Ngozi Schommers: The Way We Mask
Ngozi Schommers is a multimedia artist based in Germany and Ghana. Her work draws inspiration from her childhood and her interest in preserving and revisiting memory. She experiments with objects, figures, paintings, drawings, videos, and photographs to create large-scale paintings and installations that interrogate socio-political, religious and cultural homogenisation, as well as issues of identity and ecological destruction.
Recently, at ART X Lagos, Schommers featured in the Performance Pavilion with If Not for a Child. Here, she questions the notion of motherhood as a primary source of value for women in Nigeria, using the Igbo tradition of omugwo as a point of departure. In this interview with Omenka, she discusses her practice and on-going exhibition the way we mask.
You studied at Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, and have maintained an active studio practice since then. What inspired your decision to become an artist?
Art is a medium of expression that I quite understand. It is my best way of communicating with others, and it is a place of transformation and asking questions. I come alive when I am creating a piece of art.
You currently live in Nigeria, Ghana, and Germany and have held exhibitions across these countries. How have these separate cultures influenced your practice?
Yes, I have had exhibitions in these countries, except for Ghana. To live in between cities/countries has been very good because I am able to embody all these cultures. Takoradi in Ghana, reminds me in some ways of Enugu, where I grew up, especially when I am walking around the spice market or see the way women tie their wrappers. In trying to understand German culture, I have also adopted some of it, and in some cases found similarities to my own culture. I do not choose from these cultures but rather synthesise them to create works, because they are all in a way part of me.
Why is it important to you to explore issues related to women in your work?
I am a woman, and have gone through the numbers, what I can do and cannot do—“You can’t paint large canvases.”, whether I am really the artist behind my works and so on. I have wasted a lot of time proving otherwise, now I don’t even care anymore [Laughs]. I feel women, most especially African, have been ignored for a long time in our history. I look at our culture; it shows how important and valued women were and the contributions that they have made over time and are still making. I have realised through my experiences that I can almost only dialogue through the eyes of women. In my work (Un)Framed Narrative, I could have used men, but since I am correcting the African narrative, it was only right to do it from a woman’s perspective. Of course, I have observed from a man’s angle before, which is evident in my work Tomorrow We Go to the Sea, the Deep Sea, but even with that work, one cannot ignore the strong presence of women.
Last year, you completed a residency with Arthouse. Please tell us about the experience.
Oh wow! The work I did at the residency is one of my most daring so far. When I submitted my proposal, I wasn’t even sure they would select me, because it was a research-based work that examined motherhood, womanhood, reproduction, infertility, and the choices women make around family planning. Besides, I had previously submitted it for another residency but was not selected. We know how sensitive topics like these are, they are not yet discussed in this part of the world. As the moving studio that I am, I started my research in Germany and wanted so much to complete it through a residency or project at home (Africa). It was during this residency I created my first performance piece. I am grateful to all the women/non-binary humans that spoke to me during my research. It was an amazing experience, and I believe we have started a much-needed dialogue.
“My inspiration constantly evolves; I detest stagnancy of ideas or form. However, I am mostly inspired by what I see around me, observations and desire for a better world, as ambitious as that may sound.” How has your work transitioned over time and what other media do you hope to experiment with?[Laughs]. Yes, I said that and still stand by it. My practice has evolved since my first exhibition, both in technique and the way I approach my projects. I remember at my first solo show, Jess Castellote said to me, “People will start copying you.” I also remember my reply: that I am too busy understanding my materials to let that worry me. Since then, I have worked tirelessly in that medium and other media: large installations, photography, sculpture and now performance art. I also rediscovered my love for drawing. I always find ways to understand any medium I choose to work with and then make it my own.
In November, you presented your second solo exhibition, the way we mask at National Museum, Lagos. It seems inspired by pioneer Nigerian modernist Prof. Ben Enwonwu MBE (1917 – 1994). Kindly expatiate on this influence, as well as on your expectations for the show.
My exhibition the way we mask was not inspired by Prof. Ben Enwonwu though I came across his work Anyanwu during my research, probably because I was looking for agbogho mmuo and pre-colonial hair styles. As you know, most of these things were never properly archived, catalogued/categorised. I was mostly inspired by the masquerade agbogho mmuo, pre-colonial Igbo hair styles, my memory, and my family archive. I also travelled back to Enugu to speak to my stylist and to see how that space has changed over time. I began this research because of my need to reconnect with my hair culture, without it being overshadowed by colonial narratives and visual identity politics, as if no culture existed before that time. When I see African hair styles, I see architecture, structure, lines, movement, nature – plant, sea, earth and animals, and I want viewers to travel through time and possibly reconnect with me.
The exhibition is also scheduled to hold in Germany. Given that it explores how hair shapes the identity of Africans, how do you think it will be received in Europe?
Yes, it is scheduled to hold in Germany as well. I actually started my research in Germany; this space kind of sparked the need to have this culture dialogue through hair. It was also in Germany that I went natural(hair). I know that most Black women/people in that space are faced with a different narrative than I, who grew up in Enugu and Lagos, Nigeria. They are faced with racial and visual identity issues. I try not to get caught up in that narrative. I want to tell a story that is not overshadowed by all that, one that everyone can connect with, most especially younger generations of African descent, to help them understand the new forms they are creating, if that makes any sense.
