SMO – it’s been a very interesting series of conversations we’ve had around your art and unique expression. Thanks for taking the time to let us delve a bit deeper into what makes Tony Nsofor stand out and create. Please take me to the beginning of your artistic journey. When did you know you were an artist and had to pursue art studies? How did you start focusing on your creativity?
Nsofor: I did not know I was an artist. I realized Art was a beautiful way to see life, to address life as a child. I saw this in the works of my uncle who had studied art in the US. I tried to reproduce the photographs of my loved ones, with pleasant results. The feedback from family and the teachers was favourable. Just before entering secondary school, I was ill for over a year.( Sickness has been part of my growth. I have been ill for long stints and the periods of recovery have availed me wonderful time away from the madding crowd, enough time for retrospection).
Let me continue. I was sick at age 12 at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital in Enugu. Then, the student doctors would visit. I became friends with one of them, a Dr. John Ojukwu. He would bring me all these art activity books that allowed you to color sections of a drawing, and to recreate images to scale. I thoroughly enjoyed that. From then on, I saw how art could take one away from the darkness around. So I held on to it.
SMO: What and who were the most important influences on you during art school?
Nsofor: My teachers/lecturers have been great friends, role-models and mentors. I closely observed their personal art practice. They were giants who travelled round the world for art sake. They came with a vast amount of experience about the international current. Because of this exposure, they encouraged some of us who were quite adventurous to explore beyond populist trends and styles.
As an Nsukka-trained artist, there is no escaping being viewed through the box of the modern Uli style. So, I studied the masters of the day-Uche Okeke, Chike Aniakor, Obiora Udechukwu, El Anatsui, Benjoe Igwillo etc. Some of them became close friends. They encouraged their students. Under the lecturers of our time( in the early nineties), we soon understood the techniques and practice of art. From their assignments, I soon saw myself delving more in the liberal arts. The themes we were given for exam questions would be drawn from music and poetry. Some of these exam questions allowed us to work for as much as three days. I researched the theme, listened to the music, if for instance, it was a classical piece; or read the poem and some of the biography of the poet. From my university days, I saw how art refined the mind.
Another thing that came with all the reading was an understanding of the root beginnings of the Nsukka art school, and Uche Okeke. This means I studied the manifesto of the Zaria Rebels. That was the key. Uche Okeke’s works that inspired the Uli School were his personal interpretation of the theme of Natural Synthesis. Being encouraged to find my own ‘voice’, I only studied Uli symbols looking for the reason behind the works, and not really to appropriate the motifs and symbols. I have a different background, a different history. But most important for me, I lived in a different present. The world had grown so much smaller, but knowledge had increased exponentially. I felt more like a citizen of the world because of the urgency and connectivity of the time. So, I borrowed freely, and still felt at home. That is the true spirit of the Nsukka School. People get confused when they don’t see Uli motifs in Nsukka.
SMO: When did you go into full time studio work, and how have you managed to focus on your creative journey? There must have been some factors which tugged at you to follow a different direction?
Nsofor: In the early nineties immediately after youth service, I opened an art studio in Owerri. As a young artist, the distractions can be quite daunting. The environment is a mitigating factor as one clearly sees that art is being removed from the glare of the public. In Owerri, patronage for art was quite rare. At some point, the government of the day removed the sculptures in certain roundabouts because they were deemed to be fetishes.
I got distracted at some point because the idea then was to migrate in search of greener pastures. Lagos was only a transit point. My first efforts to leave Nigeria failed, and I stayed back in Lagos. I kept up my art practice, but now tried other things too. Carrying wet canvases around Lagos was not something I appreciated, and the art galleries did not help matters. One was often treated like a beggar-there seemed to be a snob rule, and getting put on the list of selling artists was harder than a camel through the eye of a needle.
I had the support of my family. This allowed me to stay focused on art, irrespective of whether the work sold or not. My lecturers had already hammered it into my head that the reason for creating art is not to primarily to make money. Things had to be said, the world had to be changed. Art was my weapon. My reading of the histories of the lives of artists and the startling success some of their works achieve after they die allowed me to continue. Something keeps telling me that I am speaking clearly among contemporaries. If they don’t hear me now, then someday, others will. It’s a win-win thing. I recently relocated studios to my village to practice full time again. It is bliss.
SMO: What inspires you? How do you respond to these factors through your art?
Nsofor: I am inspired by ‘all things bright and beautiful’, by creation, and by the beauty of the human mind. Going through my oeuvre, you find that I have been intrigued by human relationships and the expressions of emotions that emanate. I also love fashion and style. I work inside of my love. It is easier. At the end of the day, if no one buys it(the work), I remain happy because I enjoyed the process.
SMO: How do you create? Take me through your typical creative process from beginning to end of one of your works…
Nsofor: A particular creative process does not remain constant. The work has a life of its own, away from the artist. Inspiration is everywhere around me. Sometimes I find an idea that I would like to explore, or I catch an interesting phrase that sums up a situation. If it is a phrase, I write it down somewhere, and think about ways of communicating the idea. It could end up as an essay. It could lead to a new painting. I jump in on having new knowledge and interactions because they stimulate me to create.
In my university days I enjoyed the essays of the old English poets on the creative process. I was also intrigued by the surrealists, by Freud and Jung. I became sensitive to what happens unconsciously, in relaxed states of mind. I would wake in the middle of the night to draw in utter darkness, relying on the gestures. At other times, I would have prepared for the moment by mixing colours on a palette by my bed. I would use the paints in creating these automatic paintings. Sometimes it comes fast, and I see what is hidden inside of the scribbling. Other times, I either will snap the sketch and carry it about, waiting for the moment when I have clarity, or when I can relate the drawing to an idea or experience.
