In Conversation with John Madu

In Conversation with John Madu

John Madu is a fast-rising multidisciplinary artist, whose work overlaps the boundaries between art and design through metaphor and such iconographic symbols, texture, indigenous patterns and colour. His most recent subject matter dwells on the effect of globalisation on African identity, in which portraiture, figurative symbolism, mixed media, and collage come into play. His resource materials are eclectic, drawing influences from pop culture, African art history, music and lived experiences. In this interview with Omenka, he discusses his transition in becoming an artist, popular culture and the use of iconography in his work.

You have a BSc in policy and strategic studies. How did you make the transition to painting?

My primary foray into painting came as an epiphany, but I have always been artistic from childhood, participating in local school competitions and winning awards for school projects. My teachers said I showed good early draughtsmanship as an art student in primary and secondary school. I was always encouraged in my teens by a friend’s father who owned one of the first private galleries back then in Ikoyi Hotel, Lagos, in the early 90s called Nkem Gallery. I never believed I would be a professional artist because I didn’t understand how that worked

In 2007 during my NYSC in the northern part of Nigeria, I was reading a couple of articles on the burgeoning Nigerian art scene, with more galleries opening up and even the establishment of an auction house. This sparked my interest like never before and gave me direction for research and for improving on my skills by learning directly and indirectly from masters before me. I sold my first two professional paintings to Nkem Gallery in 2008.

‘’Through personal iconography, allegorical metaphors, texture, indigenous patterns, and colors, John Madu’s paintings instigate the development of new modes of critical practice.” How true is this statement and why?

I validate this statement in the sense that I reflect on ideas from a vast range and complex web of human thought and draw upon imagery and sources from an equally vast array of culture, integrating and fusing ideas, understanding, and skill through research and practice, not ignoring my background, beliefs, and experiences. My use of iconography is usually evident and reoccurring in a large part of my body of work—allegorical symbols such as the hurricane lantern mostly depicting the sour state of electricity supply in the country, or my depiction of books and apples, which depicts a certain form of knowledge. My interest in creating some form of texture sometimes allows me to be creative and spontaneous with various media I use in line with my canvas, like burlap, paper, and even cut-out mirrors.

John Madu, The Watcher Sees Best, acrylic, 122 x 122cm

In recent work, you explore issues of globalisation and African identity. Enlighten us about this renewed focus.

This thematic concern is as common as today’s popular culture and is a universal and contemporary issue I am a part of. The world today has now become a common place. Everything is under the scrutiny of the lens. Cultures have been so infused that Identities are really never original anymore. The spread of popular culture via the internet and social media has created an increase in cross-cultural contact, which is a good thing, but original cultural practices have been lost in the process, and there has been a decrease in the uniqueness of once-isolated communities. My work is a reaction to some of these issues.

Please take us through your creative process, explaining how the various artistic media you employ influence one another.

The beginning of my creative process is usually a reaction to an issue or underlying issues I have come across. Recognising, pondering, and researching on the best way to relay the message and make a connection with the world by changing the narrative most times is a goal. The duration of collating data and information varies depending on what techniques I plan to apply.

The completion of my research enables me to process every input, allowing my unconscious mind to absorb and percolate the necessary connections that my conscious mind cannot comprehend. I believe this is the most important part of my creative process before the physical act takes place.

This step influences my choice and use of media in portraying a subject or theme. Most times my material influences the rendition of my output. My medium plays a big role in the sense that some media work better to express my craft—and in some cases, genius—than others. My use of burlap might have a more profound effect in creating texture more than acrylic, all depending on what I plan to achieve.

John Madu, Peculiar People VIII, 2018, acrylic, 91 x 61cm

Your work has been described as eclectic and rife with symbolism. What inspires you and what is your underlying philosophy?

I am inspired to tell my own story by changing whatever narrative I am not satisfied with. Events shrouded by popular culture are interesting for me to record, African art history, the futuristic African movement. I am also influenced by personal and lived experiences, cable TV, technology today, world politics, my educational background in policy and strategic studies, and even comic strips.

I believe every genuine art should be a reaction to a subject, and there are no boundaries to my evolution as an artist. My thematic concerns will be relevant with contemporary times, to educate, entertain, engage, and meet the disapproval and approval of the viewer.

You’re participating in the exhibition The Next Wave: The Power of Authenticity and Self-Validation by the House of African Art (HAART). Kindly tell us a bit about the works you’ll show.

For my London exhibition feature, I would want art lovers, art enthusiasts, and collectors to see a fresh narrative and theme of art coming from this part of the world, changing a stereotype of what is expected of African artists, as well as to build new followership and a collector base from London and other parts of the world.

John Madu, Ride Along, acrylic, 122 x 91cm


Adeoluwa Oluwajoba is an artist, critic and art writer. He holds a B.A in Fine and Applied Arts from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, and is currently the Programme Officer at The Ben Enwonwu Foundation

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