Ibe Ananaba: Visual Songs of Hope
by Ladun Ogidan
Ibe Ananaba works across several creative disciplines as a graphic designer, cartoonist, fashion illustrator and painter. He is considered one of Nigeria’s better-known painters and is proficient in a variety of media including oils, acrylics, watercolour and pen and ink. His technical proficiency is evident in his confident and spontaneous lines, which lend to his reputation as an excellent draughtsman. In this interview, Ananaba talks about his recent exhibition ‘Towards the Light’ at SMO, and the reception it has received so far.
Over the years, your art has provided a critical commentary on the state of local and global socio-politics. Your recent exhibition Towards the Light at SMO Contemporary Art gives voice to a generation seeking answers to fundamental questions about identity and equality, democracy, and racism. Please tell us more about the show, what you hoped to convey to the public through its theme, and the reception it has received so far.
Towards the Light was organically formed as an idea to respond to topical issues in contemporary times. It is a personal quest for healing, and the pursuit of a glimpse of an anticipated sunny side of life by holding on to faith with the hope that all will be well, regardless of the heavy tides we collectively swim against just to remain afloat. Like you rightly hinted, the body of works that made up the exhibition captures the vibe of a generation in search of solutions to fundamental questions regarding identity, equality, democracy, racism and good governance.
My overarching goal was to present visual songs of hope, to look beyond the surface and dig deeper for the bigger opportunities that will ultimately make humanity smile once again.
With regards to the reception, I’d say it’s been amazing, thanks to technology and social media. The pandemic, which forced people to largely remain indoors also led folks to heavily depend on technology and social media as a major means to access and share information. Based on this fact, the show physically held at The WheatBaker, Lagos, the attendance was global!
The abstract nature of your work derives largely from an interest in surface textures and the materiality of your paint. In your opinion, how relevant is realism in an art world increasingly drifting towards the conceptual and experimental?
I strongly believe there are enough spaces and the specific audience for all types of art forms, styles, techniques and movements. With this in mind, I think realism will always remain relevant regardless of the drift of interest towards other types of art. I say so because it holds a strong place as one of the many styles/genres that make the variety or entire visual art experience interesting. Realism, being the accurate representation of the things the eyes see, reflects nature objectively. So, to me, its fundamental. Also, I believe other art forms or movements whether conceptual or abstract, draw from the experiences that nature gives. To add to the above, realism is a great avenue for an artist to constantly hone or display his/her technical skills in visually capturing moods by representing objects and other elements to reflect the true essence of the subject matter.
Besides the depth of an idea or the overall story behind an art piece, I look out for an artist’s draftsmanship in the way I consume or appreciate art. To me, it shows how creative and confident the artist is in his/her creative adventure alongside control of whatever medium used.
Bringing its relevance to my practice, I started as a realist in my early days but over time, my style gradually morphed into something else. However, a close look at all I do reveals how strongly I connect with realism as my springboard, regardless of the manner I could choose to twist things with my creative license. I don’t hold anything against what people regard as experimental or conceptual art. I believe each has its audience though I strongly think realism will forever remain relevant and timeless.
How have your respective backgrounds as a fashion illustrator and an art director in the advertising industry for fifteen years influenced your practice?
Having to function as a fashion illustrator, a painter, designer, calligraphist, alongside working and growing in ranks from an art director to senior group head level while in advertising for 15 years has deepened my understanding of communication. On one hand, at the end of the day, each of these creative fields is all about ‘communicating an idea’. On the other hand, it’s also about engagement; in fact, I’ll say social engagement. Interactivity is an integral part of my creation as I value the audiences’ participation in each of my pieces. This continually broadens my perspective with regards to understanding my audience and to work on how best to get whatever message I have to a place in their heart. By so doing, I gradually build what folks can call followership. I keep striving at fine-tuning the way I get my messages across so they become memorable. This thinking requires me to constantly push beyond my creative boundaries with ideas and materials while constantly searching for unique ways or styles of expression that ultimately become part of my identity. I must add that the above-mentioned fields in the course of my creative adventure, let me tap into the essence of what is contemporary. It’s like psychology… that on its own allows me feel the pulse of the audience and to know the direction to tow in getting their attention emotionally. I strongly believe in targeting the heart and not the head or pocket, because a hook on the heart/mind breeds loyalty, affinity, warmth, support and a whole lot an artist needs to grow and function optimally.
Kindly elaborate on the paintings ‘Evergreen Memories’, ‘Towards the Light 2’ and ‘Where Do We Go from Here’?
I will start with ‘Towards the Light’, which is also the theme of the exhibition. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s a personal search for healing, which I painted in series. Here is the poem I wrote that articulates my thoughts and feelings that birthed the piece.
‘As deep calls unto deep, lift up your eyes unto The Light where love dwells
Open up your heart and deeply connect with the truth as The Light beckons
In search of the essential, fix your gaze upon The Light withholding nothing
Sanitise your mind, unmask your fears and let The Light lead you on
Words cannot just express the awesome divine nature of The Light
Enter the zone and bask in glory, in The Light the feeling is beyond extraordinary
Proceed with your entire plight… pursue with great delight
Let your peace within take flight, as you look Towards The Light!’
‘Evergreen Memories’, it is a special series I created to pay homage to those who are no more here with us. It’s more like a celebration, with fond memories of amazing souls in our hearts, hence the void of my usual figurative subjects.
‘Where Do We Go from Here?’, questions once again living in times and in a country with bad governance, a million unanswered questions still abound. This is an attempt to capture one of those moments in life where you find yourself at a crossroad, just pondering. It is a point at which you must make that crucial decision which will have far-reaching consequences as you navigate through life. The thought of freezing such moments on canvas gave life to this piece.
Please tell us about the Girl Child Art Foundation where you volunteer as Chief Art Consultant / Coordinator Studio Programmes.
The Girl Child Art Foundation (GCAF) was founded to give the girl child a platform for her voice to be heard regardless of gender-based barriers across cultures. To my knowledge, it is one of the most prominent art-based organisations in Nigeria that use art as a medium for advocacy and other transformational activities for the youth, especially the girl child. Founded in 2000, some of its notable activities fall under livelihood empowerment, leadership education and life skills. The organisation runs free drawing, painting, crafts, design, street art (mural and graffiti), theatre, dance, poetry and other training sessions including art therapy.
With my professional experience, the willingness to broaden my knowledge and my belief in GCAF’s vision, I volunteer as the chief art consultant and coordinator of studio programmes. My primary role dwells on designing and overseeing a variety of studio activities to help in achieving the organisational set goals.
As an artist, how would you define your relevance to the society especially in this period of the Coronavirus pandemic?
As an artist, I also function as a social observer because my art is largely influenced by (as well as addresses) a variety of issues that affect contemporary living. It is from this angle I approach my practice. Voluntary or involuntarily, I tend to reflect the times in my works since I am open-minded in soaking up information within my environment. I navigate the social space. Living in two realms – the physical (within a geographic location) and the vast virtual realm based on presence on Internet, social media etc, the world indeed becomes one global village, which helps in expanding my reach. As mentioned earlier, understanding my audience and speaking to the depth of their minds with my creative abilities opens doors for my name to be etched in their heart. I wouldn’t say I’m 100% there but I’m mindful of that thought as a major fuel that drives me to strive to create.
As regards relevance, I’d say it’s a result of value and the experience I am or seem to be creating for the audience’s consumption. Articulating a thought and visually expressing it in an unexpected form with relatively great control of the medium used, thankfully works in my favour. Also, I’d like to credit the sincerity inherent in the art I create. I feel it goes a long way to resonate with the audience. The willingness to share what’s created also adds to it. Technology and to be specific- social media has been a great channel of communication, especially in this pandemic when the globe was on lockdown. I believe in the saying that ‘No man is an island’, so we must find ways to reach out and communicate to inspire, share, learn, as well as maintain sanity amongst many other reasons. Within this period, I got more engaged with one of the highest forms of therapy for me – DRAWING! Doodling, sketching or drawing continually was and is a daily exercise with which I rightly express my feelings. Sharing with the public on my social media channels also made it interactive as I hold my audience’s participation and response in high regard. With time, I figured my posts were gaining traction, leading to an increase in followership due to the idea, execution and caption of the things I posted daily. It was… or rather is a two-way thing because I gauge the audience’s response, which helps me to plot the next creative direction. The feeling, knowing that many folks look out for the next creative expression is priceless. I constantly get DMs of how helpful, informative, entertaining, therapeutic, challenging, soothing, impactful and so on my posts are, and it’s something I remain incredibly grateful for. It goes beyond relevance as I choose to regard it as both respect and love. Matter of fact, the constant drawing and sharing exercise on my social media handles gave birth to my current solo show – TOWARDS THE LIGHT! Big thanks and shout out to Mrs Sandra Obiago and the SMO Contemporary Art team for believing in my art and further taking a bold step to collaborate with me in putting out such a fantastic, well curated and received show within a pandemic. It’s something I don’t take for granted.
What immediate and long-term plans or projects do you have?
Opportunities abound even in times of a global pandemic. I intend to keep my eyes on the ball to see what gaps I can fill with my creative abilities. I am a strong believer in using art as a tool for social engineering and paradigm shifts, so I am interested in ways to plug in my art for transformational purposes. Besides this, the plan is to keep working to develop my skills while mentoring, sharing and learning from the upcoming artists as much as I can at every point in time. In addition, creating new bodies of work and strategically planning on collaborations that will help my growth, as well as my collaborators’, locally and internationally. Experimenting, searching for answers and new ways to make my art more accessible to the right and wider audience are in the plan too.
In the long-term, some ideas on publishing books that chronicle my art have been winking at me. To tell our authentic stories and have them as reference points for future research within the academic and non-academic spaces is crucial or else posterity will ask us some vital questions we might not be able to answer if it’s not done. I see many great artists not documenting their work and I think it’s improper to intentionally or ignorantly let a part of history fade without proper records. It’s about time we tidied those ends and let the world feel our pulse. I always wonder about the incredible ideas not stretched or extended to positively affect humanity because of non-documentation. I have spent quite some time thinking through it all, so I have taken the baby steps to hit the drawing board for it. Though it might take a while, I think it will be worth every bit of the patience.
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