The swimmers in Tagged, like artists, attempt to navigate their way through the watery landscape of the art world, with one eye on the ball and the other on their competitors. Synchronized Swimmers (2016–17), by contrast, begins to explore more collaborative ways of being in the water together. I use these paintings to capture the value of the nascent commercial art sector, which I believe will be largely shaped (perhaps surprisingly) by Nigerian women. In works like Pink Lake: The One who looked Back, the color pink acts as an unabashedly feminine and liquid ground on which my figures position themselves and make their decisions.
These are interesting times to be a professional artist in Nigeria, and no doubt, in Africa. Having made the plunge into the art world three years ago, learning how to swim and navigate my way through this watery landscape has been an emotional and rewarding game of sorts. In response, I created the series Tagged (2015–17), where swimmers engage in a game to get a red ball, which symbolizes the red stickers placed on sold artworks. I have found this transactional assessment of an artwork’s value to be both an important method of validation and a trap, painting only a partial picture of what it means to thrive as a professional artist.
Last year, I read an article by Kenyan collagist and painter Wangechi Mutu, called “They Eat Because You Grow the Food.” The article describes Mutu’s path to becoming a professional artist and offers advice to younger artists about navigating the art world and recognizing one’s position in the food chain as the “growers of the food”:
“If I could go back in time, I would tell my younger self that everything is basically going to be OK. […] I would also have reminded myself that I hadn’t got to the point where I was emerging as an artist by chance; that I’d worked tremendously hard and made a lot of good decisions to arrive where I was.”
Mutu bares her misconceptions about the mentors and art communities she had assumed would automatically appear upon launching career. Rather, she advises, artists must do the hard work of building a community from scratch that supports and reflects their idiosyncrasies. Much like Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, I often refer to, and have taken these words to heart as I mature as an artist.
In a similar spirit to Rilke and Mutu’s words of advice, I started a mentorship program called Dear Young Artist. I mentored a group of four emerging artists, focusing on the importance of long-term strategy (“staying in the pool!”) as well as things like finance and time- and relationship-management that artists often shy away from. It felt at times presumptuous to assume a role of a teacher, as one who is still young in their career and self-taught, but the relationship turned out to be mutually beneficial. I am now a something of a mentor to my artist assistants and they are in turn very generous with their support of my work and vision. Much like the concept of the Synchronized Swimmers (below), I actually feel like I’m building the kind of community Mutu referred to. And together, we are asking some important questions: what does it mean to be an African artist, a woman artist, a young artist? What are the keys to professionalism and success? Dear Young Artist also provides the name for a series of paintings in which I engage with these questions.
Tagged / Dear Young Artist
Heads or Tails
My paintings examine related issues through a more deliberative, self-reflexive process. In Heads or Tails (2014–2017), I adorn painted coins with the faces of young Nigerian women, reversing social hierarchies that historically have portrayed only men on monetary objects. This series uses currency as a symbol of disruption and a metaphor for probing themes of value and worth, particularly as they relate to wider gender structures in Nigeria. In this alternative universe, braids replace tiaras and black women are represented as things of value. Since we seldom use coins in many African nations, I paint these women on paper notes. And to reflect the ever-declining value of many of our currencies, in patches, holes and sections, I let the paper burn.
The People’s Algorithm
Growing up, my family placed an emphasis on educational fun, and I kept myself amused with self-made trivia games instead of the toys enjoyed by other children. A longing for toys and games, as well as a belief in the importance of education, have remained with me and have become integral to my practice. My practice has also been influenced by six years spent working in research, policy, and administration within Nigeria’s education sector.
In 2014, I created a game installation called The People’s Algorithm, which attempts to bring Nigeria’s enormous and complex education and unemployment crises into an accessible format. Ruled by chance and the roll of the dice, players move along a Monopoly-like board, learning facts and proffering solutions to some of the country’s most pressing educational challenges. The work creates a dynamic exchange of ideas between the audience, the artist, and the topic, seeking to activate constructive debate about how to change Nigeria’s education system for the better.
Flowers and Prayers
Flowers and Prayers is a series of works considering systems of faith and prayer. In earlier works like The People’s Algorithm, I considered the place of human agency in the context of God’s omnipotence—a population’s ability to take control of its own actions, for example. In this series, I return to the questions of faith in oneself and one’s country. Church architecture forms a symbolic framework, and the repetitive geometry of stained glass windows calls to mind the notion of “God’s handiwork”; but the openness and ambiguity of these works leaves much unaccounted for.