For their aesthetic uniqueness, Emeka Ilechukwu’s works are well sought-after in both the local and international art scene, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Simply pouring himself into his creative process… It makes sense that Emeka Ilechukwu sums up his modus operandi this way. “That’s why it’s quite difficult to separate my private and professional life,” he clarifies. “If I try to be too ‘professional,’ the authenticity might be lost. So, I try to remain my authentic self.”
Odd, nonetheless, that he also describes the process as both “intellectually and physically demanding”, even after acknowledging his being prenatally well-equipped for the task. “Some of my creations take as much as one year to finally be satisfied with them. Some take as little as two weeks. It depends on the work, the flow of ideas, and the surge of energy at any given time.”
The 1997 Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu graduate undoubtedly owes his exposure to diverse materials to his formal training as a sculptor. This, in a manner of speaking, accounts for his assertion that working with any material—both conventional and non-conventional—comes naturally to him. That is, if the viewer detects a nuanced meaning of the word “naturally” as an allusion to the kind of spontaneity that comes from regular practice.
“But these days, I work more with metal and wood.” His penchant for these mediums seems like such a big deal since most of his recent works attest to his long interaction with them. “The way metal responds to tools is fascinating, and metal brings some complexities into the equation that no other material can. Wood, on the other hand, gives room for certain kinds of textures, engraving, carving, etching, etc.”
That’s why it strikes the viewer as odd that he would ascribe intellectual rigour to his creative process. But, as for their being physically demanding, the painstaking details of the end-products attest to that. Besides, doesn’t his statement imply that the lines between his private and professional life have become blurred? “My studio is in my house, though in different sections of the house.”
And his family? How do they fit into all this? He acknowledges them for having played “a vital role” in his professional career so far. His wife, Desola, for instance, collaborates with him as a partner, while his four teenage children each contribute their quota as well. Their efforts are supplemented by the concepts and ideas he cloaks in visible forms in his works, which he explains percolate from his private and public activities.
Thus, the 47-year-old continually seeks to distil his inner visions and aesthetic impulses, not just in 3-D formats but also as drawings and paintings. Indeed, he explains that his works are intended to “inspire hope and motivate courage” in his quest to add “aesthetic value to the world.”
Yet, discerning either hope or courage in the 2021 acrylic on canvas and thread painting, which—with the best of the artist’s intentions—is supposed to be a paean to his wife of 19 years, is exactly what his audience will be hard put to accomplish. At best, the 36 x 46-inch portrait painting, which is titled “Desola” (after his wife’s first name), should be seen as his personal expression of gratitude to the woman who had stood beside him through the years as he sought to advance his career. “Though not a professional artist, she has joined hands with me to advance my career in ways beyond measure. Despite our background and ethnic differences, she has proven to be a strong ally. She has stood with me through thick and thin and life’s vicissitudes.”
Talking about the artist’s message of hope and courage, chances are that they are most evident in the works, done either in African teak and pine wood or in welded metal. Consider the African teak and pine wood carving that he refers to as “Mmemme”. The 74 x 42-inch carving’s title, which is an Igbo term that roughly translates to “celebration,” derives from the artist’s sense of success and, possibly, a big sigh of relief, after working so hard to create the piece. “I tried to capture the intricacies and behind-the-scenes work that produces beautiful results,” he explains.
Almost everything about the work’s neo-traditional motifs conjures up the coordinated behind-the-scenes efforts that usually precede local festive occasions. Ilechukwu had to personally research the weeks-long preparations that go into four-hour events in order to understand their time and financial costs. “In my thinking, to make friends and family happy for four hours takes weeks and months of planning,” he muses. “I concluded that happiness and joy can be expensive; it takes lots of work. On the flip side, we cannot afford anarchy and chaos; the cost of the latter far exceeds the cost of joy in gigantic proportions.”
Another African teak and pine wood carving, titled “Lagos Rhythm”, further explores these musings on the theme of celebrations. In the 80 x 44-inch work, which like the previous one was produced in 2022, he reenacts his experiences of weekend parties in Nigeria’s commercial capital city, Lagos. “Local musicians, largely uninvited, welcome guests at the car parks and alleys leading to the event venues with songs of praise and eulogies to the admiration of the guests,” the artist notes about these events, known in local parlance as “Owambe”. “Interestingly, these musicians bring life and vigour; they prepare guests to get into party mode, and I was quite elated the first time I experienced their heartwarming welcome.”
Ilechukwu discerns something else at these festive gatherings: the revellers’ propensity to bask in the musicians’ frequently extravagant praise-singing. As a result, he concludes that traces of vanity exist in all men.
So much for the artist’s direct allusion to the hope and courage message so far. In the aforementioned works, this message appears to be more implied than explicit. But, with other titles like “Victorious” and “Enyimba”, he tackles it headlong in welded metal works, which he produced in 2022.
Proclaiming more of the message of hope in the African teak and pine wood that he titled “Communal Life”, he extols communal life as “the foundation for viable and sustainable development in any given society or group of people with a common purpose.”
But then, aficionados and collectors worldwide seem more interested in his works’ aesthetic uniqueness than in their messages. Even as a senior partner of his art production company, Emeka Ilechukwu & Associates, which conducts mentoring programmes for art students and young up-and-coming artists, he has been prolific enough to hold five solo exhibitions and feature in 50 salons, as well as over 13 group exhibitions both within and outside Nigeria.