SMO: Why do you use paper cutouts in your artwork – what do these factors mean in your work and why do you use words and cut out letters in your work?
Nsofor: I love paper cutouts. They have become a way for me to keep aspects of my reading and the signs and symbols of the things I enjoy about life-style, fashion and life. I find that the fonts of printed materials have an aesthetic that helps in translating subtle meanings.
Anyway the creative process starts, I look out for interesting colours and textures in magazines. I glue them to the canvas and then start painting around the textures. The cutouts inspire gestures and movements of the brush. They are also a trigger for explorations of colours.
Text is key to communication-what is said, what is implied. The first gift I got from my dad was a dictionary. I was in primary 3. He bought boxes of novels for us children. Text has always been important to me. In university, I read stuff about language, signs, the symbol and the signifier. I use words, sometimes meaningless words. I once read Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky. Recalling my experience of Freud and the surrealists, I believe it is possible to send pure thoughts unconscious and unbound by a resolve to communicate meaning. Somehow, I have defined the internet, information age and experience. In my work I want to communicate to the viewer that sense of familiarity that is suggested. We see how language has evolved online. There are so many new words, abbreviations and acronyms one has to be familiar with. It gets confusing. My work tries to make sense of it all.
SMO: Why did you choose abstract expression? Was there ever a time when your work was more into realism?
Nsofor: Of course, my first works were the realistic drawings made from reference materials-photographs and magazines. To be an artist meant one has the capacity to replicate realistic objects. So I drew all the time. I still draw. What I do now is to go beyond the physical, familiar presence of things. I think there is more to everything. Things can give some interesting readings. I want people to think into things with me. The world has become so much more complex, and you would think that the contrary will be the case, for all the information out there! We need to read in-between the lines about our existence as humans.
SMO: How has the Nsukka Art school movement influenced your expression?
Nsofor: I mentioned this earlier. The good thing about being part of an art school is that it gives one a basis to start from. But that is just the beginning in the journey. The biggest lesson the Nsukka Art School taught me was to investigate my origins, and show an informed presence to live in the present as an artist. Generally, I think the educational curriculum in Nigeria needs an overhaul. But when one talks about movements, I fit in only for sharing time and space. One grows out, naturally.
SMO: You write and also do photography. How do you juggle these different art forms and how do you decide on what to focus on?
Nsofor: The creative process is strange. The painting may inspire a writing, or the other way round. Writing may explain the painting, or just stand on its own. Photography, on the other hand, is my way of seeing reality, of practicing realism. I see my work process as a sort of juggling. The different art forms-writing, photography and painting all balance themselves out to help me express these ideas that come. It’s like the yin-yang effect. I am more content, and less under a pressure as I pursue the creative possibilities in different ways. In these present times, it is difficult to have the luxury of staying focused on a thing for too long. I try to finish something I started. But I am not averse to rewriting or reworking my photographs. Art cannot be seen totally as one thing, an object. There is so much more. One can only explore all the ways of communicating.
SMO: Do you listen to music while you work? If yes, what artists would be on your playlist?
Nsofor: There was a time when I needed music while working. These days, I listen to life. Music helps me more when I am not working, because that is when the ideas come. Artists on my playlist would be Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Buju Banton, Burning Spear, Capleton, Lighthouse Family, Tracy Chapman, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Youssou Ndour, Salif
Keita, Manu Dibango, Fela, Antonio Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, and many other classical music composers. I enjoy some of the new artists. But I like being introduced to new music by friends.
SMO: What would you like to be doing in ten years’ time?
Nsofor: I will be creating new spaces for people to step into and experience. I hope it will be so much more than just painting. The nomenclature for labelling art is archaic, a bit obsolete. All I know is that, ten years on, I will be creating art.
SMO: What gaps do you think there are between local and international artistic expression?
Nsofor: Gaps only exist in people’s minds. Artistic expression has a core causal trigger-the human experience. Human experience, in so many ways, are similar and shared. There shouldn’t be gaps. Unfortunately, there are gaps created by the problems of individualistic, authoritarian and myopic readings that can deter an artist. The platforms for showing art are exclusive. Locally, the environment does not encourage art practice. This is expected from a country that finds it difficult to manage its human resources properly. The decay spreads to the infrastructure. There is literally no government support and policy for the arts. The local institutions that are meant to support and represent artists have crumbled. The local artist has to struggle without much support.
One sees how different it is elsewhere. There is good management of infrastructure; you hear of welfare states, etc. The environment is in continual improvement. When the question of living well is being answered by the government, then the artist can think beyond selfish, survivalist themes, and explore ideas that will improve life in general. The work of artists generally reflect their living environment. I do not know about good or bad art.
SMO: If you had the power to make changes to the local artistic landscape, what would you do to strengthen the local art movement?
Nsofor: I would fight for an Art fund and a government policy for collecting art like they did in the early years post-independence. I would create artist workshops and conferences, and touring exhibitions. I would build an art foundation that showcases work for their quality, and offers financial aid and residencies for artists. It would be nice to build a low-cost housing area for young artists.
SMO: Would you like to comment on anything which I have not touched on?
Nsofor: I think you asked very relevant questions. Art is so much more. Its appreciation allows a refinement and appreciation of life in general.