Bob-Nosa Uwagboe’s art has gained acceptance at home and abroad in recent years. It was not so in the past, as his genre of art was consistently rejected by many. In this interview with Agwu Enekwachi, the artist regarded as Nigeria’s leading protest artist talks about the beginning of his career, the inspiration behind his message, his rejection and acceptance as well as the role of social media in driving contemporary art practice.
Agwu Enekwachi: Tell us about yourself and why your art is called protest art.
Bob-Nosa Uwagboe: I was born in Benin-City, Nigeria. I had my professional art training at Federal Polytechnic, Auchi where I graduated with HND (Higher National Diploma). During my internship in Lagos, I realized that people were recycling the same ideas without serious messages. Consequently, I decided that I must find my own voice. As a young man, I had already cultivated a love for reggae music- a popular genre in the 1980s and 1990s Nigeria, which often had social commentaries infused in its lyrics. Reggae was not about playing music for people to come and dance. It was inspired music with its origins in Jamaica. Stars like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and a host of other local Nigerian stars like Majek Fashek often talked about social ills. I told myself that I would use my art to express myself and make commentaries about the ills of society in my country and continent, just like the reggae stars. I also felt there was a need to document what was happening around me so that the next generation would appreciate the issues of our time. While I was still mapping out my artistic path, MKO Abiola, Nigeria’s presidential candidate whose election victory was annulled, got incarcerated by the Nigerian ruling military junta under General Sani (he later died in prison). I started creating works in response to my anger at the shameful turn out of events in my country. I did not know then that what I was doing was protest art.
AE: Apart from the political, what are the other issues that drive your art?
BNU: Many of the themes I work on cannot be extricated from politics. For example, I have always been bothered by migration. I know many close relatives and neighbours who moved to other parts of the world in search of greener pastures. Many people suffered the bruises of the insurgency in the Niger-Delta over marginalization and the despoliation of their environment. We can also see the displacements and human carnage caused by Boko haram insurgency, herdsmen attacks and banditry in Northern Nigeria. These are all tied to politics in one way or the other. The failure of the system leads to the disillusionment of people who are then forced to seek better lives elsewhere. I do not like the idea of emigrating; rather I think our country can be made better so that only those who genuinely want to emigrate will do so. For me, art is the instrument with which I can make that change happen. People kept saying I was doing protest art each time they encountered my work. After a while, I had to research what I was doing.
AE: One striking thing about your work is the powerful images in your visual repertory. How did you arrive at your style?
BNU: Having a style and identity for me did not start as a conscious effort but from being true in my expressions. I had to put aside some of the conventions I was taught in school because I feel that formal art teaching sometimes limits true creativity, except in a few art schools like Nsukka. In my Alma mater, art was taught according to the conventional colourist theories which the school has become known for. So much time was spent on teaching the techniques of using colour and so on. I wanted to carve an identity for myself but I also wanted it to come organically. In the process, I discarded some elements and borrowed others to help me sharpen my style in a way that I can make social commentaries through them. I introduced graffiti and nudity to my work as elements of protest. You see people in various parts of the world use graffiti during protests or on inner-city walls to express themselves. The nude figures in my work are borrowed from the culture of going naked in parts of Nigeria as an extreme form of protest to express anger and helplessness. When protesters go nude, they hope to compel people to listen. So I employ it to make my messages forceful and compelling. I try to use imageries that force people to think.
AE: Your figures are often linked to primitivism. Some African scholars have criticized its associations with Africa by western art critics and patrons. What is the philosophy behind your sticking to this style of representation?
BNU: People say that my art forms are brutish. Yes, I use these forms as metaphors, in the sense of saying that some people behave like animals. They are not animals; I use it as a satirical device (like George Orwell did in Animal Farm) to make commentary on aspects of human behaviour. These people’s actions fall short of the expected standard of decency expected of humans. They are greedy and obscene. For example, a normal human being who wants to have tea may take one or two cups, but when he keeps having the tea without let, just because it is in his custody, it means he is simply sick. Or someone has two cars as a public officer, which may be okay. But when he starts buying ten cars to the detriment of the people he is serving, any brutish characterization of such a person shouldn’t be wrong. Upon graduation, I practised my art in Abuja for a while (between 2004 and 2007). I noticed that people were not buying my work because they were uncomfortable with the truth of my style of representation. They thought I was vulgar. This had consequences because at a time things became so difficult that I had to start retailing art materials to other artists so that I could make some income to live on and produce art. But I did not give up. After some time, I had to leave for Lagos and it was there that I met a few like-minded artists who occasionally did works of art similar to what I do; artists whose choices of aesthetics and creative devices are geared towards social commentaries.
AE: It was in the social media we first met. Since then I have been a keen watcher of your artistic development. How has social media impacted your art career?
BNU: I think that the power of social media is not something that can be ignored in today’s world. It is a valuable tool which has helped me and many other professionals. Although things got better when I relocated to Lagos, the rejection I suffered in Abuja did not end immediately. People said that I will not get anywhere with my kind of work. Some of my artist-friends out of concern had to appeal to me to abandon my style so that I could make money to take care of my needs. But I believed that people would like my work, someday. I began engaging people through the social media-where artificial geographic, economic and social barriers do not exist. I grew my contacts through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Before I knew it, even people I have never met before would contact me and insinuate that Bob-Nosa is the biggest artist in Nigeria (Laughter…). Even students in Europe and America and Asia started researching my work. When I travelled to Argentina, there were many artists and art lovers who came to see me based on our interactions on social media. While preparing to travel to Argentina, I went to their embassy for visa interview; I met with their ambassador, who happened to be following me on social media. He welcomed me warmly and asked me to visit their national museum when I got to Argentina so that I could see the works of Carlos Alonso and Anthonio Barney-two Argentinian artists whose works engaged the social issues in that country – just like mine is doing in Nigeria. On my return from Argentina, the ambassador promised to visit my studio in Lagos. My take is that even though Social media is a powerful tool for the artist to reach out, the traditional art galleries are also important.
