With its explicit statement, which swirls around the concept of collective responsibility, the title of Amarachi Okafor’s exhibition resonates with these times, as Nigeria’s 60th independence anniversary approaches, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
“Cities are made and built by people – all the people in it, not just some.” Sometimes, not more than a few words like these would suffice to sum up the notion of collective responsibility. This was especially when the planned exhibition’s title, The Colour of our Hearts is the Colour of our City, already seemed explicit enough. Yet, the urge for further clarification – if not for academic correctness – demanded more from Amarachi Okafor during a recent e-interview with the University of Nigeria, Nsukka-based professor of ceramic art and African art and design history Ozioma Onuzulike.
Hence the Abuja-based experimental contemporary artist resumed: “Each one of us is a stakeholder. It is not ‘them’, or ‘they’; not a question of ‘Na dem sabi’ (It is their problem). It is [the problem of] all of us! How does each one of us support to make our communities better or worse? How do we care for one another or not? If I am enthusiastic or have a joyful personality, it catches on to the people around me and the wider group, and if I am nonchalant or even hateful, it catches on too. All it takes is time, but it must establish and develop. I think many Nigerians, in the big cities especially, seem [to be] very angry, bitter people. We are greedy and selfish too. We can be more pleasant if we tried. It is said: ‘Tell me where you live, and I shall tell you the kind of person you might be.’ In my small group, in this nation, how do I support to make the education system better or worse, for example? Why do we kidnap our brothers and sisters to gain things? An Igbo proverb says Onye nwere mmadụ ka onye nwere ego (He who has people is greater than he who has money). Did our ancestors/parents teach us this?”
Curiously, this e-interview – held sometime in February, the artist vaguely recalls – was meant to herald the exhibition, whose opening had originally been scheduled for Monday, March 23. But then, a Higher Hand seemed to have intervened with the obtrusion of the coronavirus pandemic. The latter, with its more emphatic and more compelling message of introspection for mankind, ensured that the event was shifted to much later date. Thus, even when it eventually held on Tuesday, September 1 and ended on Sunday, September 6 at the Thought Pyramid Art Centre in Abuja, the resonances of its strident message continued to linger and remained as pertinent as ever.
Indeed, this period of the approaching Nigeria’s 60th independence anniversary seemed to have conferred it with more relevance than it might have hope for. This was even though thoughts of anger, cynicism, despair and hatred might have sullied the otherwise hopeful ambience. Okafor’s artistic offerings, which sometimes might come across as visual jeremiads, are really about “lifting spirits”. As she explicitly asks in her artist’s statement, “When shall we have a delightful living on earth, where there will be no injustice, war, and disease? What is the path to Paradise?”
If the exhibition was called a “Performative Public-Art”, it is because there was nothing celebratory or festive about its opening. Rather, the activities in the exhibition space seemed sober and introspective. The idea was to make the ambience conducive for contemplation. Footage of a video shot at the opening showed some of the participants penning down their prayers, thoughts and wishes, among other things, on pieces of paper, which were subsequently slipped into pouches and envelops. “The audience were the participants,” the artist explains, adding that the intention was to fill all the 2019 pouches or envelops with pieces of paper.
As for the cardboard boxes stacked at the different corners of the hall, they were her allusions to the setting of a city. They are also her way of exploring the concept of containing, containment, content…
“I have used containment as an idea, a metaphor and an inspiration – to question and to point to notions – the concept of bag and bagging, even humans as bags, baggers, and baggage,” she further clarified in her artist’s statement.
“I adopted text, colour (from any source) and embroidery/stitches as my visual language whilst leaning into the fringes of architecture and construction to try and translate my ideas- even when I paint, I make what I refer to as built or constructed paintings. These have forms.
“Words are powerful. I am constantly drawing from this gift of nature and leading others to explore with me this materiality of the written text and the action of writing as an art-making process. I am working also at the crossroads between tactile and ephemeral art forms, looking at the links and relationship between these and triggering situations where words and performativity are tangible materials for making art?”
Yet, this sculpture installation (2016-2019) – from whose title, “The Colour of our Hearts is the Colour of our City”, the exhibition derived its title – was only one out of the 14 works featured that the engaged the audience. For the other works, which were paintings and sculptures, the audiences were merely required to view and possibly ask questions when necessary.
“At each location, I usually have a team of people that work with me,” the 2006 University of Nigeria, Nsukka MFA (Sculpture) graduate told Professor Onuzulike. “The team is pre-trained before any event to understand the work very well. During our pre-event meetings this time as is usually the case, we would try again to pre-empt audience reaction to this piece and deliberate on strategies for responding. Some members of this team have been part of my relational event programmes from the early days with Ask Yourself (2014) and this is a good thing.”
Okafor, who also holds an MA in curatorial practice (Curating Contemporary Art), 2012 from Falmouth University in the UK, declares that she aims to deploy her creative skills in the service of others. “Besides making work in the studio, I continue to actuate these very rewarding public art collaborations, engaging several levels of audiences in Nigeria,” she says. “All of my work is for learning meant to bring me and my audiences to new knowledge as we are led to searching our hearts and discovering alternative ways of living.”
From running a private studio practice for eight months at the National Gallery of Art-owned Aina Onabolu Building in 2004, after a three-month stint with the nearby Universal Studios of Art, she became a recipient of the UNESCO-Aschberg artists’ award in 2007, which came with both a grant and an international residency programme at Lademoen Kustnerverksteder (LKV) in the Norwegian city of Trondheim.
In 2009, she travelled to the Bahamas for research and exhibition, thanks to the Commonwealth Foundation’s Commonwealth Connections.That same year, she became an international artist resident at Nordisk Kunstnarsenter Dalsåsen in Norway and at Popopstudios in the Bahamian capital city Nassau the following year.
Following her graduation in 2012 from the Falmouth University in the UK, she bagged the art department’s travel scholarship for an internship.
Two years later, she became one of the prizewinners of the National Art Competition, which was organised by the African Artists’ Foundation in collaboration with Nigerian Breweries PLC.
In addition to her impressive curatorial credentials, Okafor has held exhibitions both within and outside Nigeria. The locations outside Nigeria included Babel Art Space in Norway, Oriel Mostyn Gallery in Wales, UK and Manchester Art Gallery, UK.
“In recent years I have been making many solo art projects in collaboration with the public and audiences at alternative spaces,” the Abuja-based Orie Studio founder discloses. “An example is the set of unique relational meetings held at four locations as part of the Jogjakarta Biennial, Indonesia in 2015 and the inaugural set of events at schools, market place, and government offices, which won a prize at the National Art Competition in Lagos, 2014.”