Chigozie Obi’s work is gathering huge reviews and applause from enthusiasts around the globe, the question now is her living up to expectation one day at a time.
●29th November 2022
There are three women. They have brooms in their hands, and their faces are firm. Sure; they look beaten and weathered by labour, but they are firm nonetheless. Behind them is a yellow wall; its plainness elevated by pro-work slogans: “NO FREE WORK”, “PAY US.”
At first glance, “The Lawma Workers” is just that: a painting of three road sweepers standing side-by-side. But when one looks closer, there’s a certain character to the figures. Their faces and postures look transferable; you get the feeling that they are more than their coveralls. They would also look at home in suits or jerseys. The stress lines on their faces could easily be from boardroom meetings or athletic meets instead of sweeping the road.
It is possible that these are the perceptions of an overzealous writer; another person may feel differently about the painting, but that’s fine. Chigozie Obi’s art brims with life, texture, and energy. There’s something for everyone.
Based in Lagos, Nigeria, Chigozie Obi is a visual artist who works with both traditional and digital mediums. Exploring themes of self-acceptance & defiance of societal norms [especially as a woman], her work has featured in several group exhibitions and sales across the planet; including Dubai, Los Angeles, and Lagos.
Despite the scope of her work including both topics, she is hesitant to draw a connecting line between self-love and defying social stereotypes and norms:
“Yes, my work promotes self love; for example, the “Coming up for water” series. However, I am not necessarily proffering them as a package. I believe that in defying societal expectations, you can learn to love yourself more. Personally, I always support people embracing & loving themselves.”
In addition to portraying powerful women in her art, she’s influenced by life and its events, drawing inspiration from happenings in close and wider society. Memory is also important to her as well: “Yes, I am inspired by past events; in my life, as well as in my environment and the country.”
Although she studied Visual Arts at the University of Lagos, she maintains that school had no effect on her development as an artist, a common theme in Nigerian tertiary education; where theory is emphasised more than practical work, leaving students burdened with ideas and concepts, and little to no hands-on experience.
Instead, she learnt how to paint in her third year at the art studio she worked at during her industrial training [popularly known as IT in these parts]. “If I had known, I wouldn’t have gone to uni, I would have just gone to the studio from day one” she remarks wistfully.
When IT was done, she lost interest in regular school work; preferring to focus on developing her skills as a painter. But, like the holy book says; all things work together for good. Despite not getting a well-rounded art education, she found community in friends and classmates who encouraged her on her self development journey.
Community continues to be a major theme in her life and work. People who follow her on social media are no strangers to the bond she shares with fellow artists Yadichinma Ukoha-Kalu and Morenike Olusanya. Reflecting on their friendship, she says “I am very close to Yadi and Renike, especially Yadi because our art styles are similar, although I do digital art as well. It’s very helpful to have friends who are artists as they understand what you go through, and can help with ideas for your work.”
The Kwuo Podcast is another example of her commitment to collaboration and community. Meaning to speak or talk in the Igbo language, Kwuo is hosted by Obi and Ebube Onoh, a mixed media artist; with the aim of bringing together the Nigerian art community to share stories, discuss opportunities, and offer advice on how to improve their work and navigate being an artist in a low-reward environment like Nigeria.
“When you think about it, there’s nothing like this for Nigerian artists. We don’t have a community like this. There are so many aspects of art we don’t know, especially the business side. That’s why we started Kwuo, to help others like us.”
Due to personal commitments, Obi and Onoh have not been able to record in a while. However, the project is still on her mind, she says, and she’s constantly planning on ways to make it bigger and better.
As the winner of the Access Bank Art X prize 2021, Obi was awarded a residency at Gasworks, London; an experience she says has helped her develop as an artist. Although she believes that awards do not define an artist’s value [“all the awards in the world aren’t even enough for all the artists”], she admits that they are helpful, especially those that come with residencies because of the access to materials, resources, and different art styles they provide.
Despite the relative amount of success she has gained so far, Chigozie Obi is always looking forward to the future. With the success of her exhibition in the United States in October and her own solo show with Art X in November there is even much more to expect from her and her work. In addition to these, she plans to get back to recording the Kwuo Podcast and continue working with the Artist Resource Collective [ARC]; a group of visual artists who support local art and talent by providing community and sourced donations of art supplies.
In a 1985 interview for State of the Art, a television series, Jean-Michel Basquiat remarked that as his work became more popular and mainstream, his ideas of what it meant to be an artist changed. When I ask Chigozie Obi if she feels the same way, considering the fact that her art is enjoying more recognition for the themes it explores and speaks about [such as breaking down societal stereotypes], she is quick to state that while the applause and acknowledgment is great, her reason for creating art is her love for it: “I am glad I have themes I can speak about; feminism, self-love, I believe in them and talk straight from my heart; but first and foremost, I am creating art for myself.”
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