I am a Nigerian-born artist. My own remarkable and inspiring story, like my art, is a manifestation of life's calling and repeated challenges to face, again and again, the naked truth.
My truth is this: art saved me, directed me, expanded me, and obsessed me. Art expressed my outrage, quieted my soul, refocused my journey, and now redirects my purpose. Art served as a bridge from my past to my present, but also as a conduit – a channel connecting memories, cultures, meaning and understanding through my creativity and outreach to others on multiple levels of engagement.
The poverty and seemingly impossible barriers in my childhood; the artistic expression of social injustice and the hardened realities of Black life in America; and a bold, determined struggle against cancer combined, gifting me with a unique and compassionate voice. What could simply be an in-your-face voice of anger, instead rises as both a powerful artistic indictment and a quiet, nuanced and thought-provoking visual segue, carrying the viewer from personal interaction with the painting, to conversation among viewers, to opportunities for those deeper dives that build understanding and change perceptions.
As a child, my passion for art was tempered by a cultural truth. I knew that I couldn't become an artist, because in my country, there are only three pathways to success – "Being an Engineer, Doctor, or Lawyer.” I grew up in the delta region of Nigeria, one of eight children raised by a single mom (an anomaly in a society controlled by men). In a reality of deprivation, I admit my boyhood truth focused on underlying feelings of guilt that my own existence contributed to my mother's pain. The eventual addition of an abusive step-father only added more stress to that desperate household. “He was on her back, literally,” I recall.
Despite her own inability to read or write, my mother emphasized education as the key to success. Her son overcompensated, driving myself to learn and taking upon myself as my responsibility, the task of bringing her peace and happiness through education. That personal drive for education saved me from my struggles, and my drive to achieve good grades got me into one of Nigeria's elite boarding schools. (Federal government college Warri).
In dealing with Nigeria's ethnic mosaic – the multicultural diversity of a nation with over 150 dialects – the nation built a system of three elite boarding schools, locating them geographically to mix cultures and languages, and placing within each, a group of diverse, outstanding teachers from across the globe. Whether selected based on family connections or grades for poor students like me, the schools exposed young people to experiences and opportunities in academics, social etiquette and leadership with a focus on subjects such as maths and science.
Once again, facing my own truth – the social stigma of poverty within an elite and rigorous academic environment – I overcompensated through my studies. As education expanded and de-colonized my mind, the passion for art, still buried within, proved to be my liberator and a portal to wider acceptance. As president of the art club, I discovered cartooning as both a road to approval by most fellow students and as a subtle threat - “I will cartoon you” - to fight off snobbery.
Graduation presented another obstacle – the disapproval and unhappiness of my family about my choice of a career in art. “I saw the pain in my mother's eyes; I heard it in her voice – 'You went to school to learn to draw?’ she would say. Dismissing the profession by using the word “Draw” instead of “Art.” But that love of art was my truth. In order to pursue it, I had to leave Warri and move to Lagos.” After taking and passing an entrance exam, and armed with my portfolio, I enrolled in Yaba College of Technology art school without the blessings of my parents.
Just out of high school, I was taking this on myself. “I knew they were not happy. I decided to do this on my own. I got a day job and went to school at night. I had no money. I camped and slept in the student center and showered wherever I could.”
But I again lived up to the challenge and graduated with an Associates Degree in fine arts. For a while I worked for a Nigerian television network on a children's show and taught art at an high school part time. But it was my month-long work as a stagehand for the International festival of African Art and Culture (Festac) which took place in Nigeria in 1977, that catapulted my next big move.
The opportunity to live in a festival village, similar to an Olympic Village, had a profound effect as my world expanded beyond the familiar and comfortable to embrace a wider global view. I was assigned to the American delegations led by Stevie Wonder and got especially excited by American culture – everything from the Diaspora. That summer I decided to come to America.
As I researched potential cities and art programs, one school kept coming up – the Memphis College of Art in Memphis, Tennessee. I applied and was admitted. In high school, I was drawn to geography, because it afforded me the ability to dream of places so far away and hope to one day visit. So, I studied and learned about cities such as New York, Chicago, and LA., but I arrived in Memphis in September 15th, 1979 with no idea what to expect.”
I arrived with a sense of inquisitiveness. Coming from the delta region of the river Niger in Nigeria, I was eager to see the Mississippi river and to explore a river delta, which was among the great rivers of the world we had studied in high school. I admit that my initial impression of Memphis was a combination of wonder and a sense of disappointment. “Memphis at the time was in a depressed state, especially the downtown area. I looked around and thought, 'If these people only knew what they have.”
