Ceramic and installation artist, May Okafor, is a graduate of the prominent Nsukka Art School at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. Passionate about the reformation of social and cultural orientation in Nigeria, she explores and investigates social issues with her works. Earlier in the year, she had a solo exhibition at the Revolving Art Incubator titled ‘Of Consummates and Cannibalism’ which featured some beautiful ceramic works, a large-scale wall installation of creeping black forms like tadpoles and other wall hangings made with styrofoam.
In this interview, May Okafor shares with Roli Afinotan of The Sole Adventurer her journey as an artist, the premise of the exhibition, her perception of Nigeria socio-economic situation and the role art can play in such economic situation.
ROLI AFINOTAN: Could you share your background as an artist, how long you have practiced professionally and your experience working as an art lecturer at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka?
MAY OKAFOR: My first formal experience with art was at my secondary school, Federal Government Girls’ College, Onitsha. Before then, I had only played with my fingers, deconstructing and reconstructing countless materials in my immediate environment including wastes, toys and seemingly important items. I recall trying out my first sewing in Primary 2 with the woolen belt of a cardigan. In the search for newness, I cut the belt into pieces and began joining again, only to earn some remarkable beating from my mother who considered the act destructive to the entire cardigan. There at secondary school, I met Mr. Eriwona, a dedicated art teacher. I worked closely with him, and knowing that I was willing to take up art professionally, Eriwona recommended that I apply to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka for admission. At the university, art was entirely different from what I had always known. I met lecturers like El Anatsui, Ozioma Onuzulike, Eva Obodo and Chijioke Onuora. I was exposed to experimentation and intellectualism, the very threads that lace Nsukka Art School. I was also exposed to new media including clay which I used for the first time at the art university. I was formally introduced to creative exploration with both conventional and unconventional materials, which equipped me with working in techniques of recycling waste and playing with forms. After my first degree and National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in 2012, I returned to the Nsukka Art School, enrolled for a Masters degree and picked up an appointment which was open to me as a result of my performance in the department. Since then, I have been in the school as both a lecturer and an artist. I have also attended important conferences and workshops where artists and researchers of different backgrounds share ideas.
AFINOTAN: How can one connect the works shown at the exhibition ‘Of Consummates and Cannibalism’ with the context of the theme?
OKAFOR: The show ‘Of Consummates and Cannibalism’ presented a visual discourse on the effects of the infiltration of foreign goods and services into Nigeria. With styrofoam apple trays and clay as my core materials, a body of work was showcased. Some of the works were in series. ‘Choked Series,’ for instance, displayed the strangling effect of importation on local goods. Works in this series were wall-hanging pieces composed of slashed apple trays, stacked very closely together with little or no space in between. The works include Ogbete, Can You See Me?, Eden, ‘A’ is for Apple I & II, Bermuda Calling, Intersection and Foreign Bride. Each of these pieces had its own sub-theme or focus. For instance, while Foreign Bride presented the nation’s strange ‘union’ with foreign goods, Bermuda Calling, a two-in-one angular piece, takes one’s mind to Bermuda Triangle where things mysteriously disappear or eventually die out. Like Bermuda Calling, another body of work, an installation with the title, And That’s How We Fell Head Over Heels presented a maze-like form, which metaphorically ensnares the nation’s consumer culture. ‘Igwebu Ike’ and Erosion, were composed of creeping black forms in the form of sperms/tadpoles. In Erosion, the forms were found creeping carelessly on torn cotton net, and as if eating it up; while in ‘Igwebu Ike’, over a thousand of such forms creeping directly on plain white walls cluster and eat up a much larger piece of their own kind. That’s cannibalism. Few similar large pieces were found at distant points as if running for dear life. A representation of the typical Nigerian market, the few large pieces are the local products while the countless small ones are the imported ones.
AFINOTAN: Are the installation works mentioned above related to the “Dear Content” you presented at the 8th National Art Competition?
Well, although both share the same basic material – apple tray, the recent exhibit is in several other ways, most especially thematically, not related to Dear Content. For instance, while the solo show addressed the relatedness of consumption, wantonness and the present economic state of Nigeria, Dear Content discussed issues around fertilization and procreation.
