From as far back as Jerry Michael Opara can remember, art has always asserted its presence in his life, he tells Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Entmutigung (The Sadist) was hard to ignore. Even though it was a 38 X 44 cm ballpoint pen on paper artwork, it was easily noticed among the top 25 works featured in the 2017 edition of Life in My City Art Festival’s grand finale exhibition. Among these artworks were sculptures and installations, photographs, paintings and sundry mixed-media contraptions, which emerged as the best works from Abuja, Auchi/Benin, Enugu, Ibadan, Lagos and Uyo zones through a rigorous selection process.
Perhaps, more intriguing than the fact that “Entmutigung” was a hyper-realistic close-up depiction of the sweat-beaded face of a mixed-race youth was its minimalist interpretation of the year’s theme: “In the Midst of Realities”. For the artist Jerry Michael Opara – then an 18-year-old student of philosophy at the University of Lagos – the work was only an excuse to display his proficiency in hyper-realism. Back then, he recalls in a recent interview, the impulsion was to “make it as real as possible”.
“But then, I also wanted a narrative,” he intimates. “So, I drew a picture of what I thought was a person [who has been] disappointed. [Before producing ‘Entmutigung’], I’d asked my dad for some money to get art materials and he turned down my request, saying that I should go and read. So, I started drawing with a pen. I was disappointed. But the drawing was more about the details and how realistic it looked at first. Then, followed by the narrative.”
Talking about the work’s title, which is in German. It has nothing to do with sadism, which is appended to it as a subtitle under parenthesis. Rather, it means “Discouragement”. Opara’s choice of The Sadist as a subtitle was not intended to be understood literally but was only meant to be a play with words. “Sadist, as in someone, who’s always sad,” he jokes.
“Entmutigung” was supposed to be one in a series of several works, which could have had a sequel titled “Encouragement” (The Happy One).
Three years on, the Imo State native has started to think differently. Now, he no longer sees the big deals about producing hyper-realistic works. “Anyone can make ‘Entmutigung’. And probably draw the face more realistically than me. So, now I don’t care about how realistic what I draw is. I have decided to focus on the narrative and driving the message into my viewers’ consciousness without having to be there physically to explain my painting and with my style. Only I would have the guts to draw or paint the way I do.”
Flashback to how it all started. Opara, now 21 since his birthday on March 5, recalls always being dexterous in drawing ever since he could hold a pencil. “But, it was just something I did to pass time and only started to take it seriously after seeing my cousin’s drawings that at the time looked awesome.”
Besides, art had come to his rescue during the final stages of his senior secondary school years at the Grundtvig International Secondary School in the Anambra State town, Oba when he suffered a mild depression. Riled by the fact he was constantly being compared to his academically-smarter older brother, he had started to develop low self-esteem.
His dad, a businessman and an evangelical pastor, who has always been a stickler for discipline and excellence, wondered why he just couldn’t follow in his brother’s footsteps. But in the troubled mind of this impressionable youth, this expectation could only mean one thing: he was neither loved nor wanted.
“Art helped me get through the depression and I soon got hooked. It started from drawing. The more I drew, the more I learned and the more I wanted to know. I was also very competitive and I wanted to always be the best in the room. With time, it became what everyone knew me for. Till today, I still try to get better, to keep improving.”
Enter the next phase. Opara began to constantly produce artworks, watch interviews of other artists as well as tutorial videos, experiment with different mediums, read articles on art and attend art exhibitions among other events. “Even when I’m not drawing, I’m always involved in one art event or the other. Being in such proximity to art and other artists and sharing knowledge is what helped me grow so much as an artist as well as the thirst to become better.”
His quest to become more proficient in his art practice soon familiarised him with the use of such mediums as graphite, charcoal, wax-based colours and epoxy resins, among several others. As for the use of ballpoint pen, this has been just one among the other mediums he had explored in the past. “I stumbled upon some nice drawings by [the hyper-realist] Oscar Ukonu and challenged myself to do something as good if not better.”
If he describes the initial experience with the ballpoint pen as “overwhelming”, it is because he had thought that using the medium would have posed a serious challenge. But that turned out not to be the case. Rather, using the medium was easier than he thought and he ended up making a few more works with it.
Meanwhile, combining his passion for art with trying to make decent grades proved to be a daunting task. Besides, he didn’t consider himself “the smartest guy around”. He eventually tried to cut down on the time he spent making art while trying to read as much as he could. But art always found ways of obtruding into his academic activities until when he got into his third year in the university. He became better at managing his time and only completed two artworks between that year and when he graduated. “My parents only wanted me to study, but they still showed support as well as disapproval from time to time. I was so convinced that art was my thing because it was my favourite activity – the only one which I did best. So, it made sense to keep doing it.”
On the high points of his art practice so far, he cites emerging among the top 25 and top 100 artists in the 2017 and 2018 editions of the Life in My City Art Festival (more often known by its acronym LIMCAF), respectively out of thousands of entries. For him, this was a big deal, especially since that was when he would be exhibiting his works for the first time and also alongside the much-admired artist role models like Raji Bamidele, Israel Fatola and Kingsley Ayogu.
“So far, I’ve exhibited several times – four times in Lagos and twice in Enugu – and I plan to keep doing so. I don’t do commissions very often, because I don’t like my creativity to be restricted to one thing. I also don’t like being told what to do. I make art for art’s sake, and myself. But, if I do take a commission then it’s because it’s something I genuinely want to do even without being paid.”
Art, which for Opara, had started as a hobby has now become a full-time activity. “I guess that means I should get a new hobby,” he says. “I decided to make art my career of choice in 2018 because I don’t think there was any other career that suited me that well.”
So far, he had taken bold steps through leveraging on his social media accounts for the promotion of his art. Besides also creating the website (https://michaeljerry309.wixsite.com/michaeljerryart) informing people about himself and his works, he had a long list of projects, which have been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among his other role models, he mentions Ken Nwadiogbu, who he says “inspires me every day”. About the artist, he adds: “I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Ken and he’s not only smart, but I [also] consider him a good friend”. There is also Raji Bamidele, another artist, he considers “a friend who has greatly impacted on my art as a whole” and others like the American artist and designer, Brian Donnelly, who is professionally known as Kaws, the late Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and the famous Pablo Picasso “whose works, stories, methods, philosophy have all influenced me greatly”.
His typical day, now that he has graduated from the University of Lagos? It starts with house chores after which he does some physical exercises. Then, he tends to watch a movie or read a book after breakfast. Drawing, usually for three hours depending on his mood, is his next activity, which is not an everyday thing. “I only do it in the right mindset,” he explains.