Art and Creative Possibilities According to Gerald Chukwuma
by Ladun Ogidan
Gerald Chukwuma was born in 1973 and holds a first class degree in fine and applied arts from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He works as a sculptor and is an accomplished furniture designer. His art, though reminiscent of El Anatsui’s panels, is strongly individual. Chukwuma assembles used panels of various sizes found in his immediate environment to make one lyrical whole. Easily recognisable with decorative paint and flattened metal, his work can be found in several significant collections, and has been presented as a state gift to the Uganda president by late President Umaru Yar’Adua of Nigeria. Chukwuma has won several awards including the Heineken International Prize for the Best Ten Nigerian Artists (2008). He was also one of the finalists in the first National Art Competition held in 2008, and was first runner-up in the 2011 edition. Gerald Chukwuma has participated in several significant exhibitions in Nigeria and abroad, including: Hedendaagse Afrikaanse Kunst Galerie 23, Amsterdam(2010); Highlife I, Ethnocentrique, Accra (2011); Soaking up Beauty, Constant Capital, Lagos(2014); Essentials, Alexis Galleries, Lagos(2015); Art X Lagos Art Fair, Lagos(2016); People’s Paradise, Temple Muse, Lagos(2016); and Standing Ovation, Gallery 1957, Accra(2017).
With regards to recycling, to what extent do you see your works as revealing Nigerian political and social history?
To a significant extent. Eventually, all our recorded events will become tangible historical samples for posterity. It is clear that Nigeria does not have a notable recycling culture. It was on the breadth of this that I began to consider exploiting creative possibilities and opportunities locked in these cluttering degradable wastes like found aluminium sheets, cans, plastics, foils and other metals, making them a focal medium of my art.
So far, I have been able to create and refabricate intrinsic forms and audacious textures with these items and they have been a substantial symbolic identity of my visual narratives through the years. The stories we tell today and issues we have tried to address through art would definitively come to bear in the years to come. I believe that nobody can tell your story better than you. That is why it is important that these creative energies are chronicled and preserved exactly the way they are. It is said that it is only when our children know clearly where they are from that they can have a clearer view of where they are headed.
Are you in anyway stylistically or abstractly referring to gaps between the consumption of the rich and the reuse of cast-offs by the poor in Nigeria?
Not necessarily. My art speaks of the deepest stirrings of my soul; it does not particularly base its urgings around these obvious gaps. It could be part of the content but not my prime concern. I try to address a number of issues and my style and medium have triumphed so far, probably because they could easily allude to notions such as decay, neglect, globalisation, migration, slavery, poverty, societal values, indifference and crime. The gaps between the consumption by the rich and the reuse of hand-me-downs thereafter can actually come to play if we try to base our thematic opinions around Nigeria’s socio-political events; perhaps, a ridicule of a beleaguered society steered by a powerful few at the expense of its immobilised public.
You were trained at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and influenced by celebrated sculptor, El Anatsui, who has taught there since 1975. How would you respond to comparisons of your wooden panels with those by Anatsui. Where do the similarities begin and end?
I cannot say exactly but I have this sturdy feeling that these comparisons begin and end in the eyes and hearts of critics, enthusiasts and connoisseurs. I specialised in painting at the Nsukka School where I encountered some of the brightest blends of art tutors and creative influencers. El Anatsui, who was one of them (and still is) has continued to inform directly or remotely the creative rational of people (majorly artists) who have had that encounter with him.
While I studied Painting at Nsukka, I was naturally immersed in the artistic tradition of Uli Art. I steered to wood panels and all that I do now, much later after my training, and have since then grappled resolutely through these teeming appraisals from the outset. It was not difficult to adapt colours to my panels may be as a result of my painting background. It would, however, not be easy to deny some circuits of influence but from all I have done so far, I know that I have found my own voice – and I sing my own songs.
Do you always make your own work considering the pressure to outsource certain tasks as the demand for commissions, exhibitions and art fairs grows, and how would you react to critics who canvas for a more physical involvement of the artist in the creation of his work?
I think that it behooves an artist to decide how best to get involved in a creative process. It is a unique progression that could begin with a creative idea, conceptualisation and idea internalisation, to the actual execution. For me, it is a process of communication that begins in the artist’s soul and brain. There would always be a technical side of art, and if your kind of art looks like what I do, then there has to be a time when you may have to roll up your sleeves and lance through the forest to fetch good wood. I may not want to be physically involved in lugging the wood to the workshop, or cutting to sheets or handling the plane tool. I have a carpentry section in my workshop and I naturally let them handle some technical concerns. However, I own the idea, I do the sketch, decide the colours and how best to bend the medium to convey a certain message. It varies from project to project but simply put, my art is my brainchild and an artist’s physical and, most importantly, mental involvement in the creative process cannot be overemphasised.
You were recently commissioned to create some pieces as part of the public sculpture initiative by the Lagos state government. Can you tell us about this project?
Interestingly, I have a soft spot for that project because I believe that it is one of the best things I have done in Lagos, Nigeria. You know how it feels when a state government calls you to say, “We love your work and would love you to be part of the state project”. I call mine The Nerve Centre. It is an ensemble of 50 figures representing the 50 years Lagos state has been in existence. It displays a total of five extended pillars that carry 10 figures each. The pillars are metaphors representing the state’s apparently solid leadership, and I had to use figures of men, women and children of diverse work orientations. Lagos has the largest varied population in the country and is a kind of confluence for major actors from all sectors of the nation’s economy. It was an engaging project and I am exceedingly proud of it. If for nothing, it afforded me an opportunity to write my name in the sands of time.
What do you think is responsible for the growing global interest in modern and contemporary art from Africa?
A good number of African artists have an overwhelming mindset for improvisation and the way they demonstrate exploratory attitudes to art contributes to this growing global interest. Our environment presents us with materials that are not available to us and the way we turn our junk into art fascinates them globally.
Right from the beginning, the Europeans encountered African art with curios eyes mainly because they saw Africa as the other world. Otherness was a concept in colonial theory that reflects how the western world viewed Africa and the “Third Worlds”. Equally, you may have noticed that up till date, things that happen in Africa present a new avenue for global interest or curiosity, especially her socio-political atmosphere.
Again, more challenging voices are beginning to sprout from Africa. Africans can now talk back to the centre and argue critically and impressively in global circles. Every day, Africa does things that sustain these curious eyes. Global curatorial supremacies now listen willingly to Africa’s new energies.
In addition, I also believe in the influence of what is called the “Tourist Gaze”. When one visits a new place, there is always a new kind of enthusiasm with which one appreciates the location. The Global North is enthusiastic about what happens in Africa. In most cases, it is different from what happens elsewhere. It is also possible that they have fears about Africa; they may be trying to figure out how and what exactly we are doing and the extent of danger we can pose to the wider world.
Arguably, area study as a discipline was created as a result of apprehension from the Global North. That was exactly what happened with the colonialists that made them deploy the services of anthropologists and historians who helped them study the people, fill knowledge gaps and engender effective territorial dominion. Nothing speaks clearly about a people as their art.
Many critics argue that African artists living and working on the continent, in contrast to those in the diaspora may be more alive to her daily struggles and influences, and best represent these factors in their work. What is your opinion?
We may have to grapple with the idea of “African” as a modifier. Is one an African artist because one lives on the continent, or one is born of African parents, or lives elsewhere but one’s works address deep African issues? There is a host of questions surrounding the exactness of who an African artist is and that is why this particular question may be as difficult as an attempt to answer it, and might be dead on arrival.
Now, if we want to settle with the idea that African art reflects situations that surround Africa and Africans wherever they are, be it locally or offshore, then, we may want to consider the concept of Positionality which suggests that an artist or writer or scholar operates from a standpoint which may allude to location, socio-economic class, ethnic identity, level of education, general worldview and other sentiments. It has to do with concerns that come to play as we do our work. These concerns evolve from the fact that we live in a particular place or have a particular profile and identity. Suffice it to say that African artists living in Africa face day-to-day struggles of living in Africa, contending issues and events such as political marginalisation, corruption, apathetic ruling class, inter-tribal wars. Whereas their counterparts in diaspora haggle daily with issues like racism, identity crisis, greenhouse concerns and world peace that are directly peculiar to their locations. I know African artists who have dual citizenship and have struggled with local acceptance irrespective of how emotional they may be about their African nativity.
I have encountered more artists who live here and who are profusely emotional about the “protest project”. This is not to say that a number of artists who live abroad and fall within these context do not exist. Most of us know, for example, about Sahara Reporter’s “keeping it real” initiative. It reflects bountiful content on African struggles but the platform operates from diaspora.
Finally, I would end this buy submitting that both parties interpret ideas differently. Who does it better should not be essentially my concern. People living on the continent may naturally be more obsessed with African circumstances. Our works of art reflect the ethos of our location and the sentimental circumstances it brings.
It is a very unstable answer that I have given you but that is what is should be. There should not be a definite answer to this.
Your most recent body of work, Standing Ovation at Gallery 1957 focuses on voluntary and forced migration as vital stages in the development of our collective humanity. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
I was only trying to draw attention to the positives of globalisation. A pristine adage amongst the Nigerian Igbos states “Onye ije ka onye isi awo akuko” (A traveller wields more stories/experiences than the aged person). This, for me, may be the import of globalisation. Today, with technological advancements, you do not necessarily have to leave your post to be exposed to the goings-on elsewhere. It is this exposure that informs and catalyses collective developments. That was the metaphorical posture of my message in Standing Ovation.
What’s next for Gerald Chukwuma?
Gerald Chukwuma remains adventurous, ruthless and spontaneous. The rumblings in my mind are hydra-headed. I know that life’s possibilities are endless and I would continue to exploit glowing, inherent opportunities (laughs). Time would always tell.
April 08, 2021