At the school, I was eager to explore and question what art really is, and to see how art can define a society and change the environment. My influence as a boy growing up as an artist was environmental. It was reflected in my environmental colors – the blue of the ocean, the reds and oranges of sunsets. These were the bold colors of my palette.” But even then, there were rich cultural elements to my work reflecting the diversity and the hardship of life – women in the market place or village, and women walking and working with kids on their backs or great weights on their heads. I depicted their everyday struggle as they went about their daily life. In some way I reflected on my mother’s struggles.
Surrounded by artwork of others students working in muted colors, my own vibrant color choices proved too much for at least one instructor who informed me that my color palette was “Violent”. That was the last straw because I transferred to the university of memphis the following semester, where I thought things might be better due to the share size of the institution. I had noticed the race issue immediately when I arrived, and coming from a place where I had not experienced racism, I didn't know how to react. My first reaction had been one of anger and a desire to fight back. But over time, I decided to study the limited history of America to try and understand the dynamic that was at work. I discovered that America was built by free slave labor and that racism is very much part of the fiber of society. It is in everything and everywhere. And that as a black person living in America you can’t escape from it.
That instructor who told me I was violent had so little knowledge of me or my life experiences and homeland, but knew one thing and that was that I was a “black man”.
This knowledge opened my eyes and my task became to enlighten and inform, and to transfer anger and racism into work, and to reason with people as to our role as humans. In Memphis, I saw the potential that could be unleashed by the arts, but I also saw that race -black and white – was holding back the city's great potential. Part of the challenge in addressing these issues through my art was learning and balancing “when to listen to the noise to propel me, and when to shut if off and work.”
In 1996,I was commissioned to do an enormous piece – 60' x 18' – for the Wolf Chase Malll in Memphis. The project scope and size revealed to my artistic mind the city as a vast canvas. In finding a location to work on this large painting, I discovered, rented and then in a leap of faith, purchased, a dilapidated building in a run down section of the city at 410 South Main Street - literally a stone's throw from the iconic Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King.
It was 15,000 square feet, No electricity. No running water. Everyone said I was insane to buy it. A friend of mine who was a physician even gave me the number to a psychiatrist. But I loved that building. I had no money. When I approached the owner about purchasing the building. he told me he would sell it to me for $145,000, even though it was apprised for $60,000. I told him it was a deal. He laughed at me and said, 'You're crazy.'” However I worked out a lease to own arrangement and set to work on renovating the structure. My efforts paid off because I was able to raise the appraisal value to $225,000 in less than a year. This made it easy to purchase the building without paying a dime down. I actually got money back to fix the roof which leaked badly.
The building was the first step in my dream to tap into all that Memphis had to offer, and to use this historic neighborhood as an anchor to a new and vibrant arts district. The city had long acknowledged its powerful and historic role in music through Blues and Jazz music. Its focus in visual arts, likewise, centered around musical subjects and personalities... but I envisioned more.
I told myself, "we have to get the city excited about this part of town", so I put together a proposal to create an art district and worked with the Mayor, who was willing to help. Barriers to that vision included: the condition of old buildings, the crime level in downtown, and the fact that no one was moving into the area and, aside from the Civil Rights Museum directly behind the gallery, few tourists ventured into that part of the city.
I knew art alone would not lure the number of visitors - locals and tourists - necessary to sustain growth. I knew we needed restaurants, boutiques, coffee houses. and of cause art galleries. Again, everyone thought I was crazy, but within four years, we had an art district. Using the empty space adjacent to my own art gallery, I opened a coffee shop which evolved into a restaurant that I name after the island Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania. Zanzibar became known around the city as an island oasis in the middle of nowhere, a“united nations”of Memphis,” as described by a local news paper, attracting a diverse crowd and national attention including the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. As its notoriety spread, celebrities like Morgan Freeman selected the site for personal events.
My artistic footprint in all of this is huge and encompassing. The name for the gallery itself – Art Village Gallery – harkens back to my own upbringing in Nigeria as well as the notion that it truly “takes a village” to raise a child or build a community.
I was diagnosed with prostate cancer soon afterward. Now, I have to deal with the reality of death. This realization of my mortality is the inspiration for the Naked truth project. With America's volatile political and social realities, I am uniquely positioned to use my creative gift for change. As with so many things over the course of my life, I take personal responsibility. I believe that I was created for this moment and that my talent plays a unique role in the universe.
What if what I do as an artist inspires others to tap into their talent and live a purposeful life?”