“The exhibition featured new, large-scale works created with perforated paper, confetti, sequin, water colour, acrylic, and fibre, and an installation comprising fifty-eight drawings.” Please elaborate on your relationship with each medium and the role it plays in your process, taking care to explain your choice of perforated paper as an approach.
I began to use self-perforated paper (generally called confetti) quite early in my career as a full- time studio artist (after my first solo exhibition at Rele Gallery) as a collage medium because I love to collect things, especially paper. I collected everything from juice cans to gift cards, old calendars, and used birthday, valentine, and anniversary cards. I like recycling these papers to give them purpose and meaning, plus I get more tonal gradations from them. I even receive some of these materials as birthday gifts. A friend in Germany that works at a printing press, once gave me a bag full of pieces of cut out aluminium. I have not made use of them yet but I know one day they will somehow find their way into my work. I do not collect paper as much as I used to, I mostly make use of new papers and combine them with other materials such as sequin, acrylic, graphite, charcoal, fibre, and even fabric. In mmanwu (masquerade), I was drawing with charcoal, ink, and cut-outs on paper to create new forms. I am able to marry these materials together just like I do with the different spaces I live.
In Self-portrait (2018), you can be seen tugging or perhaps measuring the length of your natural hair. How relevant is this work to young women today, who favour wigs and hair straightening, and by extension, what social impact do you hope to achieve with it?
In that work, I was trying to detangle my hair after a wash. The way we mask is first, my hair journey. My hair day is an important day to me. I enjoy every bit of it—washing, detangling, nurturing, and combing. I owe that to myself. I think most women will connect with that piece because it’s a common action that every woman experiences, whether she wears her hair natural, in locks or straight, or whether she does her hair by herself or gets it done by a stylist at a hair salon. I am not asking anyone that favours wigs to automatically go natural but to start asking questions, Why am I doing it? Does it make me happy? Did I choose this part because of someone else’s definition of beauty? Am I afraid of being called scruffy? In Self-portrait and Aka Ochie (old hands), I am also paying tribute to the many hands (stylists) that were never acknowledged in our history.
Why did you choose to suspend one of the works up on the ceiling, and what about the use of a mirror?
I worked with a very good curator. When I first approached Wura-Natasha Ogunji to curate my show, she was as excited as I was and understood my work, medium, narrative, and use of space. Plus, as an artist, she works with paper too. I told her I didn’t want works all over the wall. After her initial studio visit, and series of correspondence between us, she suggested that we suspend one of the works on the ceiling. This was appealing to me because space is important to me– how we choose to navigate, function, and adapt in it. Luckily for us, the museum ceiling was concrete. We wanted to create this idea of floating, connecting with the elements—movement, architecture, sea, land, sky—that inspired the works. We chose to suspend my head under because it is one of the pieces that best communicates that idea of floating. I made use of mirrors while I was creating these works. I like mirror images and drew them instead of the actual person. In some cases, I flipped the figure to create a mirror image. This made me think of creating a negative space in the exhibition with the mirror, a space that is not there but yet draws you in. When people walked into the exhibition, they were presented with an everyday salon experience and yet were drawn to the drawings, where I merge times together.
With particular reference to Nigeria, what can be done to increase the level of art appreciation, and what major differences can you identify in the art scenes in Nigeria, Ghana, and Germany?
I think we have to find ways to get everyday people to appreciate art again, which will help increase the level of appreciation. When I was installing my work at the museum, the women working there were intrigued with my work, and all of them went to see it. The difference between Nigeria and Germany is that they have a lot of private donors, members of the board and public that help with the running of museums and art spaces. Because of this, the spaces do not completely rely on the government, though the government helps as well.
Lagos is beginning to understand this, because there are many art initiatives, such as Lagos Biennale, Art Summit, Master Class, The Treehouse, CCA, Art X Lagos, Omenka, A White Space, hFactor, Rele Gallery,and Arthouse Foundation, to mention but a few. Many of these spaces are run by artists. In Germany, there are grants for artists, studio allocations at a reduced price for artists, and awarded studio space. In my city, Bremen, they even organise exhibitions for the best master class students, and their works get shown at the contemporary art museum. The artist organisations are very active and good at finding other organisations to collaborate with, but SNA is not there yet. Our biggest challenge is infrastructure. I cannot say much about Ghana, because I am not active there , though I know Ghana has an interesting art scene. Some of the spaces there are also artist-run. Nubuke Foundation just opened a new space.
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?
I do agree with this statement. There is a saying in Igbo that “only the person suffering knows where it hurts the most.” One can’t decide to do something on slavery in Badagry without visiting or even spending some months there. However, I guess this is fine if you can speak some big English grammar to confuse everyone, including yourself. [Laughs]. I remember reading last year about an exhibition at AAF that was centred on edible earth. I think the artist even showed after completing a residency. The installation looked good on social media, but the narrative around it was flat because nzu is much more than pregnant women munching away to stop nausea and spitting. This is what happens when people do not understand these cultures and spaces or even take time to study them. Having said that, I think people should not be restricted on what topic to address or location of their research as long as they are ready to research properly on whatever project it is, without the usual quick fix.
Is there any other project you would like to share with us?
No. I am going to rest and go back to work and see where it takes me.
January 28, 2020
January 16, 2020