Interview with Nigerian artist Addis Okoli

Hide Away, 2020, acrylic and paper on canvas

Nigerian artist, Addis Okoli, is joining me for an interview about her work and life as an artist. Okoli studied fine and applied art with a major in graphic design at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Then later on she achieved her MA in fashion design from the University of Southampton, UK. Now she is working in Nigeria’s capital Abuja as an artist specialized in painting.

Ashinedu: Dear Addis, thank you for joining me for this interview about your work. Can you tell us a little about what you do?

Addis: I am a staff member of the Cyprian Ekwensi centre for Arts and Culture situated in Abuja. I am in charge of the painting unit there. I spend most of my free time at work painting, which is very often. When I am not painting, I make jewellery and souvenirs, but my favourite of all things, which might surprise most people, is dance, which I do and sometimes teach.

Ashinedu: To become a successful artist you really need drive and passion for your creative process. When did you know that you wanted to work in a creative field? What made you move from graphic design and fashion to painting? And what do you love about it?

Addis: I love the freedom it gives me to think and move beyond my comfort zone. I have always been a creator from when I was very little and this was discovered and encouraged by my parents. My father wanted me to study music, because I was quite good at playing the piano, while my mom wanted me to study fine art. I remember she said: “You can do this, even when you are sleeping”. And she was right. The reason I chose to study graphic design at the university, was because I was a neat artist and loved everything I did to be well finished, sharp edges and all. And quite frankly I was scared of painting and wondered how on earth the painting students did it. After graduation, I got my first box of oil paints and produced my first painting. I do not think I would be writing this, if I was not surrounded by colleagues who were only painters. I was the only graphic designer serving at that time at arts and culture during my youth service year. So I was tempted to join the rest. I have been painting since then. I loved fashion and decided to study it for my master’s degree. So I manage to combine the two. It’s a bit difficult. Painting got more of me.

Ashinedu: So you expressed that you have created new works, such as “Hide Away” from 2020, which specifically derive from the impacts you observed regarding the global Covid-19 pandemic. Can you tell me a bit about these new works and what you tried to express with them?

Addis: Before the pandemic, people had lives outside the internet, but now because of the lock down, almost everyone is there. Those who couldn’t even use it, had to learn to. Many businesses found a way to their customers through the internet. Restaurants, fitness instructors and even individuals such as the extroverts who need to be seen. They are desperate to come up with anything even if it’s posting pictures or texts every hour on any social media platform, just to connect. Some people use this as an opportunity to reflect on their lives and just enjoy their peace while discovering other things and talents that they never knew they had. My ‘lockdown’ works depict self reflection, social media presence, facing fear of the unknown, trying to obey, while disobeying the social distancing rules and restlessness.

Ashinedu: How do you choose your subject for your work or rather, what inspires you? Are your portrait style paintings representations of actual people?

Addis: To be honest, wanting to do something different inspires me and this makes me look toward something else other than the normal things that are expected. If the theme is a usual one, the approach would definitely be different. I create my poses. It’s either me as the model or someone else whom I capture, without their knowledge, or I tell people to pose in a certain way.

Ashinedu: You are part of the Female Artists Association of Nigeria (FEAAN). Can you tell me a bit about the work of this association and how you or others have benefited from it?

Addis: FEAAN was created to assist young upcoming female artists, who wanted to push their art career forward, but could not. This career block might have been due to lack of funds, marriage and kids or gender discrimination. This association has grown and done really well over the years. It has organised local and international exhibitions for its members. It also hosts guest artists from our male counterparts especially during international exhibitions.

Ashinedu: What do you think about the art scene in Nigeria and what do you think needs to improve in terms of funding or presentation of opportunities?

Addis: The visual art scene needs more light shone on it. We need the government to be strongly behind it, just as it is with the movie and music industries. It needs more exchanges programs, sponsored international exhibitions, and more public offices and hotels furnished with art by our own artists, instead of foreign art. Some private organisations and individuals who are art lovers sometimes sponsor exhibitions for artists, but we need government sponsorship as well. We also want to represent Nigeria in foreign countries.

Ashinedu: What are your next projects or plans for the future?

Addis: I have been thinking of having a fashion show for a while now. I might have to put a pause on painting, after I have done a residency program, which I plan to do. I want to take my dance career seriously. This is my priority. I guess painting and fashion would become hobbies, but the way I get inspired to paint makes me wonder.

Follow the artist on her Instagram account @addisokoli.

Picture: Courtesy of the artist

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