Gerald Chukwuma is an artist of many parts. In this interview, he tells Sandra Obiago, the curator of his on-going exhibition entitled ‘People’s Paradise’ at Temple Muse, Lagos, about his life and works. Excerpt:
Gerald, your work has evolved so spectacularly over the past 15 years. You have been called “an auction favourite”. Tell us, how did your artistic journey begin? What made you choose art as a career?
I did not start out doing art. Somehow my parents did not feel it was a good course so I did not study art in secondary school. Unfortunately, my WAEC (school leaving exam) subjects did not include art, so I ended up studying marketing at the Nekede Polytechnic in Imo State and graduated with an OND. But I was still doing my art on the side, making posters, cards, and banners for shows and doing small commissions. I did not feel fulfilled and started asking myself a lot of questions and became discouraged. In the end, I decided to re-sit my WAEC with art as one of my subjects and was eventually accepted at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka to study art. It was ten years after graduating from secondary school that I was finally able to go to university to study art.
Tell me about your university years.
When I went to university, I took a big risk, because at the time, I did not know any professional artists, but I had a huge yearning to continue my studies. A miracle happened the first day I got to university. I had traveled to Nsukka without my parents’ knowledge, and I had no idea how long the trip would take. The road was terrible and it took me over three hours to get there. When I finally made it to the Art Department I felt I was in paradise. Everything was so intriguing. I was amazed by the beautiful art works and sculptures. I noticed a newspaper clipping on the student notice board, stating that an artist had won thousands of pounds in Osaka, Japan. The winner was Prof. El Anatsui and I was amazed. I did not know artists could aspire to have international careers and travel abroad. That publication caused a paradigm shift in my thinking. Besides focusing on my studies, I began looking for competitions to enter my works. During my first year, I submitted a work into a Red Cross competition in Lagos which focused on the theme of women, children and war. My piece was amongst the top works featured and someone offered to buy my work for fifteen thousand Naira which was a lot of money at the time. It was heaven to me. I realized an artist can be successful and have a lucrative career.
Who influenced your artistic practice the most during those early years?
My biggest influence was Prof Chike Aniakor. He was ready at whatever time of day or night, to critique at our works and teach and encourage us. He was such a marvelous teacher. In terms of color, my greatest mentor was Prof. Krydz Ikwuemesi who not only taught me color, he inspired me to get a first class degree in art. In fact my final year thesis was on his Pan African Circle of Artists (PACA) initiative which was fascinating.
After graduation, I came to Lagos in 2003 and spent my time working on art and visiting galleries and exhibitions. I even submitted my works to the American Women’s Bazaar at Chevron at the time. I hung on to Chike Aniakor’s words “Never give up!” I remember visiting Signature Gallery and after looking at my work, they told me to get out. I was furious but determined, so I went back to my studio and started furiously making new works. I went back to Signature with my new works and the owner Rahman Akar, wanted to kick me out again – but when he took a closer look at my works, he was surprised and told me to come and sit down. That was my breakthrough.
I believe God has a way of arranging things. One day I wanted to print a poster and went to a local printer where I noticed a guy editing an art catalogue on his laptop. We started talking and it turned out to be Tayo Olayede, who was working on an exhibition with Jess Castellote of Pan African University. I used to carry around a stack of photos of my work and when Tayo saw my pictures, he introduced me to Jess. I didn’t have a car at the time, so I chartered a taxi and carried two panels and a painting to my first meeting with Jess at the Lagos Business School. When Jess saw my work, he said, “Oh my goodness, you’re good.” He accepted my work in his exhibition – which was the first professionally curated show I took part in; my first panel piece still hangs at the Lagos Business School. That was my first break. I met so many great artists through that encounter, and since then have taken part in many local and international shows in Nigeria, Holland, France and in the US.
What’s your advice to young artists?
From my experience I tell every young artist that the greatest advantage I had was that I never stopped working. Whenever I received an assignment, I would do three to four different works instead of only one. But many artists are in a great hurry. I believe that you must continue to experiment with everything you can find, even though the cost of materials may be high. I went to school very poor and lost my Dad during my first year so I had to work. Even when people discourage you, just go back and continue. Eventually what happens, when you work incessantly is that you perfect your craft. That is what our masters have understood and taught. I had the opportunity to listen to Professor El Anatsui when he spoke to a group of us. He said “first you focus on the medium, then the medium begins to know you, then you become the medium.” This inspired me. I have come to understand that when you work together with a medium – the medium becomes you; it becomes part of your life. That is what I have tried to do with my panel work.
Can you take us through the process of creating one of your hanging works?
Creating my wooden panels is a journey and an adventure. I get different types of wood depending on how I intend to work them, hang them on the wall and then sketch on them. I usually work on several different pieces at the same time. I try to depict different angels of similar themes. I carve, burn, chisel the wood before I paint them and clad them with recycled metals of different colors. Whenever I work on the wood, I think of conflict resolution. I believe people create conflict; it is man made. So I ask myself, how can I get different panels to agree? Sometimes they match or don’t match. What I like is the adventure because you don’t know how the materials will juxtapose. I find this exciting.
