Nengi Omuku is an artist who was born in Nigeria and completed her BA and MA at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London. She has had solo and group exhibitions in the UK and Nigeria, and now lives and works in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. For her artistic practice, she has won scholarships and awards, including the British Council CHOGM Art Award, presented by HRH Queen Elisabeth II. Most recently, her paintings were exhibited by Omenka Gallery as part of “2016 Armory Focus: African Perspectives.”
One morning in late March, she and I spoke via Skype for almost an hour. She was generous in her responses, open about her uncertainties, and compelling in the ways she expressed her convictions about art. I hope this conversation will lead to more between Nengi and all of us.
Emmanuel Iduma: Do you suspect that by looking at the titles of your paintings, viewers can get a sense of your intentions?
Nengi Omuku: I find that my titles and my paintings have become more intertwined and representational recently. Some of the paintings that were in the Armory Show for example —Roadside Dump and I will free you but I am a small girl—relate directly to the paintings because I felt there was no other way to properly express the encounters they came from. If I were to be put into a category, I would probably be classified as an abstract painter. However, when I am confronted with someone defecating on the roadside, or when I am prevented from posting bail because of my gender, I can’t rely on abstraction to properly convey what I experience, and what I am trying to express. There was a very ‘abstract’ painting I also showed at Armory: He wanted her to change. I think the painting and the title here are allowed to say different things. It all depends. I have a strange relationship with words and with paint.
EI: I was fascinated by the propensity of the images, in a sense, to become realistic when I looked at them. I think it’s almost a biological need to invest images with figurative readings. So I’m looking at an abstract painting and my first reaction is to make a connection with an image I am familiar with. I didn’t get the sense that you were trying to convey a specific kind of image through your abstract work. You said you have a strange relationship with words. What’s your relationship with words? In titling your work, for instance?
NO: I love writing. I was on the MA course at the Slade, and a huge chunk of the course was writing. Sometimes I get carried away with my titles. I don’t use very complex language. For instance there’s a landscape painting I made where light comes from below rather than from above (I Can’t Feel My Legs). You would probably not relate the painting to the title, which is a literal translation of how I felt when I made it.
EI: There’s the idea of the kind of things words and images form between them. One of the problems is that we always expect words to interpret images, or to have a very surefooted relationship with images, whereas the opposite is true. There’s something mysterious. When you finish a painting you’re not, I guess, trying to give it a title that eclipses what the image can do, but you’re trying to propose something about that image.
EI: Something scandalous: one of the paintings at the Armory Show was Boys Follow Me. Was that ass? There are all these videos of boys following women with…you know.
NO: Oh my goodness! That was the most controversial painting I put in the show. A lot of people were wondering what it was. But you’re right. It is!
EI: What did people think it was? Were they too terrified by the idea?
NO: People read it differently. When I was making the painting, I was thinking of how women sometimes are seen as objects. You need to have a great bum, and for a lot of black women, a good weave. If you don’t have a good weave, it’s like “Hello? What’s going on?” I have natural hair, an afro basically, and I find it weird putting someone else’s hair on my head. Before I moved back to Nigeria, I noticed I had become part of a group of black women in the UK that were “going natural,” cutting off their chemically straightened hair and letting their afro grow out. In Nigeria, people asked me what was wrong with my hair, and why I had refused to “fix it” (wear a weave). At first it was challenging, so I bought these rather strange and expensive hair extensions called “Mongolian hair.” It was the most ridiculous thing I had ever done, but I found that boys were literally following me because of it. They said I looked Indian! That’s where the painting and its title came from. I attached a bum to a wig. That’s all it is. Now the hair sits in my studio. I use it as a prop when I create sculpted creatures for paintings.
EI: I try to consider my relationship with women. How have I been taught to respond to desire? How have I been taught to deal with my longing? If you live in a society that has been mostly designed to objectify women, what kind of complicities do you have within that society? How do you resist that complicity? It’s something I always think about. Seeing this painting, hearing you talk about it, is almost like a trigger to get to the place where I’m confronted with how I’m expected to see, or not to see, women.
NO: The limitations assigned to and often accepted by my gender became quite obvious and shocking when I returned home. One of my paintings, I Will Free You, But I Am A Small Girl, is based on the experience of trying to post bail for a colleague who had been wrongly accused. A senior policewoman told me I couldn’t post bail because I’m a woman. How ironic! She said I needed to get a man because I am a “small girl.” I explained to her that I had the money with me but she insisted, “No, we need a responsible man to post bail.” I spent most of the day at the police station before I got a man to collect my money and give to the police.
I also deal a lot with beauty, relationship between the sexes, pregnancy. Recently, however, I have had to take on darker themes, like mental illness, corruption and gender inequality. I’ve encountered a lot of mentally ill people on the road, women especially. One of my paintings, Bodija Heiress, is a portrait of one of these women. It’s the first time I’ve painted fabric; it was based on her dress. It’s an image that haunted me and became necessary to paint. “Art for art’s sake” has taken a backseat as I find myself painting out of necessity. There are a lot of mentally ill people, on the streets in Nigeria in different stages of undress. It really bothers me.
EI: Tell me how you got started as a painter? How did you feel painting would be the language to express these concerns?
