Nijideka Akunyili Crosby’s ’Bush Babies’ sell for $3.4million USD; Ben Enwonwu sets a new African record of £1.2million for ’Tutu’; Toyin Odutola earns N215million for ’Compound Leaf’; Lagos Photo Exhibition holds in grand style; the finest of African artists gather in Lagos for African Arts Foundation; West African’s 1st international affair, Art X attracts a community of art enthusiasts: these familiar headlines capture the booming art culture in Nigeria, particularly the commercial sprout for the long established abundance of artistic talents in the country.
On the international scene, one of the emerging names from the Nigerian art’s circle is Uthman Wahaab – Huffpost referred to him as a very passionate Nigerian artist who ”paints beauty big”, Sapar Contemporary dubbed him a multidisciplinary artist who possesses an overarching interest in social phenomenon. The passion, the versatility, and skill of Uthman Wahaab, mentioned in the feature articles on the international platforms, were evident to me during our 3-hour plus chat at his charming studio located in the heart of Surulere, Lagos, which was decorated with paintings of different forms and filled with the smell of coffee and incense.
It has been three decades since Uthman Wahaab has been into arts – from learning as an apprentice at a roadside arts shop in Lagos to studying Fine Art in the reputable Yaba College of Technology after multiple application failures, leveraging on the craze for customized shirts to launch a clothing line, then interning at a small scale advertising firm, before exiting to plunge into the pool of painting, which marked the start of a life as a studio artist. The experience at the Advertising firm raised concerns from Uthman’s contemporaries that exposure to digitized art methods “spoils the hand of artists.” Uthman said, “I told them that that is not true.” “I designed a routine to endure that I do not lose my skills. I would paint till 9(pm) after returning from work and I painted during the weekends.”
It is a popular chorus that “it is not easy in the early stages”; Uthman Wahaab sang this song as he narrated his experience trying to get his art into a gallery. “Then, seeing a young artist, there was a stance. There was a way they want to deal with you as a young artist and it got me irritated”, he said. Few of the galleries he approached were willing to give as much as a listening ear to young Uthman Wahaab, most dismissed him even before he said a word of introduction. It was the usual tactic for art collectors and gallery owners at the time – the first step in the patient manipulative process of pricing a piece of art lower than its worth.
Another factor in play at the time was the thematic uniqueness of the art. Uthman, at the time, steered away from the common arts of portraits and paintings of traditional essence. Instead, his art leaned towards music and instruments. A gallery named Signature Gallery welcomed Uthman’s proposal to sell some of his works, albeit he was told to come back at a later time – “when we are taking new materials”, he recounted. Uthman returned to the gallery with 13 pieces and left with only 4. “I sold some and had others up for display”, he said. This tilted the scale for Uthman. “So the dream of working in Advertising for 3 years and traveling to South Africa, I aborted it”, he told me.
It’s common knowledge: art goes beyond the aesthetic appeal. The social conscious writings of Soyinka compliment his voice of advocacy; Fela’s music makes a subject out of societal evils and manipulations. Uthman “chooses to deconstruct notions” with no basis of truth, using figurative representation and naturalism as the primary genre of his art. Scattered across his studio were paintings of plus-size female figure in their finest elements – one portrait is of a big beautiful ballerina; another is of singing sisters in their big form. Uthman revealed that the inspiration came from an experience he had with a pen friend during his early painting days. The lady and Uthman had struck a smooth online relationship but she didn’t have the confidence to meet with him. She hid from him until Uthman gave her assurance on their first and only ever meeting. Uthman said, “She told me how she had to make an extra effort for things other ladies would get freely.”
This experience evoked reflective thoughts for Uthman – thoughts like: “what is the right body type to have; what is the wrong body type to have.” Uthman made the decision to “deconstruct the notion that big women are unattractive.” Mostly, these lovely figures wear and unrecognizable face. Uthman explained the deliberateness in this. “Sometimes the acceptance (of plus-size persons) is as a result of the attractiveness of their faces. I want acceptance for the body and appreciation of the beauty of their form.” Uthman’s sight spreads to the aspects of culture, traditional, and Africanism. The exploration of these areas has helped him get on the radar of International art exhibitors. “Perseverance and hard work” are the secrets that Uthman spilled during the lengthy and insightful chat.
This article was written by Ibironke Oluwatobi. He tweets via: @ibironketweets