How does the “nude series” of artworks differ from your other wooden slat works? Is the process of creation different?
My monochrome pieces which I call “nude” come in one piece rather than in panels. Challenges usually make me create and try to solve problems. My nude pieces are compilations. Again it’s a type of conflict resolution. I make small squares and create a story of harmony where we agree to disagree. The process of breaking down the big panels into small pieces is a form of compromise. We need to reduce so that we can agree.
Why did you call this body of work People’s Paradise?
It is people who can make paradise. I am generally a happy person. That is how God made me. I believe that paradise is what people make it. All our troubles, wars, kidnappings – people choose to do that and people can also choose to do good. Sometimes I try to create a perfect society in my head. I hope to see people’s paradise because I believe that everything bad that has happened to humanity and to Africa is man made. We are turning our paradise into something else. A miracle will not happen. Life should be a paradise but it is people who make it happen. People have to resolve their conflicts. I try to solve some of our problems and address global issues with my works. Many of my works are about human beings’ ability to decide to create paradise. What we do is what we get.
Some of your works deal with issues of urbanization and people pressure on development, lack of adequate housing and the need for shelter for the poor.
Often the community makes it so difficult to survive. I live close to Makoko. Every day I ask myself how can people live here? People literally live in holes. Yesterday it rained and people struggled in abject conditions but there is land everywhere. This is a huge problem in Africa. Humans are not animals. We need to think about proper housing and shelter for everyone. Government has a role to play; they are not providing what they should and making it very difficult. Another problem is human greed.
What are some of the themes you are trying to address with your new sculptures?
Every good resource we have in Africa has caused a problem. We find oil or gold or land and people carry guns and fight over it. My work titled black gold is made up of small gold figures. They are all intrinsically good. If we were to divide the oil income amongst Nigerians there would be no poverty. Every individual is a gold mine. But the figures are pushing and shoving each other. We need to somehow get smaller and get attached so that we can all become big together.
A few years ago you created intriguing collage works out of telecoms recharge cards. Tell us about what inspired this body of work.
I have been doing the recharge card works for numerous years. In a way it has to do with conflict resolution. Why can’t we simply live in harmony? The telephone recharge card is a binding factor. If the Nigerian army were to invade Sambisa forest where Boko Haram have their stronghold, they would use telecommunications to call each other to coordinate their attack. When it comes to recharge cards, we are all in agreement. It’s just like the internet which has allowed all of us to be connected. I look at recharge cards in the same way. Many conflicts in Syria, Nigeria, Afghanistan could be overcome if we chose to agree. The recharge card is one medium that everyone uses irrespective of their tribe, their relationships, their ethnicity. We can all agree. The cards also have all the colors in the palette. I started collecting and conserving them because most of the recharge cards don’t even exist any more. They have become part of our national history. So my work has historical significance and also has a conceptual role to play.
Which would you say has been your most controversial piece and how did the audience react?
Audiences differ. In Nigeria I have had people interested in my work but outside Nigeria, audiences sometimes get shocked. Some people come and look at my works for hours. The reactions are very encouraging. My most controversial piece – was “Chop” (in which I featured empty plates and spoons). I was angry and wondering why are there so many empty plates and empty spoons in the midst of plenty. Chop. I am not controversial but I like to speak the truth.
Do you think it is important for artists to be provocative through their art? What about conceptual art? Do artists have a role to play in nation building?
Yes. Everyone has a role to play. But art is not just conceptual. It is also used to create fiction. We should tell our story in different ways. It is important that we point at issues that we love and hate. Everyone is part of the community and has a role to play.
What do you think about conceptual art? Do you think there is a place for politics in your work?
Art is like giving birth. Not everyone gives birth to a soldier. Some works we give birth to are army officers while others are reverend fathers or teachers. We should use art to speak on different levels.
How do you decide on which art form to use to express a particular message?
I love to paint and have painted all my life. But I enjoy the texture of wood because there is structure. The adventure of burning, carving, chiseling wood gets me more excited then when I paint on a single canvas.
You have an intriguing installation of masks in this show. Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind this piece?
I used the same cast for all the masks and the inspiration was that we all come from the same cast. But the production process changes who we are. This means we have the basis for agreement since the masks have the same cast. Who we are today is part of the process of production that was influenced by our family, our community, our school. And yet, we all started life as a baby. So there is no reason for conflict.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
I have always thought about creating monumental outdoor sculptures. I don’t want to work in metal however. I dream of making a sculpture over 300 feet tall. It will come to pass. If I had resources I would do it tomorrow morning.
That’s fantastic. As a closing comment – you told me about how much you love cooking. How has this passion manifested itself?
I love cooking. I find it so interesting. If I wasn’t an artist, I would have been a chef. Imagine, I can cook up to eighteen different types of rice, and then you can use rice and create different forms…the possibilities are endless. My best channel is the Food Network on DSTV. I love cooking for my family every Sunday. When I was young, I used to cook for my father everyday, and the whole family looked forward to my unique Christmas dinners. I would experiment with different ingredients. When I’m in the kitchen, I never get tired; I can literally cook for hours. It’s so creative!
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