NO: I started off my Bachelors degree as a sculptor. But it became challenging putting something very three-dimensional and tangible in the same space that I existed in. It wasn’t really expressing the things that were in my head at the time. The sculptures were very real and round and were mine. But the space wasn’t mine. With painting, I’m creating my space and allowing the projections from my mind interact with that space, to develop a relationship with the space.
I have also considered why it might appear logical to photograph some of the people I encounter on the road and then present them in an exhibition. But I feel that photography would be an intrusion on their privacy. So I take the memory of meeting them to my studio, make a sculpture, take a photo of it and allow these tools of sculpture and photography inform the painting. However, the sculptures don’t strictly adhere to the initial encounter. This is because I have created an alter ego. It’s a furry creature that usually pops up in different colors and wigs, depending on her mood. She embraces the women I encounter, because she identifies with who they are. I see that it is possible for anybody to fall into that kind of state. I merge the stories: hers and theirs and use my self-portraits to tell their stories.
EI: You had most of your higher education in the United Kingdom. Why was it important for you to return and work in Nigeria?
NO: Moving back to Nigeria was a very scary decision. I knew I was no longer enthusiastic about living in London—I felt I needed to explore more. But London is a very safe place. There’s constant electricity and water supply, and you don’t face strange challenges on the road. But I was restless. I knew I needed to change something. I was afraid to move, but it was necessary if I wanted to push my work to wherever next it was meant to be. When I did, it felt like I was back in my skin. It was, however, a huge culture shock, even though I was born in Nigeria. The Nigerian Youth Service Corps took me to Ibadan. I would wake up every morning to fetch water from a well, and fly okada (ride a motor-bike) everywhere. It was all very strange, but exhilarating.
For a whole year, the only painting I made was Bodija Heiress because I was absorbing what was around me, and adjusting to my new environment. I literally spent the whole year looking.
EI: Can you tell me how you got to be represented by Omenka Gallery?
NO: Before my return, I sent Bisi Silva an email titled “Nigerian artist moving back to Nigeria” or something to that effect. She encouraged me to just keep painting and exhibiting and see what happens. After my Youth Service, I went to Lagos to check out the galleries. I knew of Ben Enwonwu, who was a Slade alumnus, and was fascinated by the fact that his home had been converted into a gallery. I participated in a group exhibition at his home – Omenka Gallery – and was eventually approached by them.
EI: I know that Ben Enwonwu is the patron saint of Omenka Gallery. As far as I know, he was the first black artist to make a sculpture of the Queen of England. This has some significance for me in relation to your trajectory. I’m curious about the Nigerian painters whose work interests you.
NO: Meeting the Queen after winning an art competition was an awesome moment for me, especially in relation to Ben Enwonwu’s own history. I remember her encouraging me to continue with art and as a young person, that’s something you don’t forget. Another inspiring moment prior to that was when my mum took me to see a painter, Kolade Oshinowo, in his studio. She presented one of my drawings and asked his opinion on my capabilities. He simply said, “These are strong lines.” I was thirteen or fourteen and for him to say that was all the encouragement I needed.
I’m drawn to the work of Chris Ofili, his recent body of work in particular. I love the sense of humor in Yinka Shonibare’s work, though he’s a sculptor predominantly. Another artist whose work I admire is Wangechi Mutu. I just love her work!
EI: Do you know when a painting is completed?
NO: Some of the paintings I make are quite full and others have more space. For instance in He Wanted Her to Change, it was important to me that I didn’t fill the space in that painting. I think there should be breathing room in a painting for the viewer to approach it with his or her own ideas. There is some sort of breathing room in most of my paintings, to allow the viewer see a façade that can be pulled away.
Do I know when a painting is finished? I think I generally just tend to stop.
EI: Tell me about the Phantasmic Middle Creature. There’s some kind of chaos, I guess, and it seems different from other paintings.
NO: My paintings vary. Sticking with a particular style is just something my body rejects, because my experiences are not homogenous. Each painting is a reference to an experience I’ve had or decided to take on. Some people who came to my booth at the Armory Show asked, “Who are the artists?” I found this quite interesting. I hope I always work like this: without being afraid of being unidentifiable.
EI: That’s familiar to me because the kind of form my writing takes is based on the voices I’m listening to while trying to write. Now, what do you think about how Port Harcourt is, perhaps, a periphery in the Nigerian arts scene? Everything happens in Lagos, as people say, which is a big lie. When I met you I was almost grateful that there was a painter working out of Port Harcourt. What does Port Harcourt mean to you as a place where artists can live and produce work?
NO: I think Port Harcourt has a lot of potential. I’m part of the Society of Nigerian Artists here. It was important for me to connect with other artists as I came back. Diseye Tantua has been a real encouragement in Port Harcourt. He invites artists and curators to give talks here and does regular screenings of artists’ videos. There is an art community; we just need more people investing in gallery spaces. Zina Saro-Wiwa for example, has taken a bold step and created the Boys Quarter’s Project Space for artists from the Niger-Delta. The only other space we have is the Presidential Hotel lobby, which is really not inspiring. In a group show for example, my painting was put beside a wall mural of a lion! There’s a growing art community here. The galleries will follow.