AE: Tell us about your art residency and the collaborative exhibition in Argentina.
BNU: Flora Fay has been my friend on social media before I thought of visiting Argentina. But I did not know she is an artist. I have always known her as an art promoter and she has been making merchandise of my work which contributed not only in making my work popular in Argentina, I also got paid for my copyright. After some time she started buying works from me and also introduced my work to her friends. With time, Flora facilitated an art residency for me at African Flora- a residency she runs in Buenos Aires. During the residency, I was looking for a bigger canvas to work on, because they mostly do miniatures over there. She brought an old painted canvas which she thought was not good. We agreed to work together on it. I added my input to what she had already done. We titled the outcome of the work, “Argentine lady with the cat standing by Bob-Nosa Uwagboe.” The painting symbolized international understanding between the two nations. The outcome of the work was good and while we were still thinking about what to do with it, a collector in Lagos saw it on social media and asked me to bring the work back to Nigeria. I have decided to make collaborations with local artists a feature of my residencies in any country I visit.
AE: In 2018 you had your second solo exhibition in Lagos, titled Obituary, which was hailed as very successful. What would you say happened differently between your first solo exhibition in 2011 and the 2018 exhibition?
BNU: My first solo exhibition was held at the Africa Artists Foundation (AAF), Lagos. It was an abysmal outing in terms of patronage. Only a few artists graced the occasion as it was held at the time I was still fighting the rejection of my work. It was around this period that I struck a relationship with the signature gallery. People had told me that he is one man that would like what I do. Before going to see him with my works, I prayed to God that he should not reject me because I wouldn’t know where else to go to. After looking at the works, I saw from his countenance that he liked them. He bought some of my works. This happened in 2010 and it gave me hope. Azu Nwagbogu’s AAF was starting at this period too. Although he liked my work, he could only collect a few. Nonetheless, I was happy because such patronage always left me with some money to buy materials for my next art productions. Apart from Signature and African Artists Foundation, no other gallery or collector was willing to have commitments with me at the time. Instead, they were more interested in advising me to make art that would sell. Some who knew me would remind me that it was hunger that chased me out of Abuja.
My move to Lagos was a game-changer. I got my first major break when a French-Cameroonian art promoter invited me to an exhibition she called “Art Last Picture Show” in Cameroon. She used to organize similar shows in Cameroon and Nigeria where works of artists from both countries were showcased. Catherine liked my work immediately she saw them. At the exhibition, all my works were sold out. The works were 15 miniature paintings. The news went round and the appreciation of my work improved. I was asked to make a few larger works and to also get my international passport ready. My next show in Cameroon was a happy one indeed! When I got to Cameroon, I was like a superstar. My works sold out again. After Tajudeen of the Nigerian Guardian Newspapers, Lagos wrote a review of the show, people started calling me. From that moment, Collectors who hitherto rejected my art started buying my works. My invitation to art shows quadrupled and life has never been the same. So it took many years for people to start taking note of what I have been doing. Some collectors are equally angry with the system. Such people would often buy my work and offer me support. It was against this background that I had my successful exhibition in 2018, which sold out on the first day of the exhibition.
AE: Do you also reflect what is happening in other parts of the world in your art?
BNU: Most of what I do have global validity because they are obtainable elsewhere. Life is similar everywhere; Human greed, criminality exist everywhere. Every geography and social space has its challenges. In my exhibition in Barcelona, the theme “No to Domestic Violence,” resonated there just like it did here. Although Nigeria is my primary existential space, I also belong to the global community and the issues I paint about here also happen in other parts of the world. You have bad police officers in other countries just as you have here; you have corrupt politicians in the USA or Brazil. You discover that my themes are things that people can connect easily with. Bad governance exists all over the world; so does corrupt religion.
AE: Finally what do you think about art practice in Nigeria against international currents?
BNU: I think art practice in Nigeria is getting better. But on the part of the artist, I think we should be more honest to ourselves when making art. It should not be about demand and supply. It should be about the artist’s inner truth. That is why I do not encourage anyone to be my disciple just like I do not seek to be anybody’s disciple. A young artist once told me that he would love to be like me. I told him, “You have a small dream if you only want to be like me.” You need to work on your message no matter your style (abstraction or realism). Again you do not need big titles like contemporary this, postcolonial that, or international bla bla to be attached to your name to show you are great, because the title “artist” is sufficient. I believe people should deal with contemporary issues instead of getting stuck in the past like some people are doing with Uli and other forms of art rooted in traditions; talk about what is happening now with your art. It should not also be about rushing to do video art or installation just because you want to join the bandwagon. Just do your work honestly as you are inspired.
Agwu Enekwachi is an artist, art teacher, Curator and culture writer based in Abuja. He has curated exhibitions and written many informed articles and reviews in magazines, newspapers and journals in Nigeria and abroad. Enekwachi holds an MFA in Fine and Applied Arts and is currently a post-graduate student in Art History at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He was the Head of Department of Fine Applied Arts in Loyola Jesuit College, Abuja.