In Conversation with Uchay Joel Chima
Born in 1971, Uchay Joel Chima is a Nigerian contemporary artist. He graduated from the Art School of the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu, and has since exhibited his work in prominent galleries and museums in Nigeria, South Africa, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.
Weaving a tapestry of memory, imagination, societal happenings, and emotion, Chima combines various found objects (including strings, sand, wax, charcoal, and old sacks) with paint and other mediums in an aesthetic that informs his oeuvre. He creates thought-provoking presentations that address the realities around us while employing a mixture of conventional and unconventional approaches in his unceasing explorations. He has created many avant-garde performance art videos and two-dimensional sculptures made from found objects. In 2009, he received the award for best video art project from the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos.
Chima is interested in social and environmental issues. This theme can be seen in his work as he continues to evolve as an artist. In 2013, in response to criticism that his focus on the avant-garde suggested that he could not draw, he launched a dazzling series of abstract conceptual works and inventive drawings made from wire and string. The works are rooted in his fascination with mixed media but also demonstrate his immense skill in the creation of figures and bodily forms. In this interview with Omenka, Chima discusses his mediums, creative process, and how he confronts Nigeria’s socio-economic issues.
With the adoption of strings, wax, found material, and (more lately) charcoal, your practice is best described as an embrace of the unconventional. Please take us through your creative process, also explaining how your work has evolved over time.
Earlier in my practice, my works were solely conventional. I was rejected many times by a gallery that I wanted to show my work with. The owner of the gallery always said to me that there was no reason to show my work at his gallery since my work looked like what every other artists does—which was true! Your relevance is not in your similarity with others, but in your difference from others. So I started experimenting. Experimentation has a way of forcing you to discover new ground to walk on.
Through constant experimentation, I was able to discover the freedom of working with different materials. I developed an intuitive sense for synchronising a concept with a medium that I believe will enhance the impact on the viewer and reinforce the essence of the work. Sometimes I struggle to choose which medium to use. But I play with the alternate versions until I get a succinct image and then proceed to make the work. At this point, every decision I make is geared towards the service to the concept that I have in view. I relate my themes with materials that I believe are synonymous with them. For example, when I think of the notions of bonding, togetherness, intimacy, entanglement, and oneness, I look at materials like strings, ropes, and thread. Then I begin to have thoughts like “a three-fold cord is not easily broken.” The resonances of these preferred materials infer a need to re-evaluate and, more importantly, to strengthen our relationships with those around us, in the interest of supporting one another through current global difficulties and challenges. When I started working with charcoal, it was for installation art; but now I can manipulate it into an exceptional oeuvre in the same way I do with other materials.
Do you find that traditional media like painting and sculpture do little to satisfy your creative leanings?
Every artist has a particular area and creative technique that interests them. I sculpt as much as I paint, and it will interest you to know that I employ conventional and unconventional approaches in my practice. The traditional media is in no way belittled.
While I use a variety of materials and processes in each project, my methodology is consistent. Although there may not always be material similarities between the different projects, they are linked by recurring formal concerns and through the subject matter. The subject matter of each body of work determines the materials and the forms of the work. Telling stories with discarded materials and found objects enables me to document issues in an abstract way while pointing at the realities around us. When I have the need to explore with traditional media, I don’t hesitate.
Considering the brittleness of materials like charcoal, how would you react to concerns over the ephemerality of your work?
The month was December 2015. I had shipped works through FedEx from Denver, Colorado, where I was on a residency program at PlatteForum, to Staniar Gallery at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. After some days, I got a call from Clover Archer, who was the director of the gallery at that time. She had received the packages, and when she opened one of the packs, pieces of charcoal fell off the box. She was worried that the works had been damaged in transit. I arrived in Lexington the first week of January to install the works in readiness for the opening of the exhibition. When we unpacked all the works, we noticed more broken pieces of charcoal falling off the packs. We looked at works to find out where they had detached from so that we could do a quick fix. But we could hardly discover any defects. The broken parts went unnoticed; they seemed to have become part of the work. At the end, there was nothing to fix, and we burst out laughing.
First, I acknowledge the brittleness of charcoal. That is the nature of the material. The works are made from broken pieces of charcoal. When a piece falls off, it can be easily fixed back where necessary. But, in most cases, the piece that cracked and became detached from another piece of charcoal goes unnoticed and forms part of the work.
I researched charcoal when I started out to make works with it. They are not actually burnt wood, but more baked wood. They are hard and brittle. They become free of soot when washed with water. Charcoal lasts a lifetime if taken care of.
Working with charcoal is symbolic to me. It represents all the colours of the universe (being total black) and reminds me of the simile “as black as charcoal.” Thus, it is the embodiment of all colours. It represents crises around the world—economic meltdowns and environmental degradation. It represents all the trees that have been cut down, leading to deforestation, and also the rich mineral resources in our land, like “black gold” (crude oil) and all the wahala it has brought about in the Niger Delta. With charcoal, I can easily deal with some ideas that I am working on right now. At the end of the day, what gives longevity to an art work is how it is cared for.
Through subtle iconography, some of your works become allegorical, engaging various socio-political structures. How have Nigerian and African artists fared in confronting poor governance, corruption, and other such issues that have hampered infrastructural growth?
From my observation, in recent times, African artists have been more concerned with focusing on their career rather than confronting political issues that deal with governance and the welfare of a people. The reason being that most artists are more interested in survival than in social engagement, which is one of the major concerns of contemporary art.
The issue of corruption, bad governance, and the like are bigger than they sound. Being able to tackle it would require effort from each and every one of us. Though the government has been working to create anti-corruption bodies, it is never enough, because the majority of the people fighting against it are the ones embracing it. An average Nigerian considers these practices to be the norm, because he or she was born into the system. Knowingly or unknowingly, we have accepted these societal ills as natural, thus exposing our nation to vulnerability.
Some Nigerian and African artists are now creating more awareness and speaking in one voice so as to educate the people on what is right and what their rights are. The call of an artist is to be the voice of the masses. I hope that more artists will arise and speak out. There are still assignments to be done. We can’t just fold our hands and do nothing. Everyone’s support is essential.
In the String Theory (2013) exhibition at Lone Star College Art Gallery, you employ strings as a metaphor for strong connections and ties, while The Earth and the People that Live in It (2015) is exceptional in encouraging positive societal change with regard to the climate. How can art be made more relevant in fostering development and building society?
Basically, a society is a group of people sharing certain cultural aspects (with a common interest), thus there has to be some sort of integration for the purpose of mutual understanding before development can take place.
There is a need for the promotion of interactions and performances in public spaces. Public spaces provide opportunities for people to meet and be exposed to a variety of neighbours. These meetings often take place by chance, but they also can come through active organising. The art of promoting constructive interaction among people in public spaces has been nearly forgotten in many communities. Creating aesthetic and monuments are good, creating places that encourage social interaction will foster development and help build the society.
As we all know, the future belongs to young people. Including young people as meaningful contributors in the social and economic aspects of community building must not be overlooked and cannot be left to schools and parents alone. Young people should be encouraged to participate in art and cultural development, being mentored and coached where necessary. Getting people more involved in community affairs not only helps to improve conditions for youth but also promotes growth and development.
You founded the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lagos. What legacy do you hope this institution will have over time?
The concept of the space grew from the response of artists’ collectives to the compelling need for a museum of contemporary art in Lagos, contributing to the revitalisation of visual art in Nigeria. The mission of the museum is to serve diverse audiences through exhibition, interpretation, collection, and preservation of art. We hope it becomes a structure for the exploration and understanding of contemporary art and ideas and a laboratory for artists.
August 16, 2019