In Conversation with Chidi Kwubiri
Born in 1966, Chidi Kwubiri studied Fine Arts (painting) at the Art Academy of Dusseldorf in Germany. Over his prolific career, Kwubiri has developed a process of dripping paint on canvas to create a series of dots that form his images. Oscillating between the figurative and the abstract, Kwubiri forms faces, bodies, and masks using bright and expressive colours. On close inspection, his paintings appear to rely on the elemental physical foundation of paint in a pointillist approach. In this interview with Omenka, he talks about his exhibition motionEmotion, his pointillist technique, and the use of “upcycled” materials in his practice.
Your 2018 exhibition motionEmotion opened to great success at Gallery 1957 in Accra. Please tell us more about it, including your performance piece.
My exhibition motionEmotion was the culmination of a lifelong dream, in which I tried to express the power of music in the arts and for me particularly as an artist. The exhibition of eighteen large canvases and a conceptual installation explored the spirit of dance, celebration, joy, melancholy, energy, hope, and protest that music evokes in people wherever they gather. My motives were chosen to present and re-present the outward and inner manifestation of music on identity, the rise of freedom movements, and the impact of lyrics on society across different nations and generations. By including a dance performance with live body dripping I wanted to take the beholders on an emotional journey of sound, rhythm, dance, and colours, appealing to all senses. To my own surprise, this live performance was a thrilling experience not only for me and the dancer (whom I met for the first time just a day before the opening), but also for the guests at the vernissage.
“Deeply influenced by his studies at the Dusseldorf Art Academy and the interactions between fellow artists and peers, his work negotiates the complexity of two different cultures while remaining strong to his local roots.” This statement was made during your Point of View exhibition in 2015. How does your work reconcile your Nigerian roots with your studying and living in Germany for over two decades?
I think I am a wanderer between two worlds. Both my ethnic and cultural roots are deeply rooted in Nigeria. And while looking for a way to broaden my horizon as an artist in the early 90s, I stumbled into Germany and it formed my life. Travelling to my home country, to my people in the village, and to the vibrant bubbling life in the streets of Lagos several times a year is like food for my soul. But just as I can’t do without these recharging impulses and inspirations of my African roots, I also cannot do without the stable conditions and reliable infrastructures in my German environment—especially the inspiring calm in my studio near Cologne where all the inspirations are assessed and transferred to the canvasses.
You adopt a pointillist approach to your work. What purpose does the series of dots play besides the aesthetic?
Even though a lot of people associate my technique with pointillism, my dots are not a well thought out composition of conceptually and consciously set “points,” which is characteristic of actual pointillism. Rather, they are mostly the result of a complex, multi-layered process of incidental dripping. But still “all the dots count” because they help me to “make a point.” I chose this dripping style to achieve two goals mainly: First, I want to free my motives from a concrete background and lift them into a more open “universal” context in a seamless and dimensionless “universe” of drips and dots, which create an apparently limitless environment. Then I work on the motives, which are often partly elaborated in a nearly photo realistic perfectionism, to work out the accents of my message. But then, I go on and disperse these realistic contours again with a layer of random drops to sink the message back into a more indirect plane. Quite often, this process is repeated several times until I am really satisfied with the overall result. The last dripping layer is to draw in a wafer-thin veil, which creates a respectful space between the artwork and the viewer, in order not to overwhelm him at first glance with the occasionally very intimate or emotionally disturbing message, but to enable a more cautious approach to the motive. Only a few parts of the initially realistic contours and expressions of the main motive, which often takes me hours, days, or even weeks to elaborate, remain visible.
This gambling with the random factor of my dripping technique is a big risk and the most stressful phase of the creative process. But I like to take this risk again and again because it strengthens the autonomy of my work, and because I see myself as a part of that eternal process of creation and development of all existence, to which I can only contribute, but which we will never really be able to control. Over the years, this dripping technique developed to be my own individual artistic language.
You work cuts across various forms, including painting, sculpture/installation, and conceptual performance. How do you combine these different elements in your work when expressing a particular idea?
There is no doubt that my main and favourite domain is painting, especially acrylic on canvas. That’s what I feel strongest and most comfortable in and where I can express my themes and myself the best. Formerly, I used to work on wooden sculptures, which allowed me to connect my African roots to my contemporary ambitions. I enjoyed the immediate and haptic creative process that wood allows, compared to bronze or other sculptural materials. But more recently, my sculptures and installations are mostly the result of creative upcycling ideas, in which the materials that automatically emerge from the process of painting on the canvas—such as my painting shoes, used brushes, or dried out colour palettes and colour pots—are turned into completely independent works of art. I love this idea that each of these “upcycling artworks” has at least one or more siblings on canvas somewhere on this planet, which was born in the same process of creation. But sometimes these installations are only temporary objects, which refer to the topic of a particular project or exhibition, and are later dismantled again and stored for the next project—just like the molecules in the endless cycle of matter, which take on new forms but never really disappear.
With conceptual performances, especially those like action painting or body dripping dance performance, I can carry the creative process out of my studio into the exhibition hall and let the audience participate in the process.
Conceptual performances are surely getting more important for transporting a message to people. In the days of Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, static art requires full attention and a form of consciousness and patience that is no longer common. And multisensory performances are great for reaching out and presenting one’s idea through different sensory channels. Whoever understands the message will then come closer to take a look behind the curtain of my canvasses.
What inspires the subject matter you explore?
My culture, my music playlists, people, sweet hot egusi soup, my mood, when I consider the state of things in the world….
You have participated in several major group exhibitions, auctions, and art fairs locally and internationally. How would you compare the indigenous and international reception of African art?
During my international art career of more than twenty years, I have experienced all forms of perception as an artist. In the very early days in Germany, during my studies in the 90s, most of my collectors then were interested in my works because of that “exotic flair” of my African origin. But later on, after graduation and during the early stages of my art career, I worked to change that perception of being an African artist to being “an artist from Africa.”
Currently, the international art scene has a very high focus on the African continent. I think our governments could do better to support and cherish this creative wave that could wash away elsewhere if not preserved. The time is ripe for contemporary African art, but first we must survive the present international hype and prove that we are here to stay before we can sit back and relax.
What new project are you embarking on?
I have had some exciting and challenging exhibitions and projects in the last months: in Accra, Germany, and recently Dubai, as well as my tours with MISEREOR as their Lenten veil artist and humanitarian ambassador for 2017/2018. Right now, I am enjoying a short period of painting just for myself without any particular portfolio or project theme in mind. And there is also an idea for a bigger art project that I have had in mind for a while. But it is still too early to talk about.
May 29, 2020
May 27, 2020