Tony Nsofor on Language, the Subconscious and the Mundane
Born in 1973, Tony Nsofor studied Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1997, majoring in painting. As a student, he worked as a studio assistant for Professor Obiora Udechukwu. The experience has had a discernible impact on his artistic journey. He has said that the emphasis on the study of iconographic Uli symbolism, which Nsukka University is known for, still determines his artistic process today. However, he does not use Uli symbols to convey their conventional meaning but rather “scribbles and scratches” them onto the canvas as part of his own contemporary expression. His work is driven by the subconscious: often the story of the work becomes clear to him only when he steps back to observe where his process has led him. In this interview with Omenka, Nsofor talks about the power of the subconscious, opening a studio in Lagos, and his work process.
Alongside your practice as a painter, you also undertake freelance work as a writer and photographer. How do these different forms of art converge and influence your work?
I live life as though living is a medium, and it is! One uses every opportunity to transmit ideas, to communicate, and create new art forms. Writing is a way to communicate ideas using text. I have this fear of being misinterpreted or misrepresented. The ambiguities of language mean that it is quite easy to insinuate other meanings, even with the most attentive English scholars. Now language is used freely in poetry or essays. There are suggestions and alliterations that give writing an abstract form similar to classical, instrumental music. I write as an artist. It is another medium for me to explore.
Photography was, in the beginning, a tool for capturing appearances and for documenting history. In photography, light becomes another medium to play with. As an undergraduate, I made money by taking snapshots of my fellow students as they came from classes. The extra money helped feed my excesses—alcohol, partying, and other vices of youth. Over time, photography became an important tool for “balancing” my brain. It brought me very close to realism as I zoomed in when post-processing images. Photography often replaced freehand sketching as I captured the image in front of me. With that done, there was no more reason to continue thinking of realistic form. It became more fun to paint stylized bodies. I abstracted and referenced from an informed perspective. So, painting became the departure that let me dream.
You studied fine and applied arts with a major in painting, then later worked as a studio assistant to Professor Obiora Udechukwu. What did you draw from this experience?
One of the requirements for obtaining a degree in art in Nsukka was a mandatory three-month internship in an art institution or a studio. The undergraduate student has to go for this training in the third year of study. (Professor Obiora Udechukwu was my father’s friend. My father was a student at Nsukka at the same time with both Udechukwu and Bons Nwabiani, an artist and blood relative.) Incidentally, Professor Obiora Udechukwu was already mentoring me at the time. He was teaching me in some art courses, too. So he accepted me as his studio assistant.
It was a magical period, working under the great watercolourist and modern Uli painter. I had the rare opportunity to visit his Odenigbo studio and look at the huge stack of paintings in storage there. He demonstrated how to lay out colours in flat washes and gave me drawing exercises to free my wrist. He felt that the exercises, like making drawings of delicate plants, gave one an appreciation of their formal beauty and the delicate nature of the plants. I understood how the gestures of an artist’s strokes must convey the character of his subject. The mode of application of the medium is of paramount importance. It is not enough just to know how to accurately draw objects. Essence is everything!
Kindly tell us more about the “power of the subconscious” as employed in your work.
I have written a bit about my creative process elsewhere—on my blog and social media platforms. It happened in third-year art history class when we were researching Western art movements. I researched the writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in the library. The impact of their essays on the subconscious and how it affects our actions, staying in our memory to modify a response to stimuli, was significant. It wasn’t just about surrealism. I understood that the unconscious was actually our memory trying to explain phenomena and to control present reality. The subconscious allowed me to work unhindered by any preconceptions or established formulae. I became more adventurous, believing strongly that the mind was always active, sending codes of meaning. It will only take time to unveil the true meaning, both for my audience and for myself, the creator. Generally, my work is tentative, not fully realised when I put them out. That is why I prefer to withdraw from society when I finish these works. Being absent allows retrospection and a time for seeing anew. It takes time for me to be at peace. The work takes longer than after the moment when I have signed on the painting. There is a continuum.
Magazine cut-outs and pieces of cloth sometimes dominate your canvases. What deeper meaning does materiality and surface texture confer on your work?
I wouldn’t use the word “dominate.” I spoke of the power of the subconscious mind. In talking about materiality, do you mean the physical evidence of the artwork? There is a spiritual, ephemeral presence of artwork, something that is almost ambivalent, pushing in the other direction. The materials one uses can become a powerful guide to convey meaning.
My love of reading certain fashion magazines also includes a love of fashion photography, graphics, and the power of adverts to affect public taste. There is a “formal” beauty in the fonts used in publications. The meaning of words is usually strengthened by the way the words are written. I work with chance—tearing up sections of text and pasting them arbitrarily, as though I was laying brushstrokes of colour on canvas. The same intention is why I choose different pieces of clothing. Colour is everything. Call it a laid-back style of dressing up my subjects. When working, the cut-outs will be chosen sometimes for their colour, or for the bits of body parts that may remain. The work is resolved faster through this kind of appropriation.
Vigorous brushwork, a transparent but limited palette, and more recently, granular additives are characteristic features of your paintings. Kindly take us through your creative process.
I love being questioned by someone who reads me closely. The brushstrokes come from my impassioned gesticulations. Even when it is supposed to express something beautiful, I want to convey the struggle. In the beginning, the initial brushstrokes are a guide and charge up my memory. It takes a while before I start seeing some of the forms. At other times, there is just an emotional response, of joy or rage. That’s the difference between the totally abstract and the stylized figures in my work. The brushstrokes, no matter how large, are lines. For a painter, the line is everything, second only to colour. Applying washes allows me to suggest harmonies and depth. The joy of acrylic colour is when it is applied in its most intense manner—as transparencies. I can modulate the tone up or down, depending on the atmosphere I want to convey. Even after I have signed, the work must remain open-ended, allowing for extensions and interpretations beyond the physical evidence. I want my painting to reach out of the frame into the space around. The unfinished look is on purpose. I yield to the fact of the multiple and oftentimes referenced departures that happen in art spilling into life.
In 2015, you relocated your studio from Lagos to Oguta, your village in Imo State, but returned three years later to set up a studio in Lekki. Is your decision related to the fact that Lagos is regarded as the artistic and cultural hub of Nigeria?
Some personal issues made me relocate my studio from Lagos to Oguta. I needed time off to work without interruption. The noise of Lagos is quite distracting. I made an unbelievably large number of paintings in the first month after I left Lagos. During those three years, I often moved between working in my village and connecting with the vibrant art scene in Lagos. I still had the most amazing art exhibition with Sandra Mbanefo Obiago at Temple Muse. It was a show with Ibe Ananaba, and my works were sold off even before the official opening!
With the advent of the internet, we now know that physical factors like space and time can be traversed quickly. The idea of owning physical spaces has changed. We all know of the success of online businesses like Amazon, Airbnb, and Uber. Owning a studio space in metropolitan Lagos is no longer that important. The creative person must always seek out a niche where one can be most productive, even if it’s on the moon. All you need is the digital infrastructure or network to support interactions with the audience of enthusiasts.
In the three years prior to my return, I did short stints in hotels closest to wherever my planned meetings would happen. When I could afford it, I returned to open a studio in Lekki. I didn’t want to lose work time, even in Lagos. I wanted to be able to absorb the energy and intense art scene. The Lagos studio allows me to have access to materials and the convenience to work, even on short visits. So with the new studio, I can now show bigger presentations of my works for the Lagos crowd. Of course, Lagos is the only place in Nigeria with a crowd of enthusiastic, collecting people. It is also a major port of entry and departure from Nigeria. Thus, the Lagos studio helps in a way.
Your interests range broadly from Biblical themes to barely recognisable everyday people, painted evocatively in a loose manner. What other themes preoccupy you, and how has your personal signature evolved?
I want to look at the mundane, the everyday struggles of people living around me. The artwork is autobiographical in that way. To do this, one must get involved in the conversations around citizenship, political terrain, leadership, and society. The artist is affected by so much. Stepping back in quiet recollection in the event of painting, one delights to test one’s abilities to visualize these things. The success or otherwise of such an enterprise is this, the painting.
Is there any upcoming project you would like to share?
There is a lot of restlessness now. I am more aware of a lot of activities happening around that I would like to get involved in. The projects that I plan to participate in may be more or less the important ones. I hope to participate in a few events in collaboration with some local galleries in the US over the next few months. The conversations are still ongoing, though.
In the last quarter of this year, I will have a followup exhibition in Abidjan. That is a long time off. In the interim, I am trying to finish up a book on my works. It is quite an ambitious project that needs research. I have a mandate of continuously getting better at what I do, growing my knowledge, and experiencing new spaces. So I am travelling through space with a brush in one hand.
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