For Abuja-based artist Obi Nwaegbe, his recently-expanded workspace in Abuja’s Mpape district represents a significant milestone in his career, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes
There is something dreamlike about reliving the fact that, not too long ago, Obinwaegbe Studios started as a home studio and office space. Thus, from its modest beginnings, it has now expanded into an adjoining five-room workspace in the same building, which consists of two studios, two gallery spaces and an office. “This commemorates a six-year-long exercise to launch a reputation within the Abuja art community, and its collaborators in diplomatic circles, as well as in private and public establishments,” offers Obi Nwaegbe by way of explanation. Well, isn’t there a lot to be said for resilience after all? For this was what has brought the Delta State native and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka-educated artist this far and sustained him in the limelight.
Getting here to Catherine’s Court – tucked away somewhere in Abuja’s fast-developing Mpape district – that sunny Thursday, September 30 afternoon didn’t take that long. At a moderate speed, the artist’s gold-tinged 2003 Honda Accord made it in about 15 minutes.
“The issue of space is a primary concern to any artist and should assume a fundamental status in the planning,” the artist resumes. “Before consigning works to galleries, an artist’s private space ought to be the first attempt at presentation, at least in my understanding. One of the upsides of observing best studio practices is that it hands a certain level of agency to the artist and the ability to make works appreciable to visitors, which, in many cases, involve art dealers and/or galleries.”
For the 43-year-old, it is not just about getting a breather from that samey feel arising from default confinement to the studio as a mere production outlet. The real deal is that he has found a way around a potentially incapacitating over-reliance on galleries and art dealers, which could rob him of some social and economic acumen. Now, he no longer has to cede the prerogative of the primary sales of his works to either of them as collaborating partners, albeit under mutually beneficial agreements. Nor does he have to depend on anyone else to display his works.
“Fashioning my studio to include a display space is intended to mitigate some of these challenges for my works and open a conducive environment for artist/public exchange. It also serves to expand on already existing art galleries and studios in the nation’s capital city, which is growing but remains largely inadequate in accommodating the increasing number of artists and expanding their outreach.”
It is also from this space that his ancillary venture, Artstier Company Limited, operates. Through the latter’s website, direct viewing and purchases of the artists’ paintings can be initiated. It was also conceived to periodically host programmes and exchanges for the federal capital city’s growing art community. “The long-term goal is to achieve international repute working from Nigeria and setting the pace about what is creatively possible, even within struggling economies,” the 43-year-old adds.
Indeed, working as a visual artist from Nigeria – particularly from Abuja – does have more than its fair share of flip sides. But nothing beats the bittersweetness of living a lifelong passion. From being encouraged to draw and sketch, as a five-year-old, by his dad, who was a professor of English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, he eventually studied fine and applied arts at the university.
He had no sooner completed the one-year mandatory National Youth Service Corps programme, which saw him serving in the Nassarawa State capital Lafia, than he rushed headlong into full-time studio practice, first living and practising in Lagos before relocating to Abuja.
Meanwhile, the predisposition to scour beneath the obvious in the quest for unique interpretations of his daily life experiences has always primed him for productive art practice. Thus, he found himself working on diverse themes over his almost two decades of studio practice. And the themes, which were at the same time socio-anthropological and political, have helped fine-tune his artistic credo.
Meanwhile, the evolution of his style, which began natural representation, was accelerated by his exposure to the influences of other artists and their works. Working with oil, acrylic – and sometimes, with watercolour and pastels, he seems to have found his comfort zone in a stylised version he calls “abstract expressionism”.
As for the business side of his practice, Nwaegbe has not done badly for himself even when he says that it has been challenging. Indeed, not many artists of his generation seem to have enjoyed a narrative arc as fulfilling as his. Besides, his works have been well received during his exhibitions – which includes the joint show he held last year with another artist from Thursday, December 3 to Saturday, December 12 at the Dolapo Obat Gallery in Habiba Plaza, along Osun Crescent in the upscale Maitama district – and his brief stay in Ghana.
Artists, he believes, should be their first gatekeepers – “critical voice,” he calls it – before showing their works to the public. “The standard with which artists operate determines a lot what the galleries can present,” he argues. “If the artist operates a low and mediocre production and presentation, the possibilities are high that the gallery will do same unwittingly. So, the first person to set the pace on standards is the artist or art studio.”
Amidst all this, he considers his social life as tangential to his studio practice. A “two-way traffic”, as he once described it, he would rather first define his goals and focus before adapting his available time to a social circle. “My journey in this regard has me keeping smaller circles as I grow older to devote the maximum time I require for my work.”
So, back to the workspace at Catherine’s Court, it is the artist’s latest endeavour to make his art more accessible to the public.