Struggling to earn their living against all odds, four Abuja-based artists enthuse about a brighter future. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes
So much optimism reverberates in the word “promising”. Amarachi Kelechi Odimba uses it for good reasons in her allusion to the Abuja art scene. “Abuja is a growing city,” the Enugu State University of Technology geology and mining graduate says.
It is, therefore, expected that more and more art spaces would spring up in different parts of this rapidly expanding city. “With the contemporary art scene growing at a good pace, it becomes a more enabling environment for art to thrive,” she adds.
This optimism is shared by her colleagues: Jacqueline Suowari, another Abuja-based female artist and a University of Port Harcourt graduate of fine art and design; Sor Sen, an Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria Master of Fine Art degree holder, and Obi Nwaegbe, a University of Nigeria, Nsukka graduate of fine and applied arts.
While Suowari and Nwaegbe enthuse about the increasing vibrancy of the city’s art scene, Sen is somewhat guarded in his optimism. While the Benue State-born artist acknowledges the unprecedented increase in art spaces as well as the growing enthusiasm and awareness among the public, he is concerned about the unregulated development of the industry, which makes it easier for novices and shylocks to have a free reign. “I would hope to have an art scene that merges thought, practice and profit for the benefit of all,” he adds.
Soon after his first degree from the Ahmadu Bello University in 2008, he found himself assailed with doubts about his chosen profession. “I wasn’t sure, whether I was cut out for it or not,” he says. “So I went back to school to acquire a master’s degree in the same line.”
Even his obtaining an additional degree did nothing to dispel his doubts. “After school again, it felt like I was more confused in the sense that I was dealing with a career that rather appeared formless in nature,” he explains.
Specifically, he found no existing structures that young graduates like him could key into. So, he had to pave his path. “This has been quite challenging but at the same time fulfilling, in the sense that you have to become the author and master of your fate. Being resident and practising in Abuja sometimes gives you a sense of leverage over others in other parts of Nigeria, in the sense that you are close to the seat of power and, sometimes, can access the flakes of power, if you are lucky enough. That could help in pushing your career. But again, I expect much more from this city. Perhaps, this is a city that screams loudest about the need to restore itself to a masterplan. When you study critically what has been tagged a plan, you will discover that art is not consciously included in their plan. So, how do you build a city without the inclusion of art? Who is supposed to live in that type of city, robots?”
But, for Odimba, whose full-time studio practice started in Abuja in 2013, networking with artists who work with different media rather opened her eyes to a new world of experiences. “I explored more and more within and outside the country and this has exposed me to practise better,” the Abia State-born artist enthuses. “I must appreciate the encouragement from associations like the Female Artist Association of Nigeria and Society of Nigerian Artists, which are good platforms for artists to get on.”
She had moved to the federal capital city with big expectations and had, so far, experienced no disappointments.
Ditto Suowari, whose full-time studio practice began a decade ago. To her, the city “has been awesome”. Her verdict on the art community? “[It] is stronger and more vibrant than it has ever been.”
For Nwaegbe, it took a solo exhibition in Omenka Gallery in the upscale Lagos neighbourhood Ikoyi to launch his career. This was in 2010, after two years of painstaking preparation. The show, which recorded over 60% sales, buoyed his confidence in a talent-glutted scene.
Like many of his contemporaries, he had moved to Lagos soon after his National Youth Service Corps programme full of hopes. Moving in with one of his female cousins in FESTAC town area of the densely-populated city, he struggled to overcome the financial pressures he was facing. There was also the fact that he was in someone else’s space, which he considered an inconvenient arrangement that should be short-lived. “My priority became about economic enablement which I pursued making small paintings and selling them to Lagos galleries.”
Thus, his move to Abuja in 2015 became the turning-point in his career. In this city, he found more reasons to be more resolute in his art practice. “I started pretty well while in Lagos and in moving to Abuja, I have expanded my market scope to include international clientele using the internet and social media to reach out,” he says. “So, I have a market link between Abuja, Lagos, Europe and the United States. I have a gallery contact in Australia that promotes my work in Adelaide, one of Australia’s vibrant cities. Quite often, buyers pay in full at time of purchase and for those who ask for an instalment they have largely complied to payment plan although there are a few defaulters here and there.”
Still on the patronage of his works, it seems to tilt in favour of the Nigerian collectors. This is even when he acknowledges the expatriate community’s in the Abuja art scene. “They attend our events and buy our art as well. They are also involved in the organisation of art shows in the [federal] capital territory, either as on individual or official capacity.”
Odimba, who says more Nigerian collectors patronised her works in 2019 than the three previous years, echoes his experiences, adding: “It hasn’t been all rosy. I have had a couple of not-so-good experiences. But, I’m grateful for the good ones. The experiences enable me to learn, improve and move on.”
But, both Suowari and Sen have had different experiences. Both affirm that their works are more patronised by foreigners than by Nigerians.
“I haven’t had any bad experiences with collectors,” Suowari says. “It’s always rewarding when people can appreciate your style of expression and seek to do nothing else but encourage you to keep being unique.”
“There are no laid-out rules out there,” Sen argues. “A patron would visit your studio and tell you all the things he likes and commissions you to execute the work. When the work is executed, they would in some cases come up with a lot of ‘what ifs’, ‘it should be’s’ or they would reject the commissioned piece completely. I understand the burden they carry, its aesthetics and it’s quite hard to please people. Then, others would walk into your studio and pick up whatever they like at just any rate you would want your work to be sold. So, it’s a mixture of sweetness and bitterness. This feels like life itself.”
Meanwhile, the artists’ relationship with the National Gallery of Art, whose administrative headquarters is in Abuja, has been cordial. While Odimba recalls that a couple of her exhibitions had either been sponsored or organised by the parastatal, Suowari says she has participated in several group exhibitions it organised.
In Nwaegbe’s case, there was an official representation from the National Gallery for an exhibition he held in Abuja. “Recently, the curator of the gallery attended a lecture I delivered on ‘Mentoring Moments’, a monthly mentorship programme organised by Thought Pyramid Art Centre Abuja.”
Predictably, the artists – except Suowari – do not adhere to any strict work schedule. According to Suowari, who is married, she gets to her studio at about 9.30 am and closes any time between 5.30 and 6 pm from Monday to Friday. “I work late nights and on weekends if I have a deadline to meet or if I’m preparing for a show. Also, there’s always a lot of music in the background while I’m working.”
Sen describes his daily routine as “quite erratic”. “It could start with me preparing my breakfast, sitting still listening to music, reading a book or engaging common people on the street in a bid to get stories that would make up the soul of my work,” he says. “I try always engaging in some sort of activity that points to art every day.”
Somehow, the artists have carved a niche for themselves in the federal capital city, where virtually everything revolves around the country’s seat of power, and have remained undaunted by the challenges they have faced so far.