the opportunity presented itself.
He closed his eyes in a bid to still the rising waves of anxiety surging in him. Was this how his pet project would flop? Who would venture out in this rain and flood, which could drown ducks and exhume corpses?
A quick cut to the actual opening of the exhibition, titled Wanderlust. It turned out to be a full house at the venue, The Wheatbaker Hotel in the swanky Ikoyi neighbourhood of Lagos. The place swarmed with news hounds, who came sniffing around. Then, a lot of works were bought.
“The exhibition was successful in all respects,” Kwubiri recalled.
He considered it “another new and great experience” for all the artists concerned. Even as a Germany-based artist, he had previously made several forays into the local art scene with his solo exhibitions. So had the others, three of whom were also based in Germany. The remaining two – who were incidentally the only two female and mixed-race artists in the lot – were well-known figures in the exhibition circuit.
“We shared great moments, interacted and hanged out together,” Kwubiri continued. “I cherished this moment a lot, because it offered me the chance to get to know some of the artists better and the philosophy behind their art. It was a great pleasure for me to have had the chance to be in the midst of such unique artists, with a unified concept of unique artworks.”
Kwubiri’s regular visits to Nigeria also earned him enough recognition for slots in the ArtHouse Contemporary’s auctions. Indeed, his works had been consistently sold for mouth-watering hammer prices at the biannual event that has arguably become one of the most prestigious in Lagos.
For him, this should be one good reason to give level of art patronage in the country the thumbs up. “The appreciation from my collectors in Nigeria is great and very encouraging. I am happy whenever I have the chance to come back home to engage, not only with my strong circle of collectors in Nigeria, but also to feel the vibes.”
Besides, Nigeria was the place where his artistic odyssey all started. So, each homecoming for him was an opportunity for regeneration. With each visit, he would savour the hustle and bustle of Lagos, the sights and sounds of his village festivals, the interaction with the people and culture and so many other things. “This is very important for me because… just like a tree supplied with water, minerals and nourishment through its roots by the soil, so do I draw my basic inspirations from the sources of my background. I like to come home to be inspired, to rejuvenate and to try to impact, and to pass on this encouragement over to the youths and the upcoming in any way I can.”
His recent penchant for inveigling installation works into his exhibitions would surely not have gone unnoticed. How have these been received by his pied-piper retinue of enthusiasts? “It depends on how one looks at it,” came his pensive reply.
Acceptance is a tractable word. If it is meant in the sense of passing the conceptual message of the installations across or having them admired, then the answer is: “Yes!” His installations have been well accepted.
“My installations are always an important enrichment for the big art events and I feel like they are very interesting for the media and for museums. In the sense of collection, my paintings are doing better.”
Art practice for Kwubiri started at the age of five or six. Born and raised in a rustic Nigeria’s south-eastern community, he knew no role models nor even anything about art. He was simply egged on by an inexplicable inner urge. “As a teenager, I even had to endure the punishments my parents meted out to me. They thought I was wasting my time when their dream was for me to become something else in the future like a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. I just followed my dream against all odds. I felt very early, that this ambition was inborn and that I had to follow my destiny.”
Nonetheless, his people, culture and tradition formed the mosaic of his greatest influences. Of course, global events would sometimes have an osmotic effect on him.
Perhaps, the most aesthetically fascinating feature of his paintings are their mottled finish. Critics sometimes confuse this technique with pointillism. But, Kwubiri explained that this was rather a “dripping” technique that afterwards looked like they were dotted. “There’s no doubt of course that there’s a small element of dotting, but generally I do ‘dripping technique’, not ‘pointillism’.”
This too can be traced back to Nigeria even when it would be further developed in Germany in the 1990s. That was a period he called his experimental phase in the art academy. Then, he was seriously groping for his own style – his own vernacular in art.
But the first years as an artist in Europe turned out to be disorienting.
“I was lost and confused in the beginning,” he confessed.
How wouldn’t he be, after being overwhelmed by the standard and the variety of artistic expressions in Germany? He could see how art had become integrated as an essential element of common life. “There was art in the streets, in the parks, in homes and offices, public and private institutions. Just mention it, art is everywhere.”
He soon braced himself for the challenges ahead. His migration to Europe was spurred on by his inner yearning to broaden his knowledge about art. There was also the aspect of rediscovering his own culture and tradition from a distance.
Several visits to Düsseldorf’s Art Academy and discussions with some of the art students made his encounter with the late Professor Michael Buthe possible. The latter saw his works, encouraged, supported him and subsequently offered him an admission as “guest student”.
Recognition came knocking at his door a few months later. First, he was nominated and selected for “a very prestigious” organised by the Düsseldorf-based Hedwig and Robert Samuel Foundation. This exhibition had a huge media coverage. And he was not yet admitted a regular student!
“A year later, I succeeded in gaining the highly competitive admission as a regular student at the Art Academy Düsseldorf.”
Then came the plethora of awards. This was in the early years of his studies. And before he knew it, his works were already finding their way into respectable collections. It was also during this period that he met a gallery owner in Düsseldorf, who was not only very passionate about his works, but also gave him his first ever “gallery solo exhibition”.
“Unfortunately, this gallery owner died much too early before I really started my full-time studio art career.” A note of melancholy laced his words.
His integration into the European art scene was gradual. Hence, his profile morphed from the “exotic bonus” of being an “African artist” to becoming an “artist from Africa with a universal art language”.