Nigeria: The African Who Wants to Take Over the Abstract Art Scene

26 July 2021

He is young, talented and exhibits an incredible level of ingenuity in his art pieces; he is Chukwuemeka Chukwu, a US-based multi-disciplinary Nigerian artist. After his secondary education at Atlantic Hall Schools, Poka Epe, Lagos and Whitesands School, he proceeded to Baltimore Maryland in the US, to study visual art and architectural design at Maryland Institute College of Art. Chukwu's recent and new artworks are on display at the gallery at Community College of Baltimore County, CCBC Catonsville in a solo exhibition titled 'Inside The Cadmus', which opened on May 24 and runs till July 31. In this exclusive chat Chukwu shares more about the exhibition and his works in general:

Tell us about 'Inside the Cadmus'

'Inside the Cadmus' was to highlight a sort of deeper dive into this process of mine I've made and trying to perfect. Starting from my thesis work, 'Trying to bridge learning experiences of architecture and fine art', using technical drawing and accompanying measures to generate visceral spaces.

Is it possible for an observer to easily identify your background in architecture from your works?

Certainly! Especially my new show; people always assume it has something to do with a very technical process and at times just mention architecture and technical drawing being an underlying factor or influence.

How is it that most people who read architecture end up as visual artists; why not simply read fine arts or other related disciplines?

The truth of this stems from the ideologies of most Nigerian households. That art isn't a safe career path, and it really isn't, but I feel every youth aspiring to be one deserves the opportunity to try. Many Nigerian households will usually push you towards a safer path of design work like Architecture, that it will likely put food on the table.

A lot of people studying architecture do so because they either love it or because they already have the passion for creating something. They won't mind the medium of architecture. So, they end up tolerating and doing very well in this field. I have love for both architecture and fine art, and throughout college, I ended up taking both courses seriously. My degree could be considered to almost be a double major. After graduating, it became clear Fine Art was the better field to express myself, but I would not throw away what I learned from my study in architectural design.

Is it that architecture makes one a better artist?

Studying Architecture may not make one a better artist per say, but one's learning experiences in general might definitely do so.

You said earlier that you begin a new artwork without focusing on what it'll be in the end, I'm thinking; does it mean you do not have a particular message or concept in mind before starting the work?

I have collective ideas in mind I want to execute before starting new work, since what I'm essentially trying to do with this new line of work is to introduce the viewer into whole new spaces. I'm essentially generating new spaces with each new painting; I could start by fleshing out the atmosphere of said space by special mixes of colour and fluidly build it up for endless hours and encapsulate that time for the viewer.

This new style of mine was a result of my thesis work of the final year in my architectural degree program in which I was trying to bridge my processes of art-making and architectural design. This allowed me to study abstract work in a completely new angle. It became art that continuously built on itself, pieces constantly relating to each other collectively, learning from each other as well as I the artist learning from them. One major issue in consideration for me as a black and African man trying to take over the abstract contemporary art scene is the fact that not many people that look like me are in those spaces.

Abstract art and the artists that gain success from it have the tendency to be associated with white mediocrity, lacking interesting concepts and backed by surface level ideologies. Lots of paint splatter in a studio space but not much thought, structure or substance. I try to put myself in those spaces of attention as the opposite. An Igbo, African and Black artist bringing substance to a field dominated by those that look nothing like me.

What inspires each work and how long does it take you to finish a piece?

Afrofuturism is a big influence on my work. I essentially create spaces I, as an African with all my learning experiences in these fields, envision myself existing in, with assistance of my architecture knowledge. Pieces can take me a hundred hours, extending into months or weeks if need be. But it takes a lot for me to finally decide there's not much I can add and deem them finished.

You are hardly known as an artist here in Nigeria, why?

I'm a bit known among the younger community for doing pop-ups whenever I came during the December break. I got the youth scene from all over Lagos to show up and engage my spaces for three years straight. I collaborated with my Friend, Chukwuma Ukah, on joint pop-up shows in Lagos.

So, have you featured in any exhibition in Nigeria?

I've never featured in a juried or curated show in Nigeria unfortunately. I got my representation from pop-ups because I was always at school in Baltimore Maryland. I never had opportunity to work towards getting my work in gallery settings in Lagos although I would love to. Getting into galleries in the Maryland area has been a lot easier since I schooled here. While in school, making those connections came very easy.

For how long have you been into professional art?

I've always drawn and painted, but the first time I wanted to take after professionals in the field and show my work to a larger audience was in 2016, thus, my first Lagos pop-up.

As a visual artist, I work mainly with painting and drawing, although I am always open to exploring other visual art mediums. I plan on continuously incorporating new mediums into my process.

Your figurative works, you said, focus on Afrofuturism blending the depiction of Igbo culture. Could you explain what impression you're looking to create and for what purpose?

Highlighting the culture in different light, one of advancement far beyond many others; I'm proud of my Igbo people and their perseverance towards success. I wanted to show a far future of what this perseverance could lead to; the thriving of our culture in a distant era.

Obviously, the new normal discourages physical exhibition, but is there plan to exhibit here in Nigeria?

Yes. I take working with new spaces as a challenge of how much good I can do with them. The Coordinator at the CCBC gallery for 'Inside the Cadmus' was surprised at my dedication to go through extreme measures to transform the space; painting the whole floor white before carpeting it with balloons towards the Celebratory reception.

The idea of working with a good gallery that shares my vision in Nigeria would make me the happiest, especially because I'd get to enjoy it with so many familiar faces. At home!

After 'Inside the Cadmus', what next?

Hopefully a show bigger and better in the right space allowing me to push my work, and what goes into it, even further.

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