AFINOTAN: What motivated the exhibition and how much of the works shown are a critique of the consumer culture in Nigeria?
OKAFOR: The dwindling economic situation being faced in the country has been of deep concern to me as an artist, and I saw what we could do to change it. Beyond government policies and regulations, I saw how our choices as individuals continuously affect the economy. I saw how businesses pride in the sale of imported products because their customers’ yearn for anything foreign. It’s interesting how to an average Nigerian, the word ‘foreign’ now means ‘original’ and ‘local’ means ‘fake.’ That’s neo-colonialism! And most times, the question of the exact country or brand matter really less; once it’s foreign then it is better. I needed people to have a reorientation, a kind of rethink and an appreciation of oneself and one’s own. So both individually and collectively, the body of work displayed at the show critiqued the consumer culture in Nigeria, proffering solutions and possible alternatives. My use of apple tray, a non-biodegradable waste imported in quantum alongside apples, is also food for thought. Meanwhile, forty-two ceramic pieces were also on display. Suggestive of the need for the country to look inward, the ceramics were made of local materials, particularly earthenware clay, one of the nation’s natural resources yet to be harnessed.
AFINOTAN: Did schooling and working at the Nsukka Art School influence your choice of working with clay?
OKAFOR: Yes, I would say yes. Although I don’t know if I would have had the same focus if I had studied elsewhere. On one hand, as someone who loves newness, I must admit, that the Nsukka Art School opened me to diverse experiments especially in terms of themes, materials, and forms. On the other hand, clay is something I got to love the moment I used it for the very first time. For me, its natural characters such as malleability, plasticity, and ability to metamorphose into rock like substance are very significant. I also find its several variations highly explorative. More so, the development of ceramics in different cultures and at different times dating back to prehistoric era is fascinating as well. In the practice, I discovered that one could use an age long material in many new ways. Therefore, its ability to interlink the past, present and in fact, future of several cultures at the same time is really unique.
AFINOTAN: Some critics are of the opinion that art should be critical or political. Do you agree with this school of thought and if yes, how does this reflect in your work?
OKAFOR: Art is a very diverse discipline. It is also, like a mirror which reflects happenings in the society. That’s why aspects of the lives of ancient cultures can be seen through their art. So, there is representational art just like critical or political art which addresses societal issues. But then there is utilitarian art and, art for art sake which, of course, are important kinds of art that should not be neglected. For me, however, my works are oftentimes critical and are used to address issues.
AFINOTAN: As an artist who lives and works in Nsukka, do you feel cut out of the Lagos art scene? Also, what is the state of the art scene in Enugu and the eastern parts of Nigeria in general?
OKAFOR: There is no doubt that Lagos is like the art capital of Nigeria. A lot of art activities take place there. I was excited to receive lots of secondary school students at my recent solo in Lagos. It shows how early the young generation there are made to experience art. Lots of collectors are also there and that’s indeed encouraging. The number of art events generally taking place per week in the city is also interesting. However, here in Enugu and in most other eastern parts, art still faces a few challenges. For instance, certain secondary schools do not offer art and so, some of the young students who are creative are compelled to abandon art too early. Nevertheless, the appreciation of art here is on a gradual increase. More galleries are springing up. Working in Nsukka, I do not feel cut out of the Lagos art scene. Though Lagos is a wonderful city for art and artists in Nigeria, Nsukka Art School is somewhere to be. You can always work from Nsukka or anywhere. Nsukka provides perfect grounds for birthing ideas and brooding artists. So beyond the community, being part of the school has been worthwhile and awesome.
AFINOTAN: In general, what challenges do you face as an artist and how do you deal with them?
OKAFOR: Well, if there is any challenge I face as an artist, it is the fact that there is just a little time to achieve all the creative ideas that come to my mind. Sometimes, I wish I can split myself and assign different tasks to different me (laughs). What will one do than to prioritize? So I just squeeze in tasks into the available time and let the rest live only in the imagination.
AFINOTAN: As an art lecturer, what do you think of the academic system of Nigerian art schools? Does the system encourage experimentation and originality in art practice?
OKAFOR: The academic system of art schools in Nigeria is a promising one. I wouldn’t say it very much encourages experimentation because not every school does. Different schools have different styles and approaches which